Jewish Family Service Tackles Social Isolation During Pandemic

Lainey Dugan, Vital Support Center Manager, teaches virtual art classes.
Lainey Dugan, Vital Support Center Manager, teaches virtual art classes.

COVID-19 has changed nearly every aspect of our lives, and for some of the people in our community, those changes could be deadly. That’s why Jewish Family Service (JFS) quickly transitioned most programming online to continue its mission.


JFS is committed to strengthening people’s lives in times of need, as well as supporting senior community members. As information about COVID-19 became available this spring, it became clear that seniors were the most vulnerable in terms of physical health, but also the most at risk of isolation. In response, JFS began offering several online experiences to connect the community and keep existing social groups together. From book clubs; a variety of classes including art, cooking, and language; to games and coffee groups; there is something for everyone.


One of the first activities to move online was the English class for Russian-speaking seniors. The class had been held every Monday at the Mayerson JCC for the last several years, but was moved online instead of halted at the insistence of its students. “The students really get so much out of the class,” said Luda Gikhman, manager of the JFS Russian Jewish Cultural Center. “It’s not just learning English. It’s social, it’s educational, it’s intellectual. We can see new faces. We’re making friends, even now under these circumstances. It’s especially important for older adults to interact with other people.”


That feeling of connection is at the core of every virtual activity Jewish Family Service has to offer. Another program, Tablets and Technology, is a hands-on approach to helping seniors get comfortable with their devices. It’s also transitioned to a virtual experience, with clients provided a tablet and data plan to help them stay connected to their class, and also to their friends and family, and other resources.


“The Center for Holocaust Survivors is transitioning our Friendship Club, Coffee Club, and Russian Tea groups to a virtual format,” said Meredith Davis, the center’s director. “Our clients report that they miss the friends that they’d see once or twice a month at the in-person events. We’ve been trying a number of videoconferencing tools to see which is easiest for them to use.” Davis said a Senior Conversation group is also being held that allows Russian speakers a chance to share stories and poems, learn from guest lecturers, and socialize with friends.


JFS is also conducting a music class via video call and has delivered art supplies for virtual art classes, all to make sure seniors are able to continue making connections to others and stay active. “We became interested in social isolation among older adults as a public health issue back in 2018,” said Ann Sutton Burke, Vice President of Client Services. “Now in the midst of a pandemic, we are in a state of hyper-awareness, as more older adults than ever are at risk for isolation and loneliness. Research shows that loneliness can be worse than obesity, alcoholism, or smoking. We consider it our epidemic.”


“It’s social, it’s educational, it’s intellectual. We can see new faces. We’re making friends, even now under these circumstances.”

— Luda Gikhman

    Manager, Jewish Family Service Russian Jewish Cultural Center


Jewish Family Service was one of the first organizations in the country to receive and implement a Uniper Cares grant from the Network of Jewish Human Service Agencies (NJHSA). It has allowed Uniper devices to be installed in the homes of 25 Holocaust survivors in Greater Cincinnati. The devices connect to a TV, and allow users to access virtual senior programming through live activities and an on-demand video library. “Our Holocaust survivors are among our most vulnerable clients,” explained Davis. “The idea behind having them access programming on their TV versus a tablet or smartphone is simple: they’re comfortable with how to use their TV. We want to make accessing this programming as easy as possible.” Davis said the Uniper devices also allow video calling, so users can stay in touch with loved ones. 

In addition to protecting the mental health of the senior community, JFS provides resources to help people facing other challenges, like food insecurity and need for emergency financial assistance. The Jewish Family Service Heldman Family Food Pantry has remained open during the pandemic and has seen a large increase in demand. They now offer food in the safest way possible during the pandemic.