A Series of Essays by Gidi Grinstein and Eran Shayshon
The Coronavirus crisis emerges to be a huge disruption to the Jewish world at large, to Jewish communities worldwide and to Jewish life. Throughout history, pandemics have had far-reaching and long-lasting political, economic, social and scientific impact. While it is too early to determine the full effect of the crisis, it is quite certain to assume that the ‘new normal’ of our daily lives will be very different regarding work, transportation, education, travel, sports and all large gatherings.
Within this bigger global context, the Jewish People will face some particular challenges. While their impact may take years to fully comprehend, many organizations and leaders must reassess, re-calibrate and ‘pivot’ now if they want to remain relevant, transcend the crisis and be of service to their communities and stakeholders. As we go through the painful process of realignment, these are key dynamics that should be kept in mind:
1. The economics of a shrinking pie and expanding needs: The economic impact of the Coronavirus crisis on the global and national economies is mind-boggling and reaches every corner of our societies and communities. The financial markets, real-estate, retail, the entire gig economy and even beggars on our streets are affected, and millions of jobs are lost as small and big businesses and nonprofits significantly downsize or shut down. In fact, the impact of COVID-19 has been compared to that of the Great Depression. Within this bigger picture, Jewish wealth is declining, while needs are mounting. Furthermore, in the intermediate and longer term, philanthropic priorities may shift fundamentally. Together, these trends are transforming the economics of Jewish communities around the world.
2. A new map of external threats: The crisis created by the Coronavirus is already unleashing incitement against Jews, and especially ultraorthodox communities, which thrives on libels associating them with the dissemination of infectious diseases. This worrying trend is mitigated by the fact that the assault on the fundamental legitimacy of Israel and the BDS Movement are taking a back seat due to decline of public interest and the disbanding of campus communities. Hence, the map of external threats to the Jewish People is changing.
3. Decimation of nonprofits: Many nonprofit organizations may not survive a six-months crisis, as few have the financial resilience and management capabilities to transcend a long-lasting decline in resources. Furthermore, even those nonprofits that provide essential services to the community in niche areas are now compromised due to strict requirements for social distancing. And from the social perspective, this is not just a story about job loss, but also about a weakening of an essential fabric of our communities.
4. Freeze on Israel experiences: Formative experiences in Israel have been a major tool for ensuring Jewish continuity and for conveying the story of Israel to non-Jews. Following the trailblazing Birthright Israel, dozens of other programs and organizations – most prominently ITrek, Reality, Honeymoon Israel, Birthright Excel and Momentum, – have brought to Israel tens of thousands of Jews and non-Jews in order to have a formative experience. It may be a while before these programs are back in full swing, and the freeze of this sector has far-reaching systemic implications.
5. The ultra–orthodox hotspots: Ultraorthodox communities have been hit particularly hard in Israel, the USA and Europe. Conduct of their members enraged many Jews and Israelis. However, the negative impact on their households and communities, beyond the high death toll, is dramatic. The value of Jewish Peoplehood mandates a special mobilization to support them.
6. European Jewry is badly hit: The Chief Rabbi of Strasbourg, France, recently said that half of his Jewish community is infected with Coronavirus. It was later estimated that this is also the case for one third of Belgium Jewry. If these numbers are remotely correct, a calamity is unfolding, which will affect many households and communities also in Israel, New York and London. This event may become a historical watershed moment for European Jews.
7. Peoplehood takes a back seat: The Coronavirus crisis floods Jewish communities with tremendous and acute needs of healthcare and welfare, which are likely to continue for a while. Against this backdrop, attention for and resources available to organizations and projects, which are focused on intangible-yet-important matters such as Jewish identity and Jewish Peoplehood, as well as on leadership and Israel education, may be limited.
8. Federations are proving concept: For centuries, in times of extreme disruption, the so-called ‘organized Jewish community’ stepped up to serve collective needs. It did so with its financial foundations, professional staff, dedicated lay leaderships and government relations which it had cultivated for years beforehand. In recent decades of prosperity, particularly in the USA, that role was sometimes dismissed, and federations were criticized for being unfocused, inefficient or ineffective. However, the current crisis is re-proving that every Jewish community needs a federation-type organization that is relentlessly committed to the long-term broad wellbeing and security of the entire community. Many Federations are shining in this crisis, and will justifiably have a powerful story to tell in the day after.
