These Orthodox Jewish College Kids Are Spreading Kindness During A Pandemic

“It started as a spreadsheet, a very basic spreadsheet,” Elana Sichel, a recent graduate of University of Maryland says. She and Hadassah Raskas, a U Penn rising senior, are the co-founders of Corona Connects, an initiative that pairs volunteers with organizations needing the extra hands during this chaotic time of living through the Coronavirus pandemic. The idea originated in a strong desire to be of service, stemming from their observant upbringing. Raskas explains, “I think it really was our Jewish values that really created this thing inside of us…it’s so deeply ingrained.” Both share similar lifestyles by being raised on the east coast, going to Orthodox schools, and taking the classic gap year in Israel before attending secular college. Even though their time on campus this year was shortened due to COVID-19, they recognize the blessings of their health while acknowledging the struggle of staying at home.

Sitting at home alone months ago and catching up with friends virtually, they were shocked that all of them shared a common sentiment, “There’s gotta be something I could do to play a little tiny role, not being a frontline worker, not being a healthcare worker.” Raskas expresses, “I was just looking for something to grasp onto.” These days, people have unprecedented time on their side. “They want to help but they can’t figure out how to…we said ‘how could we bridge this gap? How could we make it easy for volunteers to connect to the existing opportunities and needs?’” The Corona Connects website is built with two options to choose from. One is for individuals to connect with organizations requesting assistance and the second is for the organizations themselves to submit a need.

Once logging onto CoronaConnects.org, those options then lead to selecting filters for location, availability, type of work, a job done remotely or in-person, and more. “There are over 170 opportunities on there for you to choose. It [is] an easy process,” Sichel says. People can choose to tutor kids or help serve and deliver at food pantries or train to be a crisis counselor via the Crisis TextLine, which has been the most popular service so far. Transforming the project from an Excel sheet to a professional website was simple, thanks to the help of a web developer, a product designer, and a social media point person all of whom connected to the young women through Facebook. They created a team of 25 diverse individuals within the Jewish community as well as the non-Jewish one to help with their networking efforts and the site’s maintenance. This has allowed the co-founders to make kiddushei Hashem on numerous occasions.

Once the project spread, they received an overwhelming amount of responses to contribute, Raskas shares, “I think there’s just this amazing energy and desire to pitch in and to help all over the world.” The project also includes regional coordinators who gather information on opportunities from their area and upload them to the site, which now spans across 15 states and counting. Everyone on the board is a volunteer and their funding comes from generous sponsorship. Working with basic, free WordPress tools has limited their progress, they explain “we’ve been kind of looking… to take it to the next step and really do more and drive our impact more.”

Since their founding only a few months ago, they’ve been featured in the Washington Post and U.S. News and World Report, and have attracted thousands of visitors to the site. Some have returned for a second round of volunteering after a successful first match. The site can’t confirm who participates and follows through with the service chosen; for now their process is to simply connect prospective volunteers opportunities. What Sichel and Raskas do know is that they’ve had thousands of “connect now” clicks. The feedback is heartwarming. Visitors tell Sichel, “I’m not being told that I have to stay home and do nothing. I’m really told [to] use this time wisely and make a difference.” This is the Corona Connects mission during this challenging time: it’s about linking people with each other by spreading kindness instead of the virus.

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