American Judaism's Old Dinosaurs Roar Again

After being written off for years as slow and outmoded, Jewish federations and other large institutions are proving themselves indispensable in their response to COVID-19.

Rabbi Mendel Sirota hands a box of Seder kits to volunteers to deliver to members of their congregation on April 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

Rabbi Mendel Sirota hands a box of Seder kits to volunteers to deliver to members of their congregation on April 7, 2020 in Denver, Colorado. RJ Sangosti/MediaNews Group/The Denver Post via Getty Images.

Observation
Oct. 12 2020
About the author

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary. His latest book, The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice their Religion Today, has been issued recently as a paperback.

This is the first essay in a projected series about the impact of the coronavirus on different sectors of the American Jewish enterprise. This installment focuses on Jewish communal institutions. Future installments will look at Jewish religious life and at how educational institutions are responding.

Over six months into the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the duration of the crisis, let alone its longer-term consequences, are still unknowable. Yet virtually since the pandemic began, Jewish media have been flooded with articles that purportedly assess the impact of the crisis on Jewish communal life. Within weeks of the first shutdowns, observers set forth a narrative of decline, forecasting nothing less than the collapse of organized Jewish life. To cite just one of the many commentaries: “[the coronavirus] may be the final nail in the coffin of the post-World War II institutional American Jewish community.” As recently as early July, another writer prepared his readers for the impending burial: “Everything American Jews had built, along with seemingly everything else in a once-open and dynamic country of 350 million people, wilted before a disease that couldn’t be stopped.”

The consensus seemed to posit two reasons for decline that could be seen as being in tension with one another. On the one hand, conventional wisdom suggested that American Jewish organizations precipitated their own irrelevance by failing to adapt to new circumstances or experimenting with innovation. Jewish federations and communal organizations have been doing, more or less, what they have been doing for decades.

On the other hand, some advanced the claim that the problem with Jewish communal institutions is not their quiescence but instead the hyperactive rivalries among them. In the words of one prominent observer: “the system is not strong enough on its own to handle the most challenging elements of this crisis. . . . Exceptional leaders of institutions in today’s Jewish community are operating in relative isolation from one another, and certainly autonomously from one another, largely because we no longer have a strong enough system of umbrella organizations and collective mobilization.” In a word, the absence of collaboration has produced dysfunction. Agencies are going under because they are too staid in some ways and too competitive in others.

As to the solution to communal institutional weakness, any number of voices inform us that only the creation of an entirely new system—and the scrapping of the existing one—will save organized Jewish life. The future envisioned by these prognosticators is, perhaps unsurprisingly, identical to courses of action they have been urging upon Jewish communal life for the past two decades. So much for the widespread insistence that “nothing will ever be the same” post-coronavirus.

Before rushing to dismantle the existing system, perhaps we should investigate what in fact has transpired thus far during the COVID-19 crisis. Has American Jewish communal life really collapsed? And is there reason to believe that the entire structure, as opposed to individual pieces, will disappear?

Organizations have been hard-hit, and some will cease operations. Thousands of employees of Jewish agencies have lost their jobs or taken pay cuts, a personal hardship for those who have been furloughed and their families, and a loss of talent for organized Jewish life in the short-term. No doubt, too, there is a good deal of concern among heads of Jewish institutions as they struggle to make payroll. The same questions are on everyone’s mind: will big givers continue to step up in this time of crisis? Will the markets decline sharply and thereby decrease the value of institutional endowment funds along with donor portfolios? As one federation executive put it: “We constantly debate whether this crisis is like an asteroid hitting earth or more like a sustained series of snow days.”

There have been real losses. And institutional executives are anxious. But what emerges even more definitively from interviews and my study of Jewish media from around the country is a dramatically different story, one that ought to prompt considerable rethinking about the actual state of organized Jewish life in this country.

 

To understand current conditions, a brief overview of the Jewish communal map is in order. Organized Jewish life in the United States is a welter of institutions and agencies without centralized coordination. Many were established by successive waves of Jewish immigrants to address their own needs or by “native” Jews who sought to help newcomers adapt to the American environment. Scattered over a wide geographic expanse and splintered into multiple groupings, American Jewry has been difficult to unify. Already over 100 years ago, Louis Marshall, a prominent New York Jewish leader, pledged to “get order out of chaos,” and promptly created still another organization. Since that time, the number of Jewish organizations has grown dramatically.

