When COVID-19 forced people to shelter in place, it revealed to many how tenuous and delicate the social fabric is the world over and how easily suffering can skyrocket among its most vulnerable populations. At the same time, it has offered an opportunity for those who prioritize tikkun olam—repairing the world—to find new ways to help people experiencing homelessness, the elderly, the disenfranchised and others in need in our communities.
To help leaders meet the needs of marginalized and underserved populations across the globe, ROI Community, REALITY and the Schusterman Fellowship—initiatives of the Schusterman Family Foundation—began offering micro grants in March. These pandemic-related disbursements, typically a few thousand dollars each, are a way to invest in the ideas of our program participants and provide them with a small amount of capital they can use to engage people with and expand the reach of their relief initiatives.
Through an array of individual and collaborative aid initiatives, micro grant recipients have focused on getting food to people who lack safe access to markets, making technological and educational resources available, contributing to the supply of personal protective equipment and much more.
Taras Izzy Prokopenko, a member of Schusterman’s ROI Community, used a micro grant to disrupt food insecurity and help the elderly. Prokopenko is a new oleh—immigrant—to Israel from the city of Gomel in Belarus, where his mother still lives. His mother is alone there and Prokopenko wanted to find a way to help her and other elderly Jews by procuring kosher foods for them.
“I realized that for $25, I can make a food order for a week, so it will help her stay home,” he said. “There are plenty of older, socially-isolated people in my city who also need it. It's important for them to stay home because there are no measures to protect them from coronavirus.”
With fellow ROI Community member Michael Brodman, he applied for and received a grant to make remote online purchases of kosher food items for elderly Jews in Gomel and Odessa in Ukraine. A group of local volunteers on the ground delivered the purchases to the intended recipients. These same volunteers were further enlisted to check in on people in the community who are isolated and may be at risk of hunger, depression or other illness.
“It helps me to feel that even 3.5 thousand kilometers from my old city, I'm still able to help them and support them,” he said. “It's important for them to know that someone cares for them.”
That impetus—to let others know they are cared for even in the most dire of times—is what has driven so many of the micro grant recipients.
REALITY alumna Shelley Danner works in the nonprofit sector in Detroit. When the pandemic hit, she and a friend started discussing the profound racial inequities it revealed and amplified. When she learned that a local homeless shelter had to relocate in order to provide residents adequate space for social distancing, she and colleagues had an idea.
“Wouldn't it be great to pay restaurants to make meals for the homeless shelter?” In particular, she said, they focused on crowd-sourced funding that would enable them to support Black and minority-owned small businesses and restaurants and keep them in business. Pay It Forward: Power a Business & Feed the Homeless launched in early April, helping prepare 100 meals a day for people experiencing homelessness.
“We got an overwhelming response. In the first week we raised $10,000,” she said. Encouraged by the number of donations, Danner and her colleagues started thinking about expanding their reach.
The group applied for and received a micro grant from REALITY. In combination with other funding, the micro grant enabled Pay It Forward to extend its services for nearly two months, raising more than $50,000, supporting 11 restaurants, one food delivery service, and adding additional homeless shelters to its roster of meal recipients.
“There's so much deep pain and suffering, and challenges and injustice and sickness. This is a beautiful story of people coming together and making a difference,” Danner said, noting that many individual donors were, themselves, suffering financial hardship. “What we saw through this campaign, across socio-economic status, is that people really want to help.”
Other micro grant recipients have addressed psychological and spiritual needs, such as encouraging people to actively think of the good in their lives, even now.
That’s what Shuki Taylor and Anat Silverstone, Schusterman Fellows, have done with Days of Gratitude, a relatively new global ritual during which celebrants undertake activities and meditations that encourage them to be mindful and embrace what they’re grateful for in their lives. Amid COVID-19, Taylor and Silverstone realized this exercise was more essential than ever.
“It uses Jewish wisdom and help us practice resilience in the face of adversity,” Taylor said. “Every day focused on a different subject, or object of gratitude, from appreciating the people who help us to being grateful for the environment, for our families, and for our communities.”
They enlisted partner organizations who came up with gratitude-promoting exercises and activities--meditations, singing, postcard writing, and more--for their respective constituencies. Actress Mayim Bialik and Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg took part in a robust social media campaign, and ultimately more than 315 partner organizations, many led by other Schusterman Fellows, teamed up to share news of this initiative with thousands of people in their collective networks. Together, they reached more than 34,000 people worldwide.
Another micro grant collaboration helped shine a spotlight on the challenges refugees face during this time.
Four Schusterman Fellows—Dyonna Ginsburg of OLAM, Yotam Polizer of IsraAID, Cindy Greenberg of Repair the World and Shaun Hoffman of JDC Entwine—put together the #70MILLION campaign in honor of World Refugee Day, which took place on June 20. The campaign, which called on people to volunteer, donate funds or take other kinds of action to help those who’ve been displaced, reached over 300,000 people through OLAM’s channels alone.
“In 2019 there was an unprecedented number of refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons around the world,” Ginsburg said. “Many live in crowded urban settings, refugee camps and do not have access to clean water or soap or have the ability to even social distance. Many lack legal status and sustainable livelihood, making them exceptionally vulnerable to the pandemic but also to its economic impact.”
“The verse about loving the stranger appears 36 times in the Torah,” Ginsburg said, noting that being the stranger has always been an intrinsic part of the Jewish experience. “So many parts of Jewish history are the story of forced migration and displacement...from the entire Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus to the Holocaust.”
Because of that, she said, “we would hope there comes deep empathy to others who are also experiencing forced migration and displacement and don’t have a home.”
Since launching these micro grants at the start of the pandemic, recipients have responded with innovative solutions for helping underserved communities around the world. These micro grants have encouraged changemakers to dream—to imagine and devise solutions and systems that lessen the harm inflicted by the current crisis. They are in addition to the Schusterman Family Foundation’s broader funding response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has focused on support for marginalized and underserved people in the U.S. and Israel, as well as ensuring nonprofits can continue their vital work.
Based on the initial success of this micro grant model, REALITY launched micro grants addressing racial equity.
“Inspired by the recent outpouring of activism that has put anti-Black racism at the forefront of our collective consciousness, these micro grants of up to $2,500 will help REALITY alumni take purposeful action toward engaging more people and organizations in the work of racial justice,” said Alicia Smith, Senior Director of REALITY.
“While these micro grants will not address the full extent of the challenge we face in dismantling systemic racism, they are intended to support REALITY alumni efforts to address racism and inequity in their communities.”
Sara Ivry is a freelance writer, editor and podcaster.