Jana Magnus, Annie Fortnow, and Molly Shuman making Hanukkah food deliveries last year./COURTESY PHOTO

When help is needed in the Jewish community, Yad Chessed answers the call

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When help is needed in the Jewish community, Yad Chessed answers the call

Jana Magnus, Annie Fortnow, and Molly Shuman making Hanukkah food deliveries last year./COURTESY PHOTO

When the phone lights up on Deborah Freed’s desk at Yad Chessed in Waltham, or when she checks the intake screen on the organization’s website, she can be sure of one thing: Someone in the Jewish community is struggling financially and needs help.

In one day last week, Freed, a social worker and the agency’s associate director, provided a gift card to a family struggling with the cost of food, gave rental assistance to someone who had lost his job, helped a senior with disabilities find home support, and aided another community member seeking a job.

“We have a very simple mission,” said Nancy Kriegel, Yad Chessed executive director. “We don’t want Jewish people to go homeless or hungry and we help them find the resources they need to thrive. Everyone needs a safety net.”

But even those facing difficult times need to celebrate their Jewish heritage.

On a recent day, 45 Yad Chessed volunteers and staff delivered kosher Shavuot meals to 225 Jewish individuals and families throughout the Greater Boston area that are struggling financially.

Yad Chessed – which means hand of loving kindness – is the Swiss Army Knife of Jewish charities, doing whatever it takes to help Jews in need.

“We think of Yad Chessed as an extension of the Jewish communal family and imagine that the person we are speaking with could be our own mother or sibling in distress,” said Freed, a 15-year veteran of the agency.

Freed is the leader of a four-member social worker team that responded to more than 2,000 calls from Jewish individuals in need throughout Massachusetts last year. The greatest number came from residents in Brookline, Brighton, Newton, and Cambridge.

“One day last week,” she said, “the grandson of a Holocaust survivor called and said his grandmother’s health was failing and the family needed financial support to pay for the burial.”

Another caller said his wife suddenly passed away six months earlier, he had lost his job, and a huge tree had been knocked over in a storm and fallen over his well. Emergency funds were provided to pay for someone to remove the tree.

“We can do out-of-the-box kinds of things that you can’t find anyone else on the planet [to] do unless you have a family member to help,” Freed said.

“We’re one of the Jewish community’s best kept secrets,” says Kriegel, who was effusive in her praise of the agency’s social worker team. “They are superhuman. They are a gift to this community because they really never stop. They are the heart and soul of what we do.

“What they are doing is what Jews have always done. Even in the shtetls when there was someone in need, we took care of them,” Kriegel said.

“But in today’s world, Jewish poverty sometimes goes unrecognized for a variety of reasons, including stigma and shame.”

Deborah Freed, social worker and associate director.

A Pew Research Center study in 2020 concurs. Researchers found that 26 percent of all American Jews surveyed had difficulty paying for medical care, their rent or mortgage, food, and other bills or debts.

Yad Chessed, Kriegel said, is uniquely positioned to support Jews who are struggling with financial and food security issues because it has the flexibility to provide emergency financial support without the programmatic or funding limitations of other organizations.

The agency, founded 35 years ago, works closely with numerous Jewish organizations in the Greater Boston area and gets many referrals from Jewish Family & Children Service, area synagogues, funeral homes, Jewish food markets, and others.

Since Yad Chessed only provides services for Jewish families, it is not eligible for government grants. The agency relies primarily on donations to support those in need. Some 15 percent of its $1.5 million annual budget comes from Combined Jewish Philanthropies.

For some individuals, Kriegel said, “Emergency financial assistance is absolutely critical … because something has happened in their lives and they can’t make ends meet.”

Yad Chessed will provide financial support, coupled with what Kriegel calls “pragmatic counseling” and case management to help those in crisis who sometimes don’t know where to turn.

“We view ourselves as the extension of the Jewish communal family for people who really have no one to turn to,” Kriegel said. “We often say, ‘If not us who’ and sometimes it is just a call from one of our case managers that makes a difference.

“Even though we can’t pay all of your back rent and you may be facing eviction, we are still going to be checking in on you and asking how you’re doing and if you have enough food right now.”

Freed and her team – Sue Barron, Katya Udin, and Emily Cooper – may offer financial counseling, put clients in touch with a legal aid attorney or a counselor at Jewish Vocational Services, or send a gift card to the supermarket of their choice.

Those seeking financial assistance will not get a check, but Yad Chessed may pay their dental or utility bill, car repairs, rent, or most anything else they need to “help them get back on their feet,” Kriegel said.

Karen Thaw, 78, who lives alone in subsidized senior housing in Beverly and has a disability that prevented her from working full time, is one of those individuals who count on Yad Chessed.

“During the summer, my air conditioner broke down and I couldn’t afford a new one. I called Yad Chessed and while they couldn’t buy me one, they offered to help pay some of my bills so I could get a new air conditioner on my own,” she said.

Sivan, who asked that her last name not be used, is another beneficiary of the agency. “Yad Chessed was a light in the darkness,” she said. After the Hamas attack on Oct. 7, she and some other Israeli families living in the Greater Boston area unexpectedly found themselves in a financial crisis when their husbands flew back to Israel to rejoin their military units.

The agency provided Sivan – whose part-time job wasn’t enough to cover rent and other essentials – with grocery gift cards, and helped pay for a rental car so Sivan could drive her daughter to a Jewish day school.

Yad Chessed is doing exactly what Robert Housman, a former computer programmer, envisioned when he started it in 1989 in his Brookline home, where he “just wanted to make a difference” for Jewish families who needed assistance.

He raised $1,989.91 in the first month through a direct mail campaign. He worked out of his home for 10 years until he received a bequest in 2009 that enabled him to hire his first professional staff person – Deborah Freed – as a part-time social worker.

Housman, who serves on the agency’s board of directors, said he “never could have imagined that Yad Chessed would impact so many lives.

“For me,” he said, “It has been incredibly fulfilling to be able to make a positive difference.” Θ

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