To bring some conceptual order out of the institutional hodgepodge, it is useful to classify Jewish agencies by sector: synagogues and denominational organizations operate in the religious sphere; other institutions primarily offer educational programming; then there are the agencies engaged in Jewish defense against anti-Semitism through advocacy and the formation of alliances with non-Jews at home and abroad; still another sector channels aid to impoverished Jews in other lands and supports Israeli institutions; finally, but hardly the least important, human-service agencies address the most basic survival needs, such as food and shelter, and also vocational or psychological counseling required by Jews and others.

Further complicating the picture, many organizations straddle several, if not all, of these sectors. Chief among them are federations of Jewish philanthropy located in 134 localities and regions across the U.S. There isn’t any uniformity in what federations do: some aim to be the central address for Jewish life in their community by virtue of their fundraising prowess and annual financial allocations to their partner “agencies.” These types of federations also provide time-limited grants to local institutions they deem worthy, such as day schools or experimental programs to engage millennials. At the other extreme, some federations no longer offer sustained support for local agencies but rather allocate grants to address what they perceive to be the great challenges facing Jewish life. Between these lie federations ranging over a spectrum: some are legally integrated with other key local institutions, such as Jewish Community Centers (JCCs) and human-service agencies, and others are in communities devoid of these types of Jewish institutions. Federations also differ in size and influence, depending on the population of Jews they serve.

Though some federations operate specific programs of their own, most work on the local level is conducted by agencies. Among the largest of these are human-services agencies, such as residences for senior citizens and rehab centers, mental-health counseling and vocational training programs, and food-distribution outlets. Most of the funding for these services comes from government grants supplemented by federation allocations and individual financial contributions. Depending on local circumstances, the majority of beneficiaries of this aid may not be Jewish but are supported nonetheless because governmental funding is conditioned on providing services to all comers and also because many Jewish supporters want to see their grants used to help both Jews and Gentiles. Other institutions on the local levels may include synagogues, Jewish day schools, cultural settings, and JCCs which tend to offer Jews and Gentiles alike recreational opportunities, early childhood programs, and day camps.

Operating almost entirely off this grid, a host of groups provide aid to Orthodox Jews, mainly to those in the more self-isolating enclaves. These various ḥesed or benevolent efforts range from kosher soup kitchens and pantries to mental-health support services, from aid to the bereaved to funds covering the costs of weddings. Masbia, a kosher food-distribution program in three New York City locations, for example, now serves 40,000 people weekly, and has seen the number of newcomers rise by 1,000 percent during the health crisis. Similar ḥesed efforts exist in all communities with a critical mass of impoverished Orthodox Jews. And parallel programs are run by Syrian, Iranian, Bukharan, and other Sephardi Jews to help needy members of their own communities in a dignified fashion.

Beginning in the closing years of the last century, a host of new groups emerged, primarily to address the populations of Gen Xers and millennials. Among the most prominent of these are the network of nearly 90 Moishe Houses throughout the United States, literally private homes that serve as centers for Jews in their twenties to gather and to form communities. Other startups engage younger Jews in service or volunteer activities. Many dozens of additional Jewish startups provide support to Jews who felt marginalized due to their sexual orientation, Jews who have left Orthodox enclaves, Jews of color, and unaffiliated Jews, especially younger ones; others focus on ecology and environmental activism, the study of Jewish texts, spirituality and meditation, Jewish music and the arts, and explorations of Israeli culture.

Virtually all local agencies are connected to national umbrella organizations whose purpose is to gather and to share information with constituents about best practices and important new developments affecting their sector, and also to represent their constituents at gatherings with counterparts working in other faith communities or non-sectarian agencies. The largest of these is the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the umbrella organization for local federations. There are separate umbrella groups for local human-services agencies, elder facilities, local Jewish community relations groups, Jewish Community Centers, Jewish day schools, summer camps, most synagogues, major funders, and also startups. The two oldest Jewish defense organizations, the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) operate field offices throughout the country and abroad.

Not to be overlooked are organizations supporting relief and other efforts internationally. The oldest of these is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), the major arm of American Jews aiding impoverished coreligionists in communities around the globe. Dozens of “friends of” Israeli institutions raise funds in North America. Birthright Israel thus far has sent over 750,000 college-aged and recent graduates from around the globe on free ten-day trips to Israel, a different kind of international Jewish enterprise. And then there also are advocacy groups, such as the America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), non-sectarian domestic lobbies, largely but not exclusively supported by Jews.

