Moving Forward From Crisis: Strengthening Jewish Communities During COVID-19

Small flower growing through a crack in pavement

July 23, 2020

  • Jewish Community
  • COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought suffering on a massive scale in the Jewish community and across our country, exacerbating societal inequities we long knew existed but have not adequately addressed.

While we are living through a deeply painful time, many of the challenges we face are not insurmountable. In fact, the current moment presents new opportunities to accelerate change, lift up fresh approaches and voices, and reimagine Jewish life for the future. I believe that if we work together with humility and creativity, we can forge from the crucible of this crisis a 21st century Jewish community that is stronger, more inclusive and more relevant than ever before.

I recently spoke at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington Annual Meeting about opportunities to reinvent and reinvigorate Jewish communities amidst this crisis. These are several of the ideas I shared, based on the inspiring work I have seen across the Jewish world:

1. Lean into the fact that boundaries are dissolving. We are seeing for the first time what it looks like to transcend traditional boundaries and silos of Jewish engagement. A multiplicity of ways to learn and engage from home, without the need for travel or a particular membership, has created a low barrier to entry and an explosion of participation.

One of the most powerful outcomes of this pandemic has been the influx of innovative digital programming, which is attracting tens of thousands of Jews, many for the first time. For Shavuot, I stayed up until the wee hours with Reboot’s Dawn Festival. Other outstanding examples of Jewish community-building taking place online are Saturday Night Seder, Great Jewish Food Fest, Moishe House’s Expedition Nai, BBYO On Demand and Hillel@Home. The best talent and content are rising to the top and reaching more people than ever before. Jewish organizations should continue to take advantage of these exciting opportunities that were previously unimaginable, ones that cut across geographical, denominational and institutional boundaries.

2. Focus on preserving our assets, not necessarily our institutions. We need to hone in on the assets we have and how they align with what our communities actually need. Rather than preserving every single institution, we can leverage our shared assets—our best leadership and talent, top quality content and programming, and our buildings—to make the most of what we already have and emerge even stronger. We should reassess the functions, services and content Jewish people want and need and then deliver those in new, relevant and user-centric ways.

For example, we can repurpose buildings into shared spaces, redesign how we celebrate the holidays and lifecycle events, and embrace the digital revolution so that we can produce and share the best content from Jewish communities across the country and around the world. Many organizations are already beginning this work. JCCs are offering workspace to nonprofits and synagogues who are letting go of their buildings or leases. Likewise, OneTable is using its Shabbat digital platform to help organizations and individuals organize shared meals during the holidays. The more we focus on preserving assets rather than individual institutions, the more sustainable our offerings will be.

3. Create a more inclusive and equitable community. A recent survey of Jewish communal stakeholders revealed a fear that, due to new priorities, the recent progress we have made to center diversity, equity and inclusion will come to a halt. We cannot let this happen. All Jews stood together at Sinai. Our diversity is our strength, and everyone will benefit when our community is truly inclusive and equitable to all. We need to ensure that everyone who wants to be part of the Jewish people feels welcome, safe, respected and treated fairly. Women, Jews of Color, LGBTQ people, people with disabilities—all those who have been marginalized—need to have their voices heard and have a seat at the table as leaders and equals.

Organizations like the SRE Network have been driving conversations about gender equity in the Jewish community. SRE recently held its third annual convening, which shined a spotlight on the urgent need to advance safety and equity for all amid the pandemic and the national reckoning with racism. The Jews of Color Initiative is serving as a leading voice on racial equity in the Jewish community and building out the field of support for Jews of Color. They recently launched an emergency relief fund to help people of color in the Jewish community affected by COVID-19. To harness the talents and passion of all those in our rich Jewish tapestry, we need to bring an equity lens to all of our efforts now, and moving forward.

4. Leverage our impact through collaboration. Jewish funders and organizations are recognizing that real change requires collaboration. An example is eight foundations coming together to establish the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), which is providing more than $91 million in interest-free loans and aligned grants to support the infrastructure of Jewish life across the U.S. While no one organization alone can meet the enormous needs of the Jewish community during this crisis, together we can accomplish much more.

Another example is the Serve the Moment initiative, powered by Repair the World and launched by the Jewish Service Alliance, a new coalition of 30 national and local organizations. Together, they are mobilizing thousands of young Jewish adults across the country who have lost their internships, jobs or college plans to volunteer and serve those in need. We must continue to identify opportunities to work together to keep our communities safe and strong, even if that means operating differently than we have in the past.

The road ahead is long and steep. We will face more uncertainty and painful choices. But we can seize this moment to reshape a more vibrant, meaningful Jewish life.

If we design creatively, work collaboratively and position ourselves sustainably, we can reach far more people with far more impact. If we move forward with a clear vision—and without ego—we can create Jewish communities centered around our core values and true purpose as a global Jewish people: ensuring everyone is treated with dignity and respect, pursuing justice and making the world a better place.

Lisa Eisen Profile Image
Lisa Eisen

Co-President, Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies