The Morning After:
What We Need to Know about the Coronavirus and Ourselves
By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.
As I have previously written, “the impact of the Coronavirus on the America will be profound, just as it will dramatically reshape the Jewish communal world.” Of particular concern are the significant number of Americans who will be adversely impacted first by the virus and then the Covid economy.
This major unfolding saga will need to acknowledge the deep emotional, physical and financial toll on our citizens. But this pandemic moment also provides us with an opportunity to extract what we have learned about ourselves, this nation, and our community. Outlined below are some of the emerging new realities that will define our society and also impact our Jewish community:
- Who we are now will not be what our nation or our community will look like next year at this time!
- The longer we remain in lockdown, as essential as it is, the deeper the financial instability of our nation and our community. Time is a key measure, according to economists, in determining the economic health and future of this country’s economic platform and our own Jewish communal infrastructure. For some institutions, the calendar may have already run out!
- When re-opening, every small business and nonprofit will need to operate as if it were a “start-up,” with limited cash and fighting to win back its market!
- We will experience a period of significant economic disruption as Americans adjust to the realities of a changing economic order. The economic safety net will be tested as never before, as millions face the loss of jobs. We will see the sunsetting of key industries, business models, and entire sectors of this economy. Trust in institutions and leaders will be tested as never before in our lifetime. This is Not a Two-Act Play. We will be moving through a series of economic and social transitions covering the next year, or more! Each of these different stages will demand different economic and structural responses.
- This pandemic encounter is testing the durability, flexibility and adaptability of our federal governance system. It introduces a core moral crisis as governments seek to balance the health requirements of its citizens against the rising pressures to salvage this nation’s economy.
- Science is likewise being challenged, even as scientists and medical experts seek to find their way forward as they unravel a new world of medicine.
- This is a time of significant loss and displacement. We as a society will have to contend with the depth and character of what loss may mean and how we will manage life and living after COVID-19.
- Are we about to see some form of religious revivalism? Almost four in 10 Americans, according to Pew, believe that religion is increasing its influence in general, and about a quarter report an increase in personal religious faith as a result of this pandemic. Both Pew and Gallup report an uptake in religious engagement, yet according to these studies, the Jewish response here is lower (7%) compared with the total population (24%). Will we see a national renewal of communalism and spiritual engagement?
- Anger and fear will increasingly reflect the mindset of those who are finding themselves without work and going hungry. A portion of that anger will be expressed on the streets of our cities and in the hallways of our governmental bodies. In an environment of social instability and economic uncertainty, expressions of anti-Semitism and racism will likely be introduced.
- Following this pandemic, we will see a communications revolution taking place within our society, as we see the adoption in our educational spaces, business arenas, and social connections the technology options acquired and mastered during this period.
Within the Jewish community:
- In its aftermath, we are likely to see a decline in religious institutional memberships, national organizational affiliation, and other charitable giving. Within our community, we will be experiencing a fundamental institutional realignment and reorganization. In that connection, we are likely to see a “survivalist of the fitness” outcome, with only a selected group of organizations surviving the pandemic economy.
- More directly, inside the Jewish world, we are currently experiencing the single largest infusion of funding into Jewish life in our history, generated by foundations, individual Jewish donor families, and governmental sources, i.e. The Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF).
- In this crisis, we are reminded that American Jewry is living with a 19th Century communal legacy system that continues to operate as if we were a part of the 20th Century. This will prompt the design of a 21st century communal model.
- This is an extraordinary moment of learning and engagement, as Jews embrace on-line resources, affording our community the single greatest Jewish cultural experience in history, as more Jews have the opportunity to study that at any other time period in our history.
- A further note on global anti-Semitism, as we are likely to see a confluence of several factors contributing to a heightened level of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel hatred. Beyond the Coronavirus and its resulting economic dislocation, the annexation of portions of the West Bank by the State of Israel, as proposed under the Trump Peace Initiative and scheduled for implementation this summer, may add another dimension to the contemporary anti-Jewish environment.
