Navigating the Post-Pandemic Future in North America and Israel

By Andrés Spokoiny and Sigal Yaniv Feller

Last Rosh Hashanah, when you heard the familiar Unetaneh Tokef liturgy about who will live and who will die, especially the part of “who by plague,” did it occur to you that in the coming year a pandemic might kill hundreds of thousands of people and turn our entire world upside down?

Most of the world was caught by surprise by the pandemic. Not that the threat was unimaginable; after all there have been countless warnings and scares and no less science fictions movies about a global pandemic. It’s just that our brains have the “bias of the immediate” and we mostly occupy ourselves with the urgent. And following that pattern, when the current crisis hit, we justifiably focused on providing urgent assistance to individuals and organizations affected by the pandemic and its accompanying economic recession.

It is clear, however, that this crisis has the potential of transforming the world – and the Jewish world – in radical ways. If we were surprised by the pandemic, we can’t afford to be surprised by its aftermath. Those in positions of leadership and influence need to respond to the immediate needs presented by the crisis but also overcome the “bias of near” and think about what the future may bring. It is important to find, even amid the roar of the storm, the mental space to think about the ‘day after.’

That’s why, at Jewish Funders Network, we are leading simultaneous processes – both in North America and Israel – that aim to help the philanthropic community prepare for what’s next. Indeed, we can’t predict the future, but we can develop tools to prepare for alternatives scenarios that may radically transform our world. Thus, we can proactively take steps to capitalize on the opportunities that may appear while protecting ourselves against the threats that may come. We can’t control the future, but we can help the community prepare for what lies ahead.

In North America, we recently brought together a group of Jewish leaders for a scenario planning process in which we listed and analyzed the uncertainties that we face, then selected two key variables along which to structure our scenarios: the strength of economic indicators and the level of cohesion and equality in society. We then imagined how these variables can evolve in the next two years, and the combinations led to four alternative possibilities for a post-pandemic Jewish future: one with a full economic recovery and less inequality; one with a significant but unequally distributed economic recovery, leading to greater social tensions; one of economic depression, great inequality and civil unrest; and one with a slow economic recovery but greater social cohesion.

Some of the developments we imagined in our scenario planning process – such as a surge of street protests and political activism, along with authoritarian efforts to stifle them, which were features of our second and third scenarios – have subsequently come to pass, illustrating that this process is not about idle speculation but about identifying likely, or at least plausible, futures. For all four scenarios, we examined implications for the Jewish community and made recommendations about what different stakeholders can do now to prepare.

In Israel, we took a slightly different approach. We teamed up with a few key foundations and commissioned “The Megatrends and Forces that will Shape the Social Landscape in the Era following the Corona Crisis,” a report by Israel’s Shaldor consulting firm. Whereas the scenarios as we crafted them in America start from “critical uncertainties,” the Shaldor report starts from “hard truths.” i.e. trends that preceded the pandemic but are being radically accelerated by it. The unstoppable momentum that those trends acquired during Covid made us fairly certain of their continuation in the post-pandemic future. These include: increased nationalism, growth of government, a shift to more and more digitalized or automated (rather than in-person) services, a shaken job market, and greater individualism.

The report details how these trends will likely play out in Israel and recommends strategies for how various sectors can prepare.

We’re not interested in keeping these tools for ourselves. We’ve already hosted two webinars, open to the entire Jewish community, where we’ve explained how scenario planning works and offered a mini-training in how to do it. We also are making all our materials available, free of charge, on our website. And we’re in discussions with numerous leaders and organizations about next steps, including how we can use this tool to ensure that all aspects of Jewish life – from day schools to senior care to summer camps – can be vibrant and responsive regardless of what the future holds.

Meanwhile, JFN-Israel’s new Center for Strategic Philanthropy is using “The Megatrends and Forces” report to ensure Israel’s social sector is ready. We are planning a series of trainings and consultations to ensure that Israeli funders, as well as American funders with an interest in Israel, understand the report and its findings. In these trainings, we’ll help funders think about what these megatrends mean for their work and how they might change or adapt their funding priorities in response. We’ll be taking a deep dive with them to explore the report’s implications for health care, education, the workplace, the well-being of vulnerable members of society, community service/voluntarism, the environment and international affairs, arts and human rights. By bringing funders together for this conversation, we hope they will benefit not just from the report itself, but from sharing ideas and experiences with one another and being able to plan collaboratively, applying what they learn to every aspect of their work. These trainings (in English at first, but we expect future ones in Hebrew) are available not only for Israelis, but for everyone who funds in Israel.

Learn about the first webinar, on July 8, here.

In a recent talk for JFN, Dan Ariely, the acclaimed Israeli-American behavioral scientist, noted that for individuals to thrive, they need to have control over at least some aspects of their lives. The coronavirus pandemic has snatched away much of that control, ending lives and livelihoods for far too many and disrupting routines and plans for everyone in the world. However, we cannot respond by throwing our hands up in despair or passively accepting that “man plans and God laughs.” We must be humble and flexible in our ever-changing world, but we also can use the tools we have available to think ahead and prepare for multiple possibilities. The transformations ahead present difficult challenges, but also unexpected opportunities.

We may not be able to avoid the tsunami of the future, but with creativity and open-mindedness, we may learn how to surf it.

Andrés Spokoiny is president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network. Sigal Yaniv Feller is director of advisory services of JFN Israel.