As Our Eyes Adjust

By Doron Krakow

Plunged into sudden darkness, we’re lost. We’re accustomed to being able to see and interpret nearly everything around us and become unsettled, even in familiar surroundings, when the lights go out. Darkness unnerves us, and we need time to recover our bearings. 

It’s been roughly 150 days since COVID brought on the darkness, triggering wholesale closures across the Jewish community. JCCs, synagogues, summer camps, Hillels, day schools, organizational offices, just about everything. With little warning and no recent experience, we had no contingency plans at the ready. Not since the Spanish Flu of the early 20th century had we faced a public health crisis of this scale and magnitude. 

Months later there remains tremendous uncertainty with regard to what the future will hold. Five months back? We hadn’t the vaguest idea what to expect. We grew anxious. Concerned for loved ones. For jobs. And the sirens… It was as if we’d entered a long, dark tunnel with no idea how far we’d need to go to get to the other end.

For days, even weeks, it was more about standing still while we strained to get our bearings. At work, we devoted our energies to cancellations. Conferences, galas, meetings and trips. Before long – an entire summer season. One by one, they disappeared into the darkness and we despaired of our growing losses – lost experiences, lost opportunities, lost revenue, lost time. The darkness seemed to deepen while the unknown and unfamiliar struck fear in our hearts. It’s not just kids who can be afraid of the dark.

But something else inevitably happens after the lights go out. Little by little our eyes adjust, and we begin to understand our surroundings and recover our balance. We remember we’re not alone.

Though the length of this dark tunnel is no clearer now than it was at the beginning, we’ve grown increasingly adept at navigating it. Offices remain closed but we figured out new ways of working together, remotely. On-line programs and strategies have made it possible to engage both longstanding and new constituencies as we teach and learn, tour and guide, mourn and celebrate in ways that would have been inconceivable not long ago. 

In the darkness we slashed budgets and cut thousands of jobs. But as our eyes adjusted, we discovered a huge new pool of potential talent from which we might draw to overcome the dearth of early childcare educators and social service staff. In the darkness we were alone – every institution and organization fending for itself, but as our eyes adjusted, we noticed partners and allies where previously we had seen competition. In the darkness we closed facilities and shuddered buildings, but as our eyes adjusted some began to reopen, and we saw opportunities to plan, together, and maximize our ability to serve beleaguered families and communities.

Every day, our experience as a Jewish community grows as do our insights into how to do better. More and more we’re sharing our wisdom and our experience. We’ve joined hands to plan and prioritize through frameworks like #JewishTogether. Only days into the darkness, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation lit a torch for our overnight camps, announcing a $10 million matching grant program that stimulated gifts from nearly 7,000 new contributors helping hundreds of camps in the face of a lost summer. A dozen major foundations came together to establish the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF), to provide more than $90 million in interest free loans and grants to Jewish organizations and institutions in need. Repair the World launched a framework to inspire 100,000 acts of service the early months of the pandemic. JPRO Network and Leading Edge created RISE to assist and support thousands of newly unemployed.

We found ways to support seniors and others at-risk by preparing and delivering meals and supplies. We reopened our facilities to provide childcare for the children of essential workers. Newly formed medical advisory committees and in consultation with public health authorities helped develop guidelines that have enabled us to reopen growing number of institutions and facilities – including more than 90% of JCCs in which we’ve invested millions to retrofit buildings and classrooms, making them safe. 

Yes. We’ve been hamstrung by the darkness – but we haven’t been blinded. Slowly, steadily, with increasing comfort and growing confidence we’re taking careful, cautious and determined steps forward.  Every step – every day, bringing us inexorably closer to the light at the end of this long, dark tunnel. The darkness remains, but we’re not as frightened as we used to be. One thing is certain, our world and our community will look very different when we get to the other side – and so will each of us. But, having struggled with both longstanding and newfound challenges – and having discovered previously unseen and unimagined possibilities, we may very well like what we see.

“For those who can see well in the darkness, there is no darkness and for those who cannot see well even in the light, there is no light! Neither darkness nor light but only your talents matter most!”
Mehmet Murat ildan

Doron Krakow is President and CEO, JCC Association of North America.