Further Notes on our Community:
- Creating a Collaborative Culture: Jewish communal practice has historically operated within a silo mentality, where institutions and leaders have viewed competition as their economic playbook. With the onset of this virus, we are witnessing on the part of institutional funders, major donors and a core of organizational leaders a new operational modality where new and creative avenues of cooperation and joint engagement are underway. Part of this new collaborative mindset ought to be directed toward re-envisioning the core services as well as the long term organizational of the Jewish communal system.
The new mantra will need to be one built around a collaborative decision-making model. Leaders will be judged by their creative and proactive responses in defining what the community will require beyond COVID-19. This is a moment to re-envision the 21st Century Jewish communal enterprise.
- Economic Realities: The American Jewish economy will be adversely impacted by the downsizing of schools, camps, JCC’s and other core institutions. There will be fewer available charitable resources and greater financial pressures facing many Jewish families.
The closures and mergers, similar to what we observed during the Great Depression and the 2008 Recession, will be a part of the new economic reality. In this regard, the Jewish community will closely emulate other sectors of the economy.
The “viability factor” will determine which of our organizations will “survive” and those that may not! It would appear that along with the rest of our society, elements of our communal structure will likely leave the scene. Cultural institutions, as an example, may not be able to manage in an economy that will focus its resources increasingly on core human needs. Institutions without alternative income streams, sufficient financial reserves, and a creative fiscal game plan are not likely to survive.
- Foundations as the Emerging Power Brokers: We are seeing the rise and dominance of family and community foundations in helping to lead, fund and underwrite the Jewish communal system. The collaborative marshaling of resources represents an important, even an essential piece to modeling a pattern of behavior that we will need to experience across the communal landscape as we move forward.
Joining with Federations, these mega-foundations will be critical to the reshaping of the Jewish marketplace. Is this the moment for rethinking how we will need to more efficiently operate? Are we in a position to reimagine the Jewish enterprise, even as legacy and boutique organizations leave the Jewish public square?
These funders are in uniquely powerful position to convene key communal professionals and rabbis, futurists, historians, educators, and lay leaders in helping to seed a 21st Century American Jewish communal model.
- Financial Challenges Facing Families: More individuals and families will require financial assistance, among the most impacted groups: Orthodox families, the elderly, and some young adults. 45% of Hasidic Jews as an example live at or below the poverty-line. Families will be making critical priority choices in connection with memberships, school enrollments and donations etc. In the aftermath of this moment, we are likely to experience a decline in institutional participation, as a result of these new economic pressures facing Jewish households.
Young families are likely to postpone enrolling their kids in private/day schools and in purchasing their first homes. As with 2008, we will see more post-college young adults electing to live at home for longer periods or reside with friends/family in order to save money. Unemployment and underemployment will be a major challenge for many working class Jewish households, for those entering the work force and for second career individuals seeking alternative employment.
- Emotional and Psychological Fallout: Numerous experts are warning that many folks currently living in isolation and alone may face serious psychological issues in connection with re-entering the society. Fear and anxiety are likely to be key social markers.
- Technology: We are likely to see the continued use of technology after the pandemic, i.e. webinars and on-line activities will become part of core institutional practice. In this moment, we are observing an extraordinary period of innovation with creative approaches to programming. A wide array of religious, cultural and philanthropic organizations are experimenting with an array of zoom-based educational and worship activities, as the new standard of practice. For the first time, world class Jewish scholars, rabbis and educators are available to audiences across the world without charge!
The Jewish response to the Coronavirus is still unfolding but each of these findings serve as important indicators of the changing dimensions and character of Jewish life. In the aftermath of this pandemic, we will observe how this moment will alter and transform behaviors, change life-style and economic patterns, introduce new on-line resources, and fundamentally impact Jewish life moving into the future. As I have noted on this site: “The longer-term realities would suggest an economic tsunami that will be both wide and deep, affecting broad segments of the Jewish institutional landscape and placing substantial pressure on the core resources of our fundraising and foundation networks.”
Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles. His writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.