Does American Jewry need so many organizations? Do they duplicate each other’s efforts? Can those few individuals and institutions with philanthropic means continue to sustain these institutions, their overheads, and their staffs? These questions have not surfaced suddenly during the present pandemic. Concerns about duplicated efforts have been raised repeatedly at least since the 1950s. Not a few commentators view the COVID crisis as an opportunity to reimagine Jewish organizational life, but that discussion is largely separate from the issue at hand: what is the condition of Jewish communal institutions during the current state of emergency?

 

 

Let’s begin with a few broad generalizations about the effects of the pandemic. Institutions dependent on payment for services are the most endangered. Hardest hit in the short-term have been JCCs: those required to keep their workout rooms and pools closed have seen a steep decline in revenues; even JCCs running day camps and teen programs during the summer were forced to limit enrollments severely, with the consequence that they could collect only a fraction of their normal fees. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, JCCs collectively employed nearly 55,000 full-time and part-time employees (including seasonal ones at camps). According to one informed estimate, at least half of these employees have already suffered the loss or reduction of their jobs.

Senior communities are also struggling. With all the bad news about COVID-related deaths in elder facilities, it’s been hard to recruit seniors to enter those facilities as new admissions. Moreover, the costs of caring for the elderly have increased significantly because senior communities have had to invest in capital improvements in order to retrofit their space in ways that mitigate against coronavirus infections, and that latter expense is on top of large sums spent on personal protective equipment for their staffers. With most elective surgeries curtailed, rehabilitation facilities also have attracted little new business.

It’s still unclear how other institutions relying on fees or tuition will fare over the longer term. The 2020 season at almost all Jewish residential summer camps was a washout, leaving them in need of support to get through to the next camping season. The future of synagogues is also a matter of much speculation, especially because most did not offer in-person services on the High Holy Days. Will congregants pay membership dues when they can join any synagogue’s virtual services for free? Educational institutions also are in flux this fall, with some having opened for in-person learning and others offering only virtual classes. Data have not yet been compiled systematically on enrollment numbers.

The prospects of institutions during the ongoing crisis also depend on their financial condition prior to the outbreak. Those institutions with significant debt loads will find it hard to make their payments, especially if they are not collecting fees. Summer camps and day schools with large mortgages will be hard-pressed. Convinced that it would be too great a communal loss if a local day school, residential summer camp, JCC, or campus Hillel goes under, many of the larger federations have raised special COVID relief funds to sustain these institutions. Other federation leaders, though, have made clear to distressed institutions that they will only offer financial aid after substantial sums have been raised from individual donors. The full impact is therefore unknown.

If some sectors are on shaky grounds, human-services agencies have actually seen their funding increase during this time because it is widely recognized that their programs are needed more than ever. In many communities, there is a greater demand for kosher food deliveries, especially from Orthodox Jews and Holocaust survivors. With the sheltering rules in place, people could not get to soup kitchens or food pantries. Human-service agencies organized many more home deliveries than in the pre-COVID period. There is little doubt that mental-health counseling is needed by more people as is help for victims of domestic violence, the prevalence of which is on the rise. With widespread layoffs, vocational support is also much in demand. Overall, executives at human-services agencies report calls for assistance have more than doubled during the crisis. Though government funds may be cut as states and municipalities adapt to shrinking tax receipts, federations have stepped up their allocations to these agencies and individual donors also have increased their gifts.

Beneficiaries of multiyear grants prior to the outbreak also are currently secure. Thus far, foundations and other donors have not reneged on their commitments. To the contrary, eighteen of the largest foundations supporting mainly Jewish causes issued a public letter in mid-March, just as the virus began to spread in this country, promising to honor pledges of funding, to be sympathetic when asked by grantees for permission to repurpose funds, and to adjust their expectations about reporting requirements and other time-consuming demands.

Thanks to their nimbleness and the support of major foundations, a number of startups actually have expanded their operations during the pandemic, rather than pulled back. Moishe Houses have shifted their offerings from in-person gatherings to virtual ones. Online participation in their programs is strong and their leaders report a pent-up demand building for the social contact and Jewish content they will again offer once they reopen. Even during the crisis, a few additional Moishe Houses or smaller “pods” were established.

