In 1910, the New York Telephone Company used sickness and disease to sell potential customers on its radical new invention.
“People in quarantine are not isolated if they have a Bell Telephone,” its advertisements advised. “The Bell Service brings cheer and encouragement to the sick, and is of value in countless other ways.”
Eight years later, when the great influenza epidemic hit, the telephones turned out not to be quite as useful as advertised. The phone system required human operators to connect the calls, and with a third of New York Telephone’s 6,000 operators out sick, telephone company advertisements pleaded with customers to avoid all but the most urgent of calls.
Luckily, when covid-19 struck a century later, the telephone system was up to the task. And while Zoom and similar video technologies have taken center stage in our lives these last nine months, the humble telephone has indeed played an important role in bringing cheer and encouragement not only to the sick, but to the isolated.
At the Orangetown Jewish Center in Orangeburg, the telephone has knit the community together tighter than ever, thanks to a telephone buddy system created by the synagogue’s leaders in the early stages of the pandemic. The buddies make weekly calls to the most isolated members of the synagogue community.
“It was great, because I am 88 years old and this pandemic has been horrible to me,” Lydia Katz of Chestnut Ridge said. “I have not been out of this house since March other than to go to the bank to get money and to doctors.”
Harriet Turner of New Hempstead has been calling Ms. Katz every Sunday for months and months now. What had been a vague acquaintanceship — the two had sat a row apart in the synagogue, back when services were held in person — blossomed into a real friendship.
“We won’t give up the friendship,” Ms. Katz said. “We truly feel that we’re friends now, not just phone buddies. “The first time she called, it was such a pleasant surprise. She explained that she was given my name to call. We chatted a little bit. She’s been calling me every single Sunday since then. She never misses a beat.
“I look forward to her call. I’ve gotten to know her family through chatting and she’s gotten to know mine.”
The synagogue has helped her in other ways, Ms. Katz added. “We have Zoom classes still going on and Zoom services still going on, which makes the time go a little better also.”
Ms. Katz has been a member of the Orangetown Jewish Center for “30 years or so. It’s been a wonderful experience for me.
“I am a yeshiva graduate. I grew up in a time where women were not very important. In the previous shul I belonged to, I was not allowed to do anything on the bima despite the fact I could daven better than a lot of the men there. When I came to OJC, not only was I given aliyahs, I became bat mitzvah.
“The fact they have shul buddies does not surprise me, because they are so thoughtful and considerate,” she said.
“Once we were in the second week of the pandemic, it became really clear we needed to reach out to everyone,” Rabbi Paula Mack Drill, one of the congregation’s two rabbis, said. “We put out a request for volunteers. We got about 50.” After a quick Zoom training in how to make the calls — what questions to ask, what to look for — the volunteers went through the list of 430 member families and called them all.
After those calls, the synagogue’s chesed committee identified the people “who could really use a buddy call, especially people who were older and all alone, and people dealing with medical issues. They were really experiencing the stay-at-home orders and the isolation.”
Every person on the list was assigned to be called by two different people, so they would get two calls each week.
“When we return to in person — which I believe will happen — there will be a new level of connectivity,” Rabbi Drill said. “People will find their buddies in three dimensions and face to face, and there will be a new level of connectedness in the synagogue.”
When it came time to find the volunteers who would commit to making the weekly phone calls, “some of the people we identified as needing to receive a phone call also became phone buddies,” she continued. “We have some older folks who receive phone calls and as buddies also makes calls to other people. To the people who were hesitant to receive phone calls, I said it was a kindness to allow someone the mitzvah of calling you.”
The synagogue’s phone buddy program was recently recognized by the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, whose Metropolitan New York region gave the synagogue three Schechter Awards, including a silver award for its chesed activities during the pandemic. (The shul’s High Holiday programming earned the synagogue another silver award, and its “Reflect to Connect” fundraising campaign earned a gold award.)
Ms. Turner said that the first call she made to Ms. Katz as a phone buddy was “hard, because you think, what am I going to talk about? The synagogue gave us ideas, like to remind them that the synagogue was there for them, and if they needed help they could call the rabbis. I asked them it if was okay if I called the next week.
“When I called the following week, it was really very comfortable. It just took that one time to make the change be comfortable calling. It just took that one time to make that change and be comfortable about talking. Things just developed so beautifully on both ends. I go to know them pretty well. It’s just lovely. I probably would never have known them if it wasn’t for this phone buddy system.
“It was easy to be kind during this pandemic. That was an important issue, to send out kindness to people. It made it better for me, too. It goes both ways.”