What image comes to mind when you think about Orthodox Jews during the Coronavirus crisis? Shoshana Bernstein of Monsey, New York is changing that perception to one of Kiddush Hashem, providing meals and snacks to emergency room nurses on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. But Bernstein isn’t a stranger to doing good works in the public eye.
As a writer with a talent for public speaking, this mother and grandmother ended up becoming an inadvertent media liaison for the Orthodox Jewish community of Rockland County, where her chesed organization Appreciation Matters started. “I started 5 years ago when police were constantly being shot at. People [in the Orthodox Jewish community] were eager for ways to tangibly and visibly express appreciation.” The result was a fully-funded run of magnets that said ‘I Thank and Support My Police Department,’ which soon became ubiquitous on the minivans of Rockland County. Bernstein ended up making three different runs, which can still be seen on cars in the area today. “Something comes up, I throw a campaign. I have to do something.”
Bernstein’s foray into community activism was accidental. “I was very involved when the measles [outbreak] happened. I wrote a culturally sensitive article for the Monroe community.” This months-long project was well-received and earned her the trust of the wider community, in addition to the CDC, the Dept of Health, and the New York State Health Commissioner. “I love the ability to be a conduit for education, especially education that’s so vital.”
She made another car magnet that was sponsored by doctors saying ‘I’m Proud to Vaccinate.’ “We were invited to Gracie Mansion and met the Mayor. It got a lot of traction.” The attention wasn’t just local. “Australian Broadcasting Corporation came to my house and did a series. I [also] became very good friends with a CNN reporter writing statements for Rabbi Rottenberg after the stabbing.” Bernstein refers to the Monsey Chanukah Massacre of a few months ago. She lives just a two-minute walk from where the attack happened, and was also a media liaison for the community at that time.
While Bernstein sees the healthcare workers as the heroes of this moment, she also acknowledges the everyday heroism of so many now. “Mothers with little kids, anyone who gets out of bed these days is a hero.” The importance of giving back to the healthcare community is dear to Bernstein’s heart. “I have a daughter who is immunocompromised.” She has maintained her relationships with the medical community, which inspired her latest project. “They are literally putting their lives on the line to help people.”
Bernstein knows firsthand that nurses can get so involved with patients that they put off eating, so the idea to feed them was born. Bernstein’s charity is packaging goods for the Good Samaritan and Maimonedes Hospital Emergency Rooms, alongside Hava Java in Monsey and the Corner Cafe in Brooklyn. “Everybody wants to show appreciation.” Because of that, this new campaign “Two For You to Say Thank You,” receives many $2 donations. “[Right now], no one knows about tomorrow’s paycheck.” The care packages consist of a muffin and a bagel and cream cheese, all individually wrapped. When she asked one restaurant about the cost, the owner told her not to worry about it and donated everything for a period of time. The owner of Corner Cafe was helping with an extremely sick person and contacted Bernstein for help. She then reached out to him in turn. “These ‘hugs from Hashem’ show me to keep going and to do [keep doing] the right thing.”
Bernstein set an initial goal of $5k for 2500 bagels and danishes. As of last Thursday, the campaign had raised over $3k donated by 310 people. “I like the idea that we’re getting a lot of people doing this.” Despite a huge portion of her community being out of work due to the crisis, and so many new people on Tomchei Shabbos and “a huge percentage of people who have never made Pesach before, [all] starting from scratch,” she is thrilled to have so much participation. “[It’s] a drop in the bucket to make a nurse feel like ‘we see you. We send [you] an edible hug today.’ I’m grateful for the opportunity to do something, however small.”
Despite challenging times, Bernstein is grateful. “We have a house over our heads, we have food to eat, we have everything. I’ve been to the other side. There are so many people who can’t say that.” The nurses and doctors on the front lines are making all the difference right now, and Bernstein gives them all the credit. “They are the ones with the bruises on their faces from the masks, if they can even get ones.”
Bernstein keeps the tough news in perspective, which gives her strength to keep going. “As much darkness as there is right now, there is so much light. That’s what I focus on right now so I don’t go crazy. I’m zocheh to be Hashem’s secretary.” Bernstein’s effect goes far beyond that. “After the stabbing, I was contacted by a [secular Jewish] woman from Washington, DC, who wanted to come show solidarity with ‘our [Jewish] sisters.’ This woman wrote a subsequent op-ed in the Washington Jewish news saying that meeting people in Monsey forever changed their view of Orthodox Jewish women. She ended up lighting candles for the first time.” This isn’t the only time that Bernstein has had such a positive effect either. She also made a friend out of a secular Jewish reporter at CNN. “[This woman] lit Shabbos candles and now we are Partners in Torah.” The correlation is obvious. “No matter what comes out of the COVID-19 Crisis, “we need to bottle this caring for each other, that we judge less and love more.”