Led by an organization named Repair the World, some 35 startups, federations, foundations, and long-established organizations joined together to encourage college-age and twentysomething Jews to engage in volunteer activities during the summer when students were not in school. The goal was to spur some 100,000 acts of service between July 8 and August 7 performed by tens of thousands of young people. “Mobilizing a national service movement for Jewish young adults can play a critical role in helping Jewish life to persist and flourish through these uncertain and challenging times,” stated the president of Hillel International.

Another startup, OneTable, focused in the pre-coronavirus era on sponsoring homebased Friday night Shabbat dinners for millennials. One might have imagined this formula would not work during a health crisis, but OneTable changed its policies to support even one- or two-person dinners. “The number of dinners is up, but the number of seats is down,” reports the head of OneTable. Recognizing unprecedented needs, the organization has vastly expanded its efforts in new directions. It produced a Haggadah that was used by 36,000 Jews and had 50,000 page-views during Passover 2020. With financial support from a foundation, it opened its online platform to a range of groups participating in a ten-day Great Jewish Food Fest, a series of programs on all things related to Jewish food, including how-to advice from leading chefs and authorities on Jewish culinary arts. The Fest attracted 50,000 visitors to its online offerings. OneTable then shared its online platform for a new website called Herefor.com, which ran from the onset of the month of Elul (August 21) through the conclusion of Sukkot with the goal of offering resources and spiritual nourishment during the fall holiday. All this happened, as it did with the Food Fest, in partnership with local, national, and international organizations.

To be sure, these organizations have the advantage of not being dependent upon fees for their services. They also have grasped the opportunity to recreate themselves as platforms. For over a decade, Internet cognoscenti have urged Jewish communal institutions to take advantage of new opportunities provided by the medium to share programs and resources with each other and with a widely dispersed Jewish population. The health crisis has accelerated and increased collaborations. But the shift has not been limited to the startup sphere. All three of the efforts just cited involve partnerships between establishment and startup organizations. Indeed, even the highly traditional human-services sector is adapting to the breakdown of once-high barriers. For example, mental-health counseling offered by Jewish family services programs are seeing people from one part of the country join online group-therapy sessions in a completely different geographic area. Some of the boundaries between Jewish organizations are collapsing, a reality embraced by more institutions than before the outbreak.

Two additional factors are affecting the fortunes of organizations. For one thing, institutions with endowments have access to emergency rainy-day funds. A small number of synagogues have significant endowments, as do some of the older Jewish agencies, including federations. Most endowments are earmarked for specific purposes, but donors may give permission to repurpose a portion of their gifts to help institutions sustain themselves. Finally, the ability to shift from in-person to online or phone meetings is affecting how institutions are adapting during the crisis. Where work can proceed only in person, institutions have been hard hit. Where programming can continue through communications technology, organizations are managing remotely. In many cases, they report that more people than ever before are connecting to their programs and services.

 

The early forecasts that the decline of Jewish communal institutions would only accelerate under the strains of the pandemic are, for the most part, not supported by what’s actually happening on the ground in Jewish America. In fact, these combined factors have brought about a remarkable reversal in the fortunes of many of the organizations forming the so-called Jewish establishment. Since the early years of this century, older “legacy organizations” have been dismissed as “so 20th century,” as dinosaurs no longer suited to address present-day realities. Chief among these are the large defense organizations. Demands for such groups to merge or disband their operation have recurred over the past 70 years—until anti-Semitism surged over the past decade and suddenly the doubters recognized their indispensability. Meanwhile, the AJC, ADL, and local community-relations groups have soldiered on despite the coronavirus, continuing their advocacy, lobbying, and educational activities—and they have been rewarded by donors eager to support them.

Legacy institutions have other important assets to help them through the COVID-19 crisis. For one thing, they have been supported for years by dedicated, deep-pocketed funders who value their work. (This also is true of many organizations channeling financial contributions to Israeli institutions—research centers, hospitals, universities, religious learning programs, and cultural centers.) Though some significant donors have suffered financial setbacks, many more are stepping up their support. Some organizations also own the buildings they occupy, thereby eliminating the danger of not being able to pay rent. Legacy institutions also have a track record of responding to communal needs, especially during times of crisis. Donors tend to value these traits and are more likely to continue supporting established institutions to help them survive. As one federation executive aptly put it, “when there are big challenges, people turn to the big organizations.”

