Tzedakah from home

Tzedakah from home

Rockland County’s federation helps local agencies meet pandemic needs online

Maria Dowling, the CEO of Rockland Jewish Family Service, has been able to give more food to her clients.
Maria Dowling, the CEO of Rockland Jewish Family Service, has been able to give more food to her clients.

Robes and slippers, peanut butter, oatmeal, cat food — these are not usual gift items, but for people and creatures in dire circumstances, they could be the best Chanukah presents imaginable.

And it is easy for Rockland County residents to provide such gifts this year, through the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County’s “Be a Mitzvah” campaign benefiting the Center for Safety & Change, the Rockland Jewish Family Service’s Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry, and the Hi-Tor Animal Care Center.

People can drop off items or monetary donations at the Jewish Community Campus in West Nyack, or simply click and buy items for direct shipping to the recipient agency using designated shopping lists set up for the campaign, as they are on Amazon.

The idea originated with Gary Siepser, the CEO of the Jewish Federation & Foundation of Rockland County.

“From my chair, I see a broad spectrum of needs and issues, and on this holiday of light and joy we wanted to remember those who may need some help,” Mr. Siepser said. “This is what Jewish federations and communities are for.”

In his mind’s eye, he saw families lighting their menorahs and giving the children — and/or grandchildren — an opportunity to do more than receive.

“I thought, what could be a more important lesson that while we are having our treats and gifts, let’s give some in-kind gifts. Something very tangible as a teaching moment.”

He and his staff zeroed in on three agencies whose budgets and capacities have been sorely stretched by the covid crisis.

“The kosher food pantry is part of our normal orbit of beneficiaries, and we’ve been working with them since the first week of the pandemic to help with fundraising,” Mr. Siepser said.

Indeed, Rockland Jewish Family Service’s CEO, Maria Dowling, said, “When the pandemic started, we began serving about 250 families every two weeks. Pre-covid, we were serving under 200 families per month. The federation is helping us by addressing the very significant problem of hunger in this county, that has only intensified due to the pandemic. We are so grateful to them for bringing attention to the very real issue of food insecurity in our community.”

The kosher items that local families need the most include canned tuna, peanut butter, nourishing soups, beans, oatmeal, and pasta.

Mr. Siepser knew that if people are having difficulty putting food on the table, pet owners are having difficulty keeping their dogs and cats fed. Reaching out to Hi Tor’s board president, Debbie DiBernardo, he learned that the animal shelter is caring for more four-legged friends than ever, some that people dropped off and others that people abandoned. The greatest need here is cat food, and accordingly the Amazon shopping list for Hi-Tor includes three kinds of Purina cat chow.

A cat eyes cans of food at the Hi-Tor Animal Care Center.

Ms. DiBernardo said the shelter now cares for about 150 cats, as well as dogs and rabbits.

“They never stop coming in,” she said. “In November alone, we took in 57 cats. The cost for food and litter and housing the cats is very high, and there is not much fundraising going on right now, so anything to offset those costs will help. The more food that is donated the less we have to buy and the more we can spend on medical and other needs.”

Ms. DiBernardo noted that Hi-Tor soon will mark its 50th year. “For those 50 years it’s been the community that supported us, and when the federation offered to include us in this initiative, I was happy to know there are other organizations looking to help homeless animals. It was a wonderful, unexpected charitable gesture.”

“There is a Jewish tradition of showing compassion to animals that work for us or are our companions,” Mr. Siepser said. “And especially from the perspective of kids, this I something that resonates and teaches compassion for all living things.”

Not only has hunger increased among all living things during the pandemic nationally and locally, but so has domestic violence.

“The Center for Safety & Change is Rockland County’s official center for dealing with victims of domestic violence, sexual assault, and human trafficking,” Mr. Siepser said. “The JFS works closely with them now as we have over the years.”

The center’s wish list includes winter apparel — sweatshirts and sweatpants, hats, robes, and slippers — as well as such consumables as diapers and wipes.

Danielle Watson of the Center for Safety & Change said the facility is housing 10 people. That’s fewer than before covid, in response to New York State regulations prohibiting more than one family from sharing a room.

“By covering some of the basic costs, the federation is allowing us to reallocate funds to help with client emergency needs for other non-residential victims and survivors,” she said.

“Right now we serve over 300 individuals a month on average. Without the help and support of the community, we could not offer the services and client support that we do. We are appreciative of the generosity and support provided by the community and the federation.”

Mr. Siepser said he is happy to provide the opportunity for anyone to donate such items from the comfort and safety of home. “My team pointed out that people are not anxious to go to stores during the pandemic, and there is a perfectly marvelous mechanism to do this on Amazon,” he said.

The three beneficiary agencies created Amazon shopping lists that work like a wedding registry. “If you already have an Amazon account, you don’t have to enter any additional information. You just click and you’re done,” Mr. Siepser said.

Community rabbis are helping to get the word out by promoting Be a Mitzvah through their congregations. Information and links are available at

“The campaign will go through the week of Chanukah and for a while afterward, so really any time in December people will be welcome to make gifts,” Mr. Siepser said.

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