9. Varying levels of performance among nonprofits: Most nonprofit organizations are led and often also staffed by professionals who want to serve greater good. However, few, if any, were designed to deal with a crisis at the current scale. This is particularly true for nonprofits at the frontline of healthcare, working with elderly populations or food security, whose staff and volunteers may face life-threatening situations. So, the entire nonprofit sector is tested to its limits with diminished resources: some nonprofits are tested because they are the ‘first responders’ of our communities and others because their mission may not have been as relevant to the crisis. Indeed, some pivoted well to serve their stakeholders and constituencies and others did not. This crisis exposes those who are ‘the real deal.’
10. Jewish education goes online: In a matter of weeks, Jewish education around the world has gone online, and this is true not just with regards to schools but also to many other organizations. The amount, quality and diversity of content is skyrocketing. This will have profound long-lasting positive impact on the menu of options for Jewish education for all ages in all geographies, and will hopefully also bring down the cost of Jewish schooling in the USA.
11. A new age for 21st Century Tikkun Olam: The crisis of the Coronavirus creates dramatic opportunities for global ventures that drive innovation around acute needs of individuals and communities. The Jewish People is perfectly placed to be a global leader in creating and scaling such responses. In fact, this can be a grand collective opportunity
* Disclosure: The Reut Group launched TOM : Tikkun Olam Makers which is a global humanitarian venture that drives innovation to create affordable solutions to societal needs.
12. Shifting philanthropic priorities: All major Jewish philanthropies have re-calibrated their priorities to respond to the crisis. Many of them immediately pledged to implement their existing pledges to their grantees, and then shifted focus to acute needs often in their communities or in Israel. While in the intermediate term, acute needs may continue to dominate, but in the longer terms fundamental priorities may shift as well.
13. Halacha: The Coronavirus crisis creates unprecedented dilemmas for religious observance and communal Jewish life. Some rabbis and communities are stepping up to this challenge with Halachic innovation, creating a body of Jewish law that is of crucial historical significance.
14. The Art of Pivoting: The current crisis can be shocking and daunting for professionals and lay leaderships who are struggling to survive and remain relevant. Even those who entered the crisis with strong financial foundations may be compromised at later phases if they don’t generate real value to their stakeholders and communities. Hence, everyone needs to pivot, but in which way? In such an environment, organizations that have strong leadership teams and a shared comprehension of their mission, values, unique value proposition and strategy, and then the ability to re-prioritize, restructure and operationalize plans will shine. Others may muddle through or just implode.
The Bigger Picture
In the bigger picture, the Jewish People met this crisis at a historically high point with unprecedented affluence and influence both in Israel and among Diaspora Jewish communities. In this respect, collectively, the Jewish worldwide web of communities is strong and resilient. At the same time, the Coronavirus is an exponential crisis. It is a prolonged tsunami that challenges societies and communities to their limits, affecting all public institutions and every system of healthcare, welfare or education.
Within this bigger universal context, the Coronavirus crisis requires the Jewish People to go through a ‘grand pivot’ of fundamental change to its institutions, structures, priorities and pattern of conduct in order to address the dramatic implications of the current conditions. But the Jewish People is not a unitary actor, with a government and with disciplined execution. It is rather organized as a global web of communities, each of which is self-organizing as a network of independent institutions.
Thus a ‘grand pivot’ of the Jewish People, which is required to address the Coronavirus crisis, will emerge as the sum of all communal pivots. And the pivot of every community will be the sum of the pivots of all smaller organizations. But Jewish history shows that the Jewish People was able to orchestrate such ‘grand pivots’ in the face of monumental challenges. This history gives us the confidence that we will be able to ‘grand pivot’ again.
Gidi Grinstein is the Founder and President of the Reut Group, and the President of Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM). Eran Shayshon is the Executive Director of the Reut Group. The Reut Group is an Israeli strategy and leadership group and this publication is part of a series of essays dedicated to dealing with the crisis of the Coronavirus.
[Editor‘s note: eJewishPhilanthropy welcomes responses to this essay.]
Cross-posted on Times of Israel Blogs