No organization is better positioned to respond during crises than the local Jewish philanthropic federations. Federations repeatedly have served as central mobilizing agencies during domestic catastrophes facing Jewish communities, most recently channeling aid to New Orleans and Houston when those cities were hit by hurricanes, and even more often to raise large sums for Israel at times of war or the resettlement of Jews from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia. During the current crisis, federations have organized the delivery of food to shut-in seniors, galvanized volunteers to place weekly phone calls asking community members how they are managing and gathering information on their needs, and launched special coronavirus-relief campaigns in some communities or reallocated funds to provide for  seniors, the unemployed, the disabled, immigrants, and others who have been especially hard hit. Federations also have convened community leaders on a weekly basis to share information and encourage them to work collaboratively to address specific issues. A number of federations not only bolstered financial support to human-service agencies, they also transferred funds to congregational rabbis for distribution to people who are embarrassed to seek help from other agencies. (This practice had begun in some communities during the Great Recession and was revived during pandemic.)

Federation leaders report on new alliances with leaders in their communities who in the past had no interest in collaboration but now have come around after seeing the value of joint communal efforts. This is especially true of Orthodox and Chabad rabbis. Interviewees report that the latter now have joined task forces and agree to sit at the same table with other communal leaders they previously had held at arm’s length. At least to date, a new spirit of cooperation and sharing has surfaced. As one federation executive explained, various participants see “fewer barriers to leverag[ing] each other’s assets during the crisis.” As for the federations themselves, “more are trying to behave like partners, rather than as big brothers.”

Online technologies have been critically important in the work of local federations. Many of the larger ones run a variety of educational and self-help programs online in order to lift morale among the wider Jewish population and to help people feel connected to one another. In an intermediate-size community, a federation executive expressed her joy at seeing 800 people join a weekly Zoom program every Friday, featuring all the rabbis in town as speakers. These communal events, in turn, have inspired synagogues to organize their own online programming cooperatively. In the judgment of one federation head, the crisis “has brought the community together and with each sect of the community there also is a coming together.” Another federation executive said of her community: the current situation “has forced a very divided and competitive community to collaborate in new ways. And it solidified the place of the federation in the community. Suddenly, other Jewish leaders could understand the need for the federation.”

How long federations will benefit from this heightened level of appreciation is anyone’s guess. Some insiders cite previous crises in which communities pulled together but once normalcy was restored, federations once again lost their luster. A skeptical federation executive likened his organization to a firehouse: “people want to see it there when it’s needed.” But once the danger has passed, federations may be taken for granted once again. Others are more upbeat because “people in the community probably know more about the federation than before and appreciate it more.”

The spirit of collaboration has extended beyond local communities in the form of national initiatives. It should not go unremarked that the largest foundations with an interest in Jewish life created the Jewish Community Impact and Response Fund’s (JCRIF) Aligned Grant Program to shore up some of the most endangered institutions—day schools, Hillels, and Jewish residential camps. Though the sums contributed are dwarfed by the expected needs, the act itself has symbolized new levels of collaboration. Some local federations also shared resources with their counterparts in novel ways. The New York UJA-Federation organized several events for its higher-end donors to hear from celebrities via Zoom or streaming video. In an unusual step, these  programs were also made available to other federations around the country for their own $10,000-and-up annual givers. Soon, other federations joined together to share the costs of online educational and entertainment events, programs individual federations would not have been able to afford on their own.

That spirit of collaboration was modeled by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), an umbrella group that has emerged during the crisis as a widely acknowledged leader. By early March, the JFNA “shifted into war mode,” notes one well-informed insider. By the second week of that month, it convened weekly meetings with different groups of professionals at federations—such as CEOs, planners, and development personnel—to compare notes. Soon thereafter it formed a new coalition, including the heads of major umbrella organizations, such as the ones for camps, Hillels, the religious denominations, and startups, to ensure they would be in regular contact to share information.

When Congress began to formulate the CARES Act, the JFNA together with the largest federations worked collaboratively with other American organizations for the inclusion of not-for-profits in the Payroll Protection Program (PPP) and to obtain personal protective equipment for those working in high-risk settings. Once the bill was signed, the JFNA ran a series of webinars, posted information on its website, and ran a 24-hour hotline to help any interested institution learn how to apply for the government aid. One estimate has put the number of institutional leaders who partook of the webinars at 10,000. As much as a half-billion dollars in PPP loans was secured by Jewish organizations. When asked, interviewees at all levels of Jewish organizational life credited that JFNA’s efforts regarding the CARES Act and noted that non-sectarian and non-Jewish religious groups also partook of the JFNA’s educational webinars.

