During hard times, JCS is here to help


On a Friday in early December, clinicians from Jewish Collaborative Services dropped into a senior cafe at a local synagogue. They talked with the assembled crowd about stress-reducing activities, self-care and Seasonal Affective Disorder.

A few days later, JCS’ employees were at a different congregation, to meet with parents about how to talk to their kids about the war in Israel.

On their faces, the two events might not seem to have much to do with each other, but they spring from the same approach to addressing mental-health challenges in the Jewish community: “We try to go to where people need us. … If we hear there is a need at one of the synagogues, we can put something together,” says Patty Harwood, JCS’ chief of programs.

Jewish Collaborative Services, created by the merger of Jewish Family Services and the Jewish Seniors Agency, runs a wide array of social services, including senior housing, adoption support, kosher meal programs, standalone counseling and case management.

Every year, JCS distributes 40,000 meals, provides counseling to 800 clients, and organizes visits to 1,125 isolated seniors.

Their work focuses on the most vulnerable in the Jewish community and society as a whole, including many who are turned away elsewhere because they lack health insurance.

“We see a lot of clients who have experienced trauma, either as children or as adults,” Harwood says. “Many of them are older adults, and a lot of those issues have to do with loss of some type: loss of independence, of health, of loved ones, of their homes.”

The COVID-19 pandemic heightened the need for all of JCS’ services, Harwood says.

“I think it did a lot for people to know that we would help them try to access the services they needed, even if it wasn’t in the traditional way,” she says.

During the pandemic, JCS expanded its kosher Meals on Wheels program, moved its food pantry outdoors, and even distributed toilet paper to seniors when it became hard to find. At one point, the organization was monetarily supporting more than 20 synagogue-going families struggling with furloughs or other financial hardships.

And the toll that COVID took on mental health was significant, too. JCS opened psychoeducational groups for staff and community members at Jewish organizations across the state. It didn’t stop there, either – the group responded to the uptick in anxiety and depression during the pandemic, and today: “The increased challenges of inflation and, within the Jewish community recently, the increase in antisemitism, have only worsened people’s anxieties,” Harwood says.

Those mental-health struggles have highlighted the importance of JCS’ relationships with other Jewish institutions across the state; since Oct. 7, several congregations have reached out about organizing workshops for parents and other community members.

JCS’ Kesher program provides access to a social worker through four synagogues across the state: Temple Emanu-El, Congregation Beth Sholom, Temple Sinai and Temple Torat Yisrael. The program connects individual congregants with services (both directly and through the “Kesher Link” newsletter) and runs virtual support groups on topics such as grief, chronic illness and caregiving.

“We also want to make sure that the rabbis and the leadership know who to contact if they have a congregant in need, or if they want a little bit of guidance on how to work with a congregant. The rabbi can consult with us without revealing any identifying information,” Harwood says.

Of course, the organization has to be careful about stretching its staff too thin. JCS’ counseling center has six clinicians and one case manager. Some of its programs, like home visits, can “only happen if we have the clinicians who can fit this into their schedules. It obviously takes more time if you’re going off-site,” Harwood says.

Here, too, it is easy to see the toll the pandemic has taken on counseling programs.

“It’s really difficult to hire right now in a lot of different fields, and that is also true for psychotherapists, for clinicians. There’s a high demand now,” Harwood says.

As with every challenge it faces, though, JCS finds a way to make it work. Even in such hard times, Harwood says that JCS continues to look for new ways to be of service and remains committed to living its Jewish values.

“We always want to hear what more we can be providing to the community,” she says.

To donate to the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island’s community development program, which supports JCS and other Jewish organizations in Rhode Island and around the world, go to https://www.jewishallianceri.org/support-us/featured/donate-now.

TUVYA BERGSON-MICHELSON is a senior at Brown University and an intern at the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island.