Fight for the Jewish Future, Not the Past

By Jay Ruderman and Shira Ruderman

Across the United States, Jewish institutions are fighting for their lives, with over 1,000 organizations applying for federal relief loans, the sum of which could be as high as $1.3 billion. There is no question that the American Jewish community as we know it is going through an unprecedented challenge which carries dire consequences.

However, as any businessman or investor knows, crisis is also the land of opportunity. As a community, U.S. Jews need to think about what will happen in two months, two years and two decades – because it is the future, not that past, that is most important.

The rapid spread of COVID-19 and its associated social restrictions has taken its toll. With every passing week, it becomes clear that there is a high cost to keeping society healthy. Although global financial markets have largely recovered from their sharpest fall since 2008, wealthy Americans remain fearful of renewed stock investing.

Coronavirus has stripped Jews of their social safety nets: the synagogues, community centers and other institutions which usually provide moral support. For the Jewish world, this is truly disastrous, as many communal institutions depend on participation and membership fees. Prizmah, the network for North American Jewish day schools, estimates that the damage for those schools could exceed $230 million in the next school year alone. Summer camps, senior care facilities, synagogues of all denominations and many other cornerstones of American Jewish life face the same threat.

But while each organization fights for its life on an individual level, umbrella groups and the philanthropic world have a different responsibility. Instead of fighting to preserve what was, they need to build what will be. Such a deep crisis presents a strategic opportunity for reinventing the way the Jewish community is built. This means adapting the activities of the community foundations established by previous generations for today and tomorrow, while considering whether organizations from previous centuries are still needed.

For-profit businesses constantly engage in self-reflection and self-improvement, as they seek to improve their working models and reach their key performance indicators (KPIs). Proven strategies during more normal times resonate even stronger during a crisis: cutting losses, reducing risk and finding innovative ways to keep a business relevant. In many ways, this mindset is the polar opposite of the organized Jewish community in the U.S., which almost always fears change. Merging organizations or restructuring their infrastructure are common practices in the business world that are rarely discussed in the Jewish world.

One example is the business model adopted by most synagogues, in which expensive property, paid clergy and high upkeep costs require congregants to pay substantial membership fees and make timely charitable contributions. While a 2015 decision by Michigan’s Temple Kol Ami to have congregants “pay what they want” made headlines, a 2017 report by the UJA-Federation of New York shows it is still the path less taken. Over the years, various synagogues have tried to introduce new models such as renting school gyms on the weekend or having members lead services and deliver sermons, but they are still in the minority. The possibility of a prolonged economic crisis can – and should – change the way Jewish organizations think.

Thousands of families have joined those who were unable to afford day school tuition in pre-pandemic times. Instead of looking for loans which will simply need to be repaid, the Jewish community needs to find enduring ways to reduce the cost of Jewish education. Further, for synagogues which relied on membership income from the High Holiday services but are now discovering a drastic decrease in registration for those services and overall participation, identifying a new financial strategy is essential. As philanthropy is stretched thinner, both national and local organizations will continue to discover that their income is scarcer and uncertain.

American Jewry is in uncharted territory. Nobody knows what the next day will look like, let alone the next month. However, as thousands of years of Jewish tradition have shown, this community is capable of summoning the energy and ingenuity to ensure a brighter future. While it is instinctual to fight for the survival of the organizations that led the Jewish community in the past, collective resources are much better spent envisioning and building the Jewish community of the future.

Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation. Shira Ruderman is the Foundation’s Executive Director.