The alacrity with which the JFNA responded to the crisis, has received high, if not superlative reviews, not only from federation executives, but also from Jewish communal leaders in other sectors. Equally lauded was the JFNA’s work to bring communal leaders together in separate interest groups for regular consultations. Without diminishing the work of the organization, we note that the COVID crisis has provided the JFNA with an unusual opportunity. As an umbrella organization, it has struggled over the years to reach into communities without intruding upon the prerogatives and plans of local agencies. Thus far, it has succeeded in providing help, mainly in the form of guidance, information, and coalition building, without competing with those agencies. This has been the JFNA’s moment and it has not disappointed.

 

To be sure, not everything in communal life has unfolded without a hitch. As noted, some institutions are struggling with uncertainty and have been forced to lay off personnel. Many staffers were required to take pay cuts, even though they are working harder, for longer hours, and for some, under circumstances that require them to juggle their work with childcare and homeschooling. With most Jewish not-for-profits operating online and from home, it has become more difficult to draw boundaries between work and family obligations, and staff members complain that they are expected to be on call at all hours. New technologies have made it feasible for much of the work to proceed remotely, though the unending series of online meetings leave staff members hungering for companionship and social interaction in person. Employers, in turn, are hardly oblivious of how the current work environment may adversely affect staff morale.

Though most organizations have made it through the fiscal year that ended on June 30 relatively unscathed, budgets for the 2021 fiscal year are uncertain. Not only is the economic situation going forward unclear, organizations dependent on event-based fundraising—e.g., dinners featuring honorees and other in-person social gatherings—don’t know whether donors will give generously in the absence of peer influences. Many institutions are developing contingency plans depending on how the situation unfolds in the months to come. Both the JFNA and the Jewish Funders Network have produced resources to aid institutions and funders engage in scenario planning, a process designed to anticipate different ways their finances may be affected—including worst case developments— and how their leadership might respond.

Nor has Jewish communal life been immune from the hyper-partisan strife wracking American society overall. Some organizations report continued pressure even during this crisis by proponents of diametrically opposed political views who demand that non-partisan agencies take sides. In some cases, organizations are whipsawed between big givers demanding conflicting policy statements. Fortunately, some organizations report a lessening of such demands as funders realize how severely political wrangling can undermine communal responses to the coronavirus. In places where this understanding has not taken hold, the question remains whether Jewish institutions have the bandwidth to respond to both the political whirlwind of our time and also the enduring needs of the Jewish community, made all the more pressing by the circumstances of the pandemic.

Yet with all these complications, the work of Jewish communal agencies has proceeded relatively smoothly, and in some cases it has even expanded. Organizations of all kinds have pivoted to ensure the delivery of their services. Many have adapted rapidly to new technologies for internal collaboration and for reaching their clients. Credit for this shift goes both to professional staffers and also to board members. Regarding the latter, several organizational leaders commented on how board meetings are attracting every board member, an attendance rate and level of engagement unmatched previously. For their part, deep-pocketed donors have also rallied. Some federations and other organizations have contacted significant donors to ask for funding above their normal gifts, with generous results.

Rather than lead to ruthless competition between Jewish agencies, COVID-19 thus far has produced unprecedented forms of cooperation. Jewish professionals at different organizations are meeting regularly to share information and discuss ways to cooperate. An experienced communal professional noted “a change in mindset toward greater collaboration, a freer exchange of ideas and thinking in a more open-minded way to share opportunities. This could have happened in the past, but the motivation now is new. This may continue,” he adds hopefully, “even when people will meet again in person.” In short, barriers to mutual support are falling.

So too are boundaries that have riven establishment and startup organizations into mutually suspicious rival camps. It’s an open question whether these two sectors were ever as sharply set apart as some have contended. Major Jewish organizations have been funding innovation internally and have formed partnerships with startups for years. With the passage of time, the laws of generational succession have prevailed: young people eventually supplant their elders. That happened when Baby Boomers eventually led the very organizations they had bitterly criticized in the 1960s. It’s happening again in our own time when Jewish institutions are recruiting Gen-Xers and millennials to assume positions of authority. The future belongs to the younger generations who are gradually taking on leadership positions in establishment organizations and are remaking them in accordance with their own sensibilities and innovative impulses. In contrast to the dour forecasts of some observers, there is considerable evidence that even with all the serious challenges, Jewish communal life during the coronavirus crisis serves as a case study, not of dysfunction, but in communal resilience.

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More about: American Judaism, Coronavirus, Politics & Current Affairs