By Shira Ruderman
With Birthright trips cancelled, JCCs and synagogues closed, and day schools and summer camps facing an uncertain future, the Jewish community is firmly in the grips of the COVID-19 mayhem.
But as the proverb goes, necessity is the mother of invention. The Jewish community is adapting and finding ways to keep Jewish life relevant, as was evident in the various online initiatives for Passover and the Seder nights. This new reality provides a chance to envision how the current challenges can reshape the Jewish future.
Leveraging digital tools in the workplace
Our foundation’s weekly staff meeting formerly consisted of a conference call between two rooms, one in Israel and the other in Boston. Last year, we added a staffer in Washington, D.C. Now, our employees connect from 16 locations. This is not unique. The pandemic forced many organizations to move from the physical space to the digital environment.
This transition may prove particularly central in the American Jewish community’s evolving relationship with Israel. Many Israeli government offices and Jewish organizations have now learned to more efficiently incorporate conference calls and digital programming, in the interest of bridging the gaps of distance and now, office closures.
When video conferences become a familiar and comfortable way of communication – if that is not already the case thanks to COVID-19 – they can create unprecedented closeness between the American and Israeli Jewish communities, especially when it comes to collaboration among nonprofits.
Strengthening online education
Jewish educational institutions were among the first affected by mandated social distancing, and they are likely to be hit hard in the coming months and years. But while day schools and JCCs have been forced to shut their physical doors, they have created meaningful Jewish content that is readily accessible online.
Even when schools reopen, hundreds of thousands of people can benefit from these new materials. This includes the vast majority of American Jewish children who do not attend day schools and families who are unable to afford Jewish education because of the approaching economic crisis..
American Jewry can look to Israel in the collective Jewish communal quest to bolster online education. Working together, the world’s two largest Jewish population centers can combine their resources with governmental initiatives headed by Israel’s Ministry of Education and Ministry of Diaspora Affairs. America’s local and national Jewish organizations have significant experience developing materials that are suitable for their communities, while Israeli government offices know how to create the infrastructure needed to reach and teach millions of students.
Moving the gap year closer to home
For years, the American Jewish community has used informal education to instill and strengthen Jewish identity. But coronavirus threatens to cancel summer camps, youth movements, and various other platforms that cultivate Jewish identity for the foreseeable future. At the same time, tens of thousands of young Jews are still looking for meaningful identity-building experiences. The Jewish community must not leave them behind.
Imagine if, instead of a gap year overseas, high school graduates took a year to volunteer at a local hospital, Jewish kindergarten, or facility for people with disabilities. All of these experiences embody the Jewish vision of tikkun olam. Today, 18-year-olds hope to travel to Ethiopia, Nepal, or other countries in their search to repair the world. Others spend their time in Israel. With international travel drastically reduced, the Jewish community needs to create alternatives closer to home.
The paradigm exists. In Israel, many teenagers take a year after high school to participate in a shnat sherut (year of service) – and very few of them serve overseas. American Jewry can adapt this model to its needs, finding ways to engage Jewish young adults through domestic service-learning opportunities.
Establishing stronger community safety nets
Coronavirus has exposed the vulnerability of parents and grandparents. It has also highlighted how younger people are eager to support the elderly – and not only their family members – in a variety of ways.
If this sense of collective responsibility is to continue in a post-pandemic environment, communal planning needs to reflect its importance. Large community organizations should think how they can address the various needs of their constituents in the long run, not only during times of crisis. This could include encouraging kindergartens to share campuses with nursing homes or supporting community-oriented small businesses such as kosher restaurants.
Sooner or later, the current crisis will make way for a more permanent new normal. When that day comes, we will need to rebuild a vibrant and flourishing Jewish community. To succeed then, we must start planning now.
Shira Ruderman is the Executive Director of the Ruderman Family Foundation.