By Steven Windmueller
This is a unique moment in the history of humankind. Many of the core operating principles in connection with how people function and live in the world have suddenly and completely come undone.
Already on these pages and elsewhere, we are being introduced to the multiple and creative ways we are interfacing with one another, to the changing dimensions to our lives and to the forthcoming challenges we will face as a society!
As we have been reminded by our colleagues on this platform, we are encountering a new reality.
Building and Maintaining Connection: At its core, this is about the human experience, and how we encounter the other! The essence of our humanity is being tested at this time. At its core, this is about the human experience. In our individual roles as parents, children, teachers, students or friends, we are experiencing as humans the innate desire to be connected and joined together with one another. In the midst of our vulnerabilities, we welcome and embrace these sacred relationships as central to our lives.
Preserving our Democracy and Personal Liberties: In times of crisis, there is always the tendency to bypass democratic practices in favor of authoritative action. How well our institutions of government work during this health crisis will test our system of checks and balances. There is a natural tension in such settings between affirming our national interests and protecting one’s individual rights and personal security.
The Safety Net and Moral Leadership: The type of leadership required at this time must not only come from the institutions of government, it will also be expected from our religious and civic leaders. It will be these voices that must remind the citizens of this nation concerning our collective responsibility to feed the hungry and care for the poor as we see a growing number of our fellow citizens confront the realities of lost income and joblessness. The loss of hope and the absence of confidence could become a major challenge to our society as we move forward.
Loneliness and Isolation: As a society we are not equipped in dealing with isolation and separation. The significantly large number of Americans who are living alone represents a critical population group that will need our intervention. In another context I have written about the emerging challenge of loneliness.
Loss of Confidence and the Acceleration of Fear: As we know in times of economic and social distress, anti-social behaviors and violent responses can erupt. Fear breeds an environment of distrust, promotes conspiracy notions, and accelerates intergroup tensions.
Economic Disruption and The Third Sector: While other arenas of the American economy will be hopefully supported by government policies and appropriate fiscal interventions, the nonprofit sector is particularly vulnerable. The well-being of our schools, camps, and religious institutions are at risk. The future of our federated system of agencies and services will be tested. When this nation comes back “on-line,” what will be the financial condition of many of our core religious and communal structures? As many individuals and families will have their own personal income challenges, will they be able and willing to help support and maintain our social, educational and religious systems? As we observed in the post-economic recession of 2008, at that time we experienced closures and mergers, downsizing and reorganization. We are likely to see some of the same economic outcomes, yet the starkness of the depth of this crisis is far more urgent and defining. We may well ask, which organizations will survive, and which among them may not be able to return?
At this moment, we also must account for an abundance of creativity. We are witnessing in some measure the best of society and of this sector. With great rapidity we have already been able to document an explosion in on-line services, programs, and resources and the personal networks of friendship and support that have emerged.
In their efforts to be responsive, certain institutions have adeptly transformed their program and service models. Will these new modalities of social engagement and on-line resources and programs fundamentally change our life-style choices and personal behaviors moving beyond COVID 19? Or will we experience a renewal of community and a religious revivalism in this nation? We might remind ourselves that after both the Civil War and the Second World War, this nation experienced both a robust “return” to communal and civic engagement and the rediscovery of American religion.
Imaging the Future:
I would argue however that this moment is unlike any other we have experienced. We are figuratively frozen in place.
For some of us, this will define how we will view our place in time and history. As we remind ourselves of the economic crisis of 2008 and now confront this major pandemic challenge, these moments represent two different types of traumas, each with its particular impact and meaning for our society and for ourselves. In the end, these experiences will frame a new chapter in our American Jewish journey.
As we move through this unique chapter, our very identity is being altered, just as we adjust to the new and unsettled realities before us.
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 his website, www.thewindreport.com