Saluting Local Heroes
of The Associated

The COVID-19 pandemic has demanded we all make sacrifices. We’ve worn masks, social distanced, postponed simchas and in too many cases, endured unthinkable tragedy.

Despite these hardships, some have looked beyond their personal challenges to help others who are struggling. We’re proud to say that a few of these brave and generous individuals reside in our own Jewish community.

From preparing hundreds of grilled cheese sandwiches to phoning neighbors in order to combat loneliness to helping survivors of domestic violence to making sure our youngest community members can go to school — these are a few local heroes who give us something to kvell about.

We salute these individuals who have been involved with our Associated system for their dedication and commitment this past year.

The Katcoffs

For the Katcoffs of Pikesville, helping those less fortunate is a family affair. Before the pandemic, the family — parents Robin and Jason Katcoff and daughters Wriley, 15 and Ariella, 12 — were frequent participants in programs such as Jewish Volunteer Connection’s Mitzvah Days, the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service and Bunches of Lunches — a program that provides bag lunches for the hungry — at their children’s schools.

When the pandemic hit, the family stepped up their volunteer efforts.

“We knew we wanted to do something to help,” says Robin. [Due to the pandemic] we were mostly staying home all the time. So, we started doing Bunches of Lunches from home,” she recalls. “The first week we made six lunches, thenI said, ‘let’s keep going.’”

Eventually, the family was making as many as 20 grilled cheese sandwiches per week! The activity became even more fun when Robin and her family started decorating the lunch bags.

“At first, the decorations were simple — happy faces for instance. But then I started taking an online zentangling class and one of my daughters would sometimes join me. We started decorating our bags with zentangle drawings. It’s been so nice,” says Robin.

Making lunches has become a great bonding experience as well as an opportunity for “teachable moments,” says Robin. “Every Sunday night, making the lunches is on our schedule. That has to get done before we do any other family activities. The kids are learning that there are people out there who don’t have what they have. My family says they are really happy I pushed them to get involved with the program.”

Julia and Ashley Hayunga

Sisters Julia and Ashley Hayunga, of Eldersburg, are volunteers with Jewish Community Services’ (JCS) Friendly Callers program. The program is designed to reduce loneliness and feelings of isolation for Baltimoreans of all ages and it’s been particularly important during the pandemic. Julia, 16, and Ashley, 13, look forward to their calls with “M” an individual with developmental disabilities who lives in one of JCS’ group homes.

“We’ve called her every week since the pandemic started. It’s so nice talking to her because it’s just like she’s a member of our family,” says Julia. “We usually talk about how my life is going, how her life is going, and she really loves hearing about our dog.”

In addition to their friendly calling, Julia and Ashley recently led several activities at a holiday party for JCS clients. Volunteering at the annual event has been something the two have done for several years.

In fact, they first met “M” at one of those parties. This year, due to the pandemic, the party took place virtually. “We sang songs and played bingo, just like we always do,” says Julia. “It was a lot of fun.”

Adds Ashley: “It’s been really nice having something to do. This past year has been such a difficult time for our community, and we wanted to do what we could do to make the community a better place.”

Ellen Carter Cooper

Making phone calls to community members is the way Ellen Carter Cooper of Fallstaff has supported others during the pandemic as well. Cooper, 82, has developed strong relationships with the women she has met through her involvement with CHAI’s Northwest Neighbors Connecting (NNC) program, a “members-helping-members village” in Northwest Baltimore.

“I have six ladies I call weekly,” says Cooper. “I think it helps me more than it helps them. It brightens my day and I enjoy listening to people’s stories. One of the women is 90 years old and a former teacher,” she says. “We talk about teaching techniques and students we remember.”

Cooper says the experience has taught her that “people are all the same. They have the same needs. I think [the phone calls] are important during the pandemic. A lot of people live alone; they don’t see people, and some don’t feel well enough to pick up the phone themselves. It lets them know another human being in the universe is having the same experience.”

Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer

Since the pandemic began, Rabbi Yechiel Shaffer, Pikesville Jewish Congregation’s spiritual leader has been lending his support and guidance to survivors of domestic abuse receiving services from CHANA, the Jewish community’s response to abuse.

“They’ve seen an incredible rise in the need [for services] in the community over the last year,” says Rabbi Shaffer. “It’s been amazing to see the thoughtfulness and the dedication of the CHANA professionals.

A CHANA board member, the rabbi says the pandemic has made “a variety of challenges — emotional and practical — more extreme.” He notes that individuals facing abuse can often feel isolated, even in normal times. During the pandemic, the isolation has become even more of a challenge.

“When a CHANA client makes an incredibly brave decision to leave their spouse, having a safe destination is not always so simple, especially during a pandemic,” says Rabbi Shaffer. “Hotels are not readily available. We’ve been able to come up with some creative solutions.”

Rabbi Shaffer has helped CHANA clients in a variety of ways. “In several instances, I’ve been able to offer some spiritual counseling and at times assisted clients in receiving a religious divorce — a get,” he says.

“Leaving a marriage can come with a feeling of spiritual guilt,” says Rabbi Shaffer. “CHANA has turned to me every so often to play a spiritual support role and I feel inspired by these incredibly brave CHANA clients. I am deeply moved by the difficult decisions they often have to make and feel grateful to have supported them in any way I can.”

The Teachers at the JCC

Like so many other schools, the Stoler Early Learning Center (ELC) at the JCC was forced to close last March when COVID-19 hit.

“We thought we’d be closed for a few weeks,” recalls Sharon Seigel, senior program director at the JCC.

So much for positive thinking. “In reality, the teachers taught virtually for six weeks and then we started to offer classes on Zoom, bedtime stories on Facebook and daily blog posts with ideas for home lessons and activities,” says Danielle Ashendorf, ELC director.

In June, the school made the difficult decision to reopen only one ELC — The Stoler Early Learning Center on the Owings Mills campus — with strict health and safety measures in place. Though it was “scary” to return to in-person classes, “the creative excellence and resilience of our educators has shown through,” says Ashendorf.  

It wasn’t always easy and remains a challenge. Since not all teachers were able to return to school, there were staffing issues. The teachers who did return had to adhere to strict MSDE, CDC and Health Department cleaning requirements.

Emerging data about the pandemic meant there were frequent changes in licensing and JCC guidelines. Teachers had to adapt then pivot quickly and repeatedly. Teachers worked mostly in isolation with planning and staff meetings held virtually. In order to keep children and teachers safe, students and teachers could not socialize or share space in the building.

In spite of it all, says Ashendorf, the teachers made these adjustments “without sacrificing their commitment to the children or their educational experiences. Our educators are thrilled to be back with the children, who are thriving! We are truly blown away at how quickly our community came back together!”

JVC, JCS, CHAI, CHANA and the JCC are all part of The Associated system.

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The Associated is a home for everyone in the Baltimore Jewish community. We offer several email lists to help people find a community, engage with their peers and support Jewish journeys around the world.

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