COVID-19 has changed the way we care for the most vulnerable. Jutta Josepovici, a leader in the social services sector of Frankfurt, Germany, reflects on the unique challenges and opportunities that the pandemic has presented to those who serve the elderly and others in need.
People sometimes balk when I tell them I’m a Jew from Germany. I sense their skepticism. “Are there still Jews in Germany?” they almost ask. Of course there are — and here in Frankfurt, where I live and work, there are many.
I’ve been in the Frankfurt Jewish community since my first hour of life. But in the last 30 years, I’ve seen dramatic changes, changes that affect how and who I serve. Though I’ve welcomed these developments, they also pose special challenges and opportunities to social workers here in Frankfurt.
Germany has the third-largest Jewish population in Europe, and Frankfurt has a large portion of that number, roughly 6,300. Our community is diverse — different cultures, countries of origin, economic circumstances, and more. Accordingly, I work with a diverse set of clients, and I have to be attuned to their unique experiences.
Everyone experiences Judaism differently. When I was a child, I was Jewish and only Jewish. I didn’t see myself as German, never mind German-Jewish. Young people lean towards the latter: They are German Jews — equally German, equally Jewish.
Frankfurt’s Jewish community also reflects the changing demographic realities of German Jewry as a whole. The Soviet Union’s collapse prompted many Jews from the East to emigrate here starting in 1990. And we embraced them. In the 1980s, the German Jewish community was shrinking, but we wanted to stay vibrant.
Bearing in mind our history, it’s clear to me that Germany is at the crossroads of two distinct Jewish cultures. I take these differences into account when I serve clients.
Many Jewish people arrived from the former Soviet Union (FSU) without work, shelter, or German language fluency. Hundreds still face economic hardship, and now that many of them are getting old, they need extra attention. That’s my role.
COVID-19 has worsened their economic and social hardship. They face not only high costs and low pensions, but the ordinary loneliness and tedium of social isolation. To stay alive, they have to stay alone, and it’s my duty to make this untenable situation survivable.
Now I work with clients I never served before the pandemic — the “new poor” who have faced lost jobs and unexpected costs during the pandemic.. When you add up rent, childcare, and medical expenses, you can see that COVID-19 has pushed even these middle-class families to the economic margins.
As the pandemic gripped Jewish communities everywhere, social workers faced a crisis: How could we meet the demands of the moment?
As the pandemic gripped Jewish communities all across Germany and Europe, we social workers faced a crisis: How could we meet the demands of the moment?
These challenges had reached a fever pitch by the time I attended the recent 14th European Annual Conference of Jewish Social Welfare, a gathering of social workers and care experts from all across Europe. Coordinated by JDC and the European Council of Jewish Communities (ECJC), this event allowed Jewish care professionals to compare notes on what was and wasn’t working during the pandemic.
But beyond best practices, I was reminded of something essential: I wasn’t alone. The conference was virtual, which under normal circumstances would alienate me — but Zoom has unexpected benefits. I met people from all across the region, including many colleagues and experts who would otherwise have been unable to attend. Social work requires stamina, and these speakers and sessions gave me the resilience to keep doing this crucial work.
Technology has also forced us to rethink what care work even looks like. Because of social isolation, elderly clients now use digital devices that have, in a way, given them more access to community life than before the pandemic. At the JDC-ECJC conference, we discussed how we can use technology to bring vibrant, dynamic Jewish life to elderly people when they can’t leave their homes.
This conference wasn’t my first JDC experience. Before COVID-19, I went to London and learned from experts there at a JDC-convened gathering. And I’ll never forget my time in Israel seeing the work of ESHEL, the JDC-Israel division focused on the elderly. While in Israel, I participated in all sorts of intergenerational programs and was able to bring some of these innovations back home to Germany.
I love my work. It’s brought me closer to Jewish life, and I’ve learned so much about Jewish people from the FSU. For 30 years, I’ve watched them embrace Jewish traditions and community. Freed from silence and secrecy, they can now speak Yiddish, attend shul, and observe holidays like Passover, Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur. They learn from each other, and I learn from them.
I’ve called them my clients, but they’re not: They’re my community.
Because of JDC, I know that I’m one small piece of a global Jewish family. I can’t do this work by myself, and like my clients, I know I am indeed not alone.
A former member of the Central Welfare Board of Jews in Germany (ZWST), Jutta Josepovici now leads the Social Department of the Jewish Community of Frankfurt/Main. Jutta received her degree in Social Education from the University of Frankfurt.