Coronavirus has taken a toll the world over, from death, to illness, to economic upheaval, to job loss, to mental health challenges. There is almost no one who has not felt its negative effects. In a time when everyone is desperate for good news, some Satmar Hasidim in Blooming Grove, a small village in upstate New York, decided to make some.
The United Jewish Community (UJC) of Blooming Grove was founded this past September with Joel Stern serving as a board representative and Isaac Ekstein as the chairman. Resulting in a build-up of complaints and common issues throughout the years between the Jewish residents and town government, Stern recalls, “the community realized that if we would get together as one voice, there would be one unified body representing the entire Jewish community, we can reach far beyond of where we were able to before that.”
There are currently over 300 Hasidic families in Blooming Grove, located on the outskirts of Kiryas Joel. Because of the rising needs of the Jewish community in terms of housing and services, this unified council has been working closely with the village’s board and town’s departments to achieve similar goals. The UJC is a gift that has granted the community a single, strong voice for lobbying, gaining special permits, and serving the individual and the collective whole in an efficient and effective way.
In a short span of 6 months, the UJC has proven to be a valuable asset not just for the Jewish community but to all their surroundings. At the start of the pandemic, the town’s government reached out to the UJC for help in combatting the COVID-19 crisis. Ekstein explains, “They recognized us as a professional company, as a front of the Jewish community, so we got really involved in all of that.” Once a special task force was created for the pandemic, daily conference calls were scheduled in order to pinpoint exactly what the townspeople needed. Due to these conversations, they came up with the idea of organizing a food bank since many lost their jobs and now don’t have the money to see to their next family dinner.
This food bank on wheels (see a video here) drove around the entire village in a truck to give out 200 boxes (one per family) of non-perishable pantry food. It was exclusively for the non-Jewish community. Later on they held a separate project for the Jewish residents with kosher food. “The main feedback that came out on Facebook and from people that I know was amazing. It was way more than we anticipated. People were really kind of shocked,” Ekstein states. This is because a lot of people were brought up believing that Jews only interact and operate within their own circles, which is why “people were literally in tears.” They received countless emails of emotion-filled thanks for the food bank and the genuine care they showed.
Both Ekstein and Stern believe that this has positively changed the dynamics between the Jewish and non-Jewish locals on the streets of Blooming Grove. And although the reception over the years has been mixed regarding Jews moving in, most people now are even more accepting and live well with their Jewish neighbors. The collaborations and cooperation on everyone’s part has added to the overall community feel. The UJC expresses their interest in creating more initiatives like these and are simply waiting for the phone to ring.