The Beating Heart of Humanity: Arts and Culture as Essential Even During a Pandemic

Reading room of the National Library of Israel; eJP Archives

By Adina Kanefield

Mysterious PayPal notices began arriving last Tuesday. A gift of $18 from Austin, another $18 from Ann Arbor, and more from New York. A gift of $50 from Philadelphia, then $36 from Los Angeles. Yesterday, $100 from Chicago.

And the gifts keep coming, some from loyal lead supporters who have helped build this institution over the years, and others via PayPal with names I don’t recognize.

A firm believer that all gifts are important, no matter the size, and guided by a sincere principle that donations represent people, not just dollars, I reached out to these new donors to understand who they are and what motivated them to give.

These gifts came from book lovers, researchers, archivists, librarians, PhD students, and scholars who stepped forward as individuals and as a community to give to their beloved cultural institution – The National Library of Israel – that had enriched their lives as professionals. Upon hearing that the Library was shutting its doors (for a few weeks) due to budgetary shortfalls resulting from the pandemic and unanticipated funding cuts from the Israeli government, they wanted to help. “The plight of the NLI got me thinking about all the things we take for granted in our lives and what our lives would be like without them,” posted Arthur Kiron, the Judaica curator at the University of Pennsylvania Libraries. Researchers wrote of the Library as an oasis in Jerusalem, others called it a second home and remembered writing their dissertations in the reading room. One writer called the Library the “beating heart” of the humanities. With those memories and connections came donations.

Alongside their much-needed dollars, their email replies, Facebook posts, and list serve comments brought clarity to the work of fundraisers during this pandemic. This self-organized, grassroots show of support distilled the essence of who we are as human beings, as a people of body, mind and soul. Since the pandemic hit, nonprofit leaders who work toward enriching the life of the Jewish community have been wondering if we should even be asking for support for causes beyond basic human needs. We must feed the hungry, find ways to address rising homelessness, provide for PPE, send meals to hospital workers. We must fund the day schools that are facing losses of tuition income from parents who lost jobs. We must rise against injustice and discrimination in society in the spirit of tikkun olam.

Those are indeed priorities. Dare we ask for more? Is it from a perch of privilege that one can even think about feeding our souls and minds during the pandemic, and during a time of outcry against systemic racism in America? Or is it critical, from any vantage point, not just a privileged one, to include arts and culture as pivotal to sustaining us during this time?

Those PayPal notices and the donors behind them lead me to believe that the answer is yes. Culture is a human need and we cannot ignore it during the pandemic. It feeds the soul. Wakes the mind. Culture makes us human. Our desire to feed and protect is instinctive, strategic, and crucial. But we can’t stop here. The community is crying out for more. I heard of tears shed upon entering a museum for the first time in five months. Tickets sold out to take a $2.75 ferry ride to Governors Island. Jazz playing on the stoops of Brooklyn. And yes, librarians and book lovers sending $18.00 to do their part to keep their beloved library open during a pandemic. The human spirit must be fed. As many have noted, who are the People of the Book without their books?

Like other fundraisers, I held back outreach in the early days of the pandemic – absorbing the shifts in society and the tragedy unfolding. And then, in the midst of it all, life continued. Routine needs of society pressed on, including the needs of so many art and cultural institutions that make our lives worth living. I recalled the inscription on the Kennedy Center walls of the role of the arts in our lives. President Kennedy reflected: “The life of the arts, far from being an interruption, a distraction, in the life of a nation, is close to the center of a nation’s purpose – and is a test of the quality of a nation’s civilization.” We must nurture our “human spirit” to keep the heart of our civilization beating.

So, when thoughtful and generous donors say, I hear you, this cause is important, but we, like so many are pivoting now to boosting support for essential basic needs, I say thank you. That is critical. Thank goodness for you. And at the same time, I submit that support for culture – feeding our human spirit – is essential to protecting our communities, to bringing them back to life, and to ensuring the survival of body, mind, and soul.

Adina Kanefield serves as Acting Executive Director of the National Library of Israel USA, and advises nonprofits on strategic growth and advancement.