By Meredith Jacobs
I’m back in my home office, which feels strange because I had converted it into a guest room. As I searched through the house for the saw horses that supported the desktop, my husband reminded me that a year ago, over his objections, I insisted we throw them out. After all, I had moved on from the days I was known as the “Modern Jewish Mom” and ran the first Jewish parenting website out of that room.
But, here I am again. Now writing on the folding table we use to extend the dining room for Thanksgiving. What will Thanksgiving be this year? Virtual, like Passover?
I look up at the corkboard hanging on the wall. In the upper right hand corner is the certificate I received 15 years ago, upon completing the “Jewish Leadership Institute” offered by the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and taught by Dr. Erica Brown. “Hineni shelachni” it reads – “Here I am, send me.”
Those words are especially poignant now. Now, a mere two months into my term as CEO of Jewish Women International, I admit to feeling, “Why me?” All those dreams and plans I had, my vision for where I would take our 123-year-old organization, the difference we would make. Everything upended by this virus. How am I supposed to ask for donations when everyone is facing uncertainty? How am I supposed to engage new supporters, when all planned events have been canceled? How am I supposed to make our workshops on college campuses happen when universities are shut down? How am I supposed to keep my staff employed, plan an annual gala, pay the rent? And, how am I supposed to be reassuring and positive when I am so, so scared?
Hineni shelachni. Here I am, send me.
I take a deep breath. Why not me? Like it or not, those of us who are stewarding organizations through this crisis must consider what is it that only we can bring at this moment. We must find strength in what makes us uniquely prepared to lead now.
I think about the open message to grantees from the funder community, about all the funders who have already reached out to pledge support and understanding. What is our pledge to them? What is our message, as organizational CEOs and executive directors, to our funders? To our communities? To our supporters?
We must look at this time as a gift. How often do we complain that we don’t have time to think or strategize? Now we have it. Let’s pledge to use the quiet time we have now to examine our work – what could we do better? How can we work smarter? And, what do we need to let go of?
Are we worried that we won’t survive this time of economic insecurity? That donors won’t support us? The harsh reality is that some organizations won’t survive, so now is the time to think hard about our missions and our work. Now is the time to innovate and to partner. Now may be the time for mergers, for new organizations to form from collaborations. Let’s pledge that now is the time to find ways to work together.
And rather than think what we need from those who have supported us over the years, now is the time to thank them. I think about all of the women who are part of JWI – the 22-year-old woman in Chicago, who is quarantined alone, separated from her family. I think about the 102-year-old woman in New Jersey, who still serves as her chapter president. Those who have been with us since we were B’nai B’rith Women are now most vulnerable to the virus and the economic downturn. Let’s pledge that now is the time we pick up the phone and reach out. Not to ask for money, but to make sure everyone is okay.
I think about my staff, and what they are experiencing – the senior staff, worried about aging parents – to a member of my staff who is pregnant with her first child and terrified what the hospitals could be like when she goes into labor. Let’s pledge to be patient, to be flexible, to be understanding, to manage differently. And, to use this experience to rethink our workplaces for the better. If this time proves we can successfully work remotely, why can’t we make that more available to our staff when we’re on the other side of this crisis?
There are days when I go from one Zoom meeting to another – exhausted by the non-stop intrusion technology seems to bring. And yet, when I really think about it, these Zoom calls have made me feel closer to everyone. I’ve met children and pets. Have seen glimpses into homes, into what we all look like without makeup, hair disheveled, in sweatpants. At JWI, we’ve used technology to continue our work – our final meetings of our Men As Allies cohorts will meet via Zoom; Towson University’s Hillel will continue to offer our healthy masculinity workshops virtually; our Young Women’s Leadership Networks are connecting in a way we never would have imagined before – young women, from L.A. to New York, meeting for the first time in virtual book clubs and leadership workshops. We may be physically distant, but we don’t have to be isolated. When we announced our virtual seder, we received 118 registrations within hours. Last Friday, I taught a challah baking class on Instagram – something that certainly doesn’t fit with our mission or that I would have offered to do weeks ago – and had our largest social media engagement to date. There is a hunger for meaning and community. Let’s pledge to use technology to forge moments of connection, of normalcy, and safety.
As a community, we have survived times of crisis. We will do it again. This is my pledge.
Hineni shelachni. Here I am, send me.
Meredith Jacobs is the CEO of JWI, the leading Jewish organization working to end violence, ensure economic security, lift women’s leadership, and build a world in which all women may thrive.