COVID-19 and the American Jewish Economic Crisis

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

American Jewry is facing a financial and structural crisis. The economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic will be devastating to the American Jewish communal system and of immediate concern to a significant number of Jewish families and seniors. The longer this crisis continues, the broader and more destructive the impact will be on our communal and religious enterprise!

The immediate concern must be for vulnerable families and seniors as income streams are frozen and as communal resources diminish. The longer-term realities would suggest an economic tsunami that will be both wide and deep, affecting broad segments of the Jewish institutional landscape and placing substantial pressure on the core resources of our fundraising and foundation networks.[1]

Although there is no way to know the full social and fiscal impact of this crisis, initial reports from family service providers, Jewish free loan administrators, Jewish educators, and rabbinic leaders suggest a broad and growing caseload of families and individuals in crisis. The range of needs will be extensive: individuals living in isolation, families reporting on domestic violence, households without the financial resources to meet food and shelter requirements.[2]

On the operational side, questions are arising about the economic viability of synagogues, schools, and camps. The Jewish social service safety net is being stretched with the dramatic rise in requests for clinical and health services, limited access to loans and grants, fewer resources to sustain counseling and meal programs, and the lack of availability of scholarships and financial assistance packages.

Pressures on the communal system will continue to accelerate over time as conditions deteriorate. As we enter the month of April, economists will have their first opportunity to evaluate how extensive the financial dislocation may be as they monitor whether institutions and families are able to meet their monthly payments.

On the professional side, we will likely experience significant job displacement. Institutional reductions in services and programs will be extensive, and the permanent closing of buildings and other communal resources will be devastating. In the aftermath of this pandemic, we are likely to observe a number of institutional mergers and the realignment of organizational missions.

In particular, the future of Jewish camping, the viability of many synagogues and schools, and the well-being of some of our social service agencies will be threatened. The scope of financial resources that will likely be required to “save” the number of “in trouble” organizations, agencies, camps, schools, and synagogues is simply beyond the reach of Jewish funders.

As Jewish foundations and funders nationally and locally seek to mobilize their resources, the economic spread appears to be expanding experientially.[3] Indeed, over the past several weeks, the array of articles found on this site describe the human and institutional challenges facing both this country and beyond.

Following this extraordinary moment in time, we will see profound changes in the Jewish world. A wide swath of our communal and religious systems are likely to come undone by this experience! Yehuda Kurtzer writes about the new American Jewish reality in the aftermath of this moment.[4]

Here, one needs to look at various historical models to gain some helpful insights. In her research on New York Jews and the Great Depression, Beth Wenger provides an important perspective on the economic, social, and political changes that resulted.[5]

As with the 2008 economic recession,[6] we will likely see a fundamental downsizing of the American Jewish community. At that time, I wrote:

The full impact of the current economic crisis may not be felt for years. In the midst of it, core institutions are being fundamentally reshaped and individual lifestyles reconstructed. These economic challenges threaten the existing infrastructure of the American Jewish community, leading to a new order of institutions and leaders. …For many older Jews, many of their core institutional patterns of personal engagement have been altered. For younger Jews, the dislocations may foster opportunities for further experimentation and disengagement from traditional patterns. The long-term outcome of this transformation is likely to be a far weaker, less cohesive American Jewish community.”

What possibly is more debilitating than previous economic reversals is the current reality that the institutions of our community are financially and programmatically limited, and in some cases, unable to operate during this pandemic shutdown. At the moment we are in essence “frozen in place.”[7]

In responding to these emergency and long-term financial needs, can we expect a nationally driven and locally managed effort to mobilize our communal resources?

We will see profound changes in the Jewish world following this extraordinary moment in time. When our communities return to this new normalcy, we will be inheriting a weakened and financially compromised communal infrastructure.[8]

Adding to this level of uncertainty, during the next several years, it is conceivable we will experience other “waves” of COVID-19 and/or the possibilities of other pandemic conditions.

Five Projections:

Financial Dislocation: With the economy in a fundamental free-fall, one can expect the closure of certain businesses, the downsizing of others, and the subsequent loss of jobs. In the aftermath of this pandemic, there will be a major restructuring of the American economy. All of this will have a significant and long- term impact on the Jewish community. More directly, we are likely to see a whole new class of Jewish families adversely affected. This event may well change America and its economic infrastructure.

TheNewAmerican Jewish Community: It is possible that in the aftermath of this phenomenon, we might see a fundamental reorganization of the core functions of our Jewish communal system.

Generations: Consider that millennials and Gen Z have already encountered in their lives the 2008 financial crisis and now this pandemic; their lives will be forever shaped by these two experiences. By comparison, our grandparents were affected by the Great Depression; in its aftermath, these transformative events frame how a generation thinks and behaves.

Virtual Tools as the New Reality: We now know that virtual technology will become a central and fixed organizing tool for learning, shopping, engaging, and praying! “We are witnessing in some measure the best of society and of this sector. With great speed, we have already been able to document an explosion in online services, programs, and resources and the personal networks of friendship and support that have emerged.”[9]

Religious/Communal Revival: Are we likely to see a bump-up in religious participation and communal engagement?After previous crises in American history (for example, the Civil War and World War Two), America experienced an uptake in religious and civic engagement. In the aftermath of this period of isolation and separation, will Americans seek to reconnect with one another and join their fellow citizens in such public expressions of community?

A Final Note:

This moment marks a new American Jewish reality. In these challenging times, we will see a fundamental economic restructuring of the communal enterprise, just as we will experience the reshaping of our larger social networks, our systems of practice, and our focus on a different political environment.[10]

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. His writings can be found on the

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