By March 16, it had become clear to The Associated: Jewish Federation of Baltimore that the coronavirus pandemic was unlike anything they had seen before.
But for Baltimore’s Jewish community leaders, panic was not an option. The community was relying on them.
“It wasn’t an option for me or for us to curl up in a ball and worry and go into ‘the world is coming to an end’ mode,” Associated President Marc B. Terrill said. “We, I, had to do what we have trained for, what our experiences have led us to a point to do, of leading in very uncertain times.”
Very quickly, Terrill said, he pulled together all the agency executives. They collaborated to come up with plans for service delivery, fundraising, government advocacy, data collection and more, and then they put those plans into action.
For most, this past year was unprecedented. The pandemic brought with it an economic crisis, mental health challenges and civil unrest, in addition to millions of cases of a new disease and nearly 200,000 deaths in the U.S. alone. Plans were put on pause, as people and organizations turned to more pressing concerns.
That was the case for the Associated, too, which had been looking forward to celebrating its 100th anniversary this year. The planning for this celebration began in 2017. It was anticipated to be a year of celebrating and telling the story of how the Associated has played a part in a century of history. Further, it was and still is an opportunity to build out ideas that will strengthen the community now and into the future.
“The planned-for year was full of exhibits, testimonials, webcasts, articles, events and even a published book on the Associated system at 100,” Terrill said. “The entire Associated system was to be involved. The plan really captured the essence of the Associated. And then, COVID came on the scene and our plans were suspended in order to focus on our communal response to the very real damage that this new reality brought upon us.”
Instead of a year of celebration, the pandemic brought a slew of challenges that the Associated needed to be there to navigate.
“We collectively understood that, at this particular moment, it wasn’t about celebrations,” Terrill said. “It was about action and about supporting members of our community that needed help.”
He conversed with political leaders, met with agency executives, fundraised and dealt with banks to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds. Every day was different, he said.
“We were on overdrive, all of us, the management of the Associated, the leadership of the Associated, the agency execs, the professionals, for a good five-and-a-half months,” Terrill said. “It was basically, this is what we need to do, and we have a lot of people that are relying on us, and that was the mantra.”
Organizations like the JCC of Greater Baltimore, the Pearlstone Center and the Jewish Museum of Maryland, he said, struggled with restrictions on being able to welcome people into their facilities. At the same time, others, like Jewish Community Services, CHAI: Comprehensive Housing Assistance, Inc. and CHANA, faced an uptick in demand for services. They had to provide more help with job counseling, emergency cash assistance, support services for the isolated elderly and more.
“Our system was not immune to hiring freezes, furloughs, layoffs, significant reductions in management compensation, shifting of resources to respond to community needs and, in some cases, reduction in funding given a confluence of negative factors,” Terrill said. “We were not unique, but so many things were working to make the time unbelievably challenging: increased service demands, swings in revenue, the stock market freefall at the time and the constant concern of the unknown.”
What was special about the response in Baltimore and at the Associated, Terrill said, was the high level of collaboration among the different organizations. This proved to be an “important secret weapon” in dealing with the pandemic, Terrill said.
“We had incredibly smart volunteers and professionals who worked daily for a period of months, with the exception of Shabbat, looking at and thinking through different service delivery and financial scenarios to make sure that, No. 1, we were responding to the issues at hand of people needing assistance, and No. 2, that we kept our system intact and in a position where our agencies were not going to tinker on the edge of financial despair,” Terrill said. “We had to collectively make decisions with our agencies about both the short and longer term. Even though issues remain and there are challenges ahead, we are strong, we are resilient, we are positioned to continue to engage in our important work.”
At Pearlstone, for example, hospitality sales disappeared overnight, and the organization had to reduce its workforce. However, through the dedication of its staff and support of the Associated, Pearlstone pivoted to meet new needs. The organization’s emergency food response efforts serve thousands of meals each week, and its outdoor Farm and Forest program, providing families with an outlet on Pearlstone’s green space, has grown by more than 900%.
“None of this would be possible without the emergency financial support, political advocacy and deep partnership commitment that the Associated demonstrates every single day,” Pearlstone CEO Jakir Manela said. “Both the Associated and Pearlstone were built to be able to withstand crises like this, and I know that together we are going to build back better and thrive once again in the future.”
At the JCC, membership has been impacted. But the JCC adapted, too, with virtual fitness classes and outdoor programming. Some of this includes the new drive-in movie theater and the Fall Holiday Journey event. The Associated has helped by providing financial resources, infrastructure, capital and leadership, according to JCC CEO Barak Hermann.
“We’re not on our own here in Baltimore,” Hermann said.
When it comes to providing services, that same high level of integration and collaboration among the agencies means that someone faced with multiple challenges will have an easier time accessing resources for a variety of needs.
There have also been moments of optimism. One includes when the mayor of Ashkelon, Baltimore’s partner city in Israel, called Terrill to let him know that, as a token of appreciation for their supportive relationship, they were going to send over a few thousand masks, decorated with the Baltimore-Ashkelon Partnership logo.
Since the high-anxiety days earlier in the pandemic, the situation has calmed down, Terrill said, though it’s not over. The need is still great, and there are still many uncertainties.
“As the first half of the year unfolded, I had the sense that things were getting worse and worse in our world by the day. It felt like every day was doomsday,” Terrill said. “Since that uncomfortable feeling, I believe anything is possible and nothing can be taken for granted. By extension, I am more grateful. Things big and small hold more weight. Gratitude is a significant part of my daily routine. Empathy and kindness are also amplified.”
Terrill and his wife, who is a clinical psychologist, work remotely at their home. Their three children — one is pursuing a doctorate in clinical psychology; the other two are seniors in high school — attend classes virtually.
His family will spend the High Holidays with family in Pittsburgh, while attending virtual services at Beth El Congregation of Baltimore. A silver lining of the situation is that he is able to spend the holidays with both his extended, out-of-town family and his synagogue community.
Looking to the future, Terrill said the goal of the Associated is simple: to provide social service support and to find new and innovative ways to help people feel connected.
He also shared his wishes for Rosh Hashanah.
“For the New Year, I pray that people are safe, happy, protected and well, both in body and soul, in navigating this incredibly crazy time,” he said. “I hope that people find profound meaning in their lives. Judaism, our collective story, Jewish thought and teachings, our tradition and liturgy, … all can bring such incredible meaning and joy. I’m hoping, both professionally and personally, that people will gravitate to and explore the gift that we have. Being Jewish is a real gift.”