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Chicago’s Federation nailed its COVID-19 response. Now it wants other cities to follow its lead.

More than half a year into the global COVID-19 pandemic, much of the world is still figuring out how to adapt to a new way of doing things, including attending religious services, going to school, shopping and eating. But one Jewish community is reporting remarkable success in how it helps local organizations meet their community’s needs.

In response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Jewish United Fund of Chicago has so far:

°Raised $9.9 million for emergency financial assistance, food assistance and counseling services, schools, synagogues, and day camps;
°Set up a web page that instantly links community members to resources and volunteer opportunities;
°Created a program that builds on existing partnerships to connect different agencies, organizations, people, and families in need.

The Jewish United Fund of Chicago, in partnership with a number of local organizations, has taken another unusual step to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. JUF’s partners and recipients of its donations call it a whole new world of collaboration between nonprofit organizations.

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“I don’t think anyone’s been able to raise these dollars and then allocate those dollars accordingly,” Lonnie Nasatir, president of Jewish United Fund, said.

The partnership allows organizations to connect with various members or service providers so they can get the funding or expertise they need. Traditionally, this can be a long process where organizations and individual people need to go through vetting and selection. Now, much of the process is streamlined and handled by third-party organizations involved with the partnership.

“We started doing this two months in and so far, 85 organizations have taken part in this collaborative, which is fantastic. The feedback we’ve gotten, from synagogue administrators to people that are administering social service agencies to day schools has just been overwhelmingly positive,” Nasatir said.

Boardified is just one of those organizations that sprung into action to help other organizations during the pandemic. The Chicago-based organization works with Jewish schools, synagogues and other organizations to help develop their boards of directors and provide other professional services. Founder Alicia Oberman said this partnership has helped organizations to afford or otherwise access services they need to serve their community during the pandemic.

“The ‘technical assistance collaborative,’ as we’ve been calling it, is this collaborative partnership between four local funders in Chicago and the Jewish Federation and Boardified as the program provider,” Oberman said.

Alicia Oberman, founder of Boardified

Alicia Oberman, founder of Boardified Image by Boardified

Those funders include the Crown Family Philanthropies, Walder Foundation, the Jack Miller Family Foundation, and a fourth anonymous donor, according to Oberman.

The partnership helps offer organizations professional services like employment law services, financial planning, technology support, and others.

The Chicago metropolitan area, which includes suburbs outside of Chicago and cities in nearby Indiana and Wisconsin, has a total population of about 9.5 million people, about 3.1% of which is Jewish. The Jewish United Fund of Chicago serves the Jewish community of about 3000,000 with a budget of about $248 million.

The organization says it also raised an additional $26 million since March and is advancing about $4 million to affiliate organizations.

“This is a different approach,” Oberman said. “For a nonprofit, it takes a lot of the work out of it. We can engage as quickly as anyone can move. I think that’s the difference. We’ve just taken all of the work in the middle out and gotten people services as quickly as we can.”

Two dozen teens participate--via Zoom--in a JUF Voices pop-up giving circle, allocating resources to organizations engaged in COVID-19 relief efforts.

Two dozen teens participate—via Zoom—in a JUF Voices pop-up giving circle, allocating resources to organizations engaged in COVID-19 relief efforts. Image by

One silver lining of the remote work is that service providers from more places can be deployed, giving organizations in need of services more options than they may have realized were available to them before the pandemic.

Jennifer Phillips is the CEO of Keshet, a Chicago-based non-profit that helps children with special needs and their families through adulthood.

Keshet has worked with JUF for years, but since the pandemic, its ability to continue its work safely and, as a result, its entire future, was in question.

Pre-pandemic social activities run by Keshet

Pre-pandemic social activities run by Keshet Image by Keshet

JUF’s assistance helped Keshet pay its staff, purchase personal protective equipment and continue operating, according to Phillips. JUF’s technical assistance program has also provided Keshet with training for COVID-related safety procedures, board training, and a network of service providers.

The state of Illinois provides some funding for Keshet’s programs, but some of that funding for certain programs, like its adult programs, is running out soon, Phillips said.

“Everyone has been incredibly supportive, knowing that we’re navigating through something that no one has done before and that we’re here to take care of their kids,” Phillips said. “People continue to support the program financially, support the organization volunteering and doing what they can to help.”

But the program has not been without its challenges. The money available is limited, as is the collaboration’s reach.

“We might need to be cutting staff now,” Phillips said, “and because we have so many individuals that require so much care, it’s going to be hard for some of them to return. They have medical issues, some individuals are not going to be able to social distance and wear masks.”

Boardified is trying to triage its response, which is a new challenge for them. The limited time and resources that some organizations they serve have means that almost every response is an emergency, according to Oberman.

“What do you really have to address and in what order? It can be difficult to figure out,” she said. “Giving them resources so they can take what it is that they’ve learned and keep implementing it moving forward. It’s really difficult.”

JUF, in the meantime, is trying to fill the gaps in Chicago’s Jewish community and in other communities around the world. Part of that challenge is getting the word out to other organizations and other cities.

“Would I like that number to grow from 85 to 140? Of course, because we’re a big city with a lot of Jewish infrastructure, but 85 is a number that, quite frankly, exceeded what we thought we would have. We want more because we think it could benefit so many different organizations,” Nasatir said.

With the first five months behind them, Nasatir said his organization has secured funding for five more months. Now he wants to focus on helping Jewish communities in other cities get similar collaboratives up and running.

“I think it’s going to take work, but I think if you’re a Philly or a Boston or any of these big cities, you’re going to be able to at least have a template of what that looks like and hopefully forge a significant type of partnership like we did,” Nasatir said.

“Our community will persevere, our community is resilient,” he continued. “We’re meeting a need by taking advantage of resources and helping organizations get out of this unprecedented pickle that we’re all in.”

Austen Erblat can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @AustenErblat.

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