The ROI of funding Jewish communal infrastructure in a post-Oct. 7 world

In Short

The Jewish communal infrastructure you support makes a difference — sometimes in ways or situations you can't anticipate.

We’ve all heard that line, “If you build it, they will come.” 

Most of us assume this means that if you build a ballpark or a school or any other critical infrastructure, people will come and use it — for its intended purpose. 

Sometimes, however, when you put in the effort to envision and build a solid piece of communal infrastructure, people will come and use it for a different and unintended but equally valuable purpose.

When an unimaginable crisis — like the Oct. 7 massacre in Israel and the global antisemitism it unleashed — abruptly changes the needs of the Jewish community, we discover that existing structures support new, unforeseen needs. 

As a rabbi who has spent nearly a decade incubating Jewish startups, I recognize the misconception that it is big ideas that make entrepreneurs’ eyes sparkle and their hearts leap while infrastructure is for the back-office folks. But investing in infrastructure is not boring: Once a great idea is sparked, we build a system to support that idea; and if we build it well, it will also support new and emerging ideas. Jewish funders and philanthropists seek these opportunities and diligently seed projects that will serve and sustain our community beyond a specific moment. 

That’s what we have observed since Oct. 7 at the Jewish Learning Collaborative. 

Out of a core belief in the long-term and systemic value of one-on-one, customized Jewish learning for employees and lay leaders at Jewish organizations, the JLC built a structure to support individualized, self-directed learning for Jewish communal professionals and volunteers. We anticipated that our startup would benefit learners, their host organizations and the future of the Jewish people. In fact, during our first three years in operation, we observed a great demand for habitual Jewish learning and satisfaction with our infrastructure for its intended purpose: more than 400 hours every month of learning for learning’s sake with more than 100 educators and the cultivation of understanding, belonging and personal growth at 26 organizations.

But when we set out to build this experimental model, we couldn’t foresee the trauma Jews all over the world would feel after Oct. 7. The infrastructure we created at JLC is now strengthening our community in new and critical ways. Learners are turning to JLC for the additional support they need in a time of deep crisis.

In a recent survey, JLC asked 50 of our educators to share recent changes in their learning sessions. They reported that almost all learners pivoted in their self-directed learning as they processed the shock and devastation of the Hamas atrocities and their aftermath. Some had new questions about identity and belonging in light of resurgent antisemitism. A JLC rabbi shared that her learners found themselves struggling to “perform business as usual while responding to immediate community needs.”

Some learners sought the wisdom of our elders and sages who themselves lived through traumatic experiences and upheaval, seeking “Torah that would support resilience in this time.” Some chose to better understand Israel’s history, others to mourn and reflect on their feelings, with the support of contemporary Israeli poetry or short stories. And still others became interested in learning for the first time about Jewish ritual practices that they felt newly inspired to incorporate into their lives. 

Learners sought inspiration and solace in the unity of the Jewish people through videos of global Jewish communities joining together to support Israelis during this painful moment. They wanted support preparing for heart-wrenching conversations with family members and coworkers, and practical advice on how to decode online information and be aware of prevalent biases. 

For Jews of diverse backgrounds who suddenly struggled to sleep at night or failed to focus on regular tasks, spending an hour with a trusted educator seeking understanding and processing turbulent emotions proved helpful and grounding. A mechanism built for text-based Jewish exploration also provided intensely personal value because relational learning supports our most essential needs as human beings. 

In this case, investing in the infrastructure of matching trusted learning partners meant that the relationships were established and available to address vulnerable questions and worries during this season of crisis. One JLC rabbi said, “The relationship of trust between my learners and myself has become central to our work… we are able to sit with the impossible pain of this moment, ask hard questions or questions we’d be embarrassed to voice publicly.” Learners valued the safe presence of their educators, who guided their explorations, questioning and sharing without judgment. They expressed gratitude for “a space in which they can sit with a rabbi and learn what they need to learn, feel what they need to feel, and process what they need to process.” 

In this prolonged and deeply painful moment, Jewish leaders and funders must offer Jewish professionals and volunteers personal and professional development opportunities that will bolster them as Jews and as people. We must ensure the staff and lay leadership of the Jewish community have space to learn, grow and process the ideas that are on their minds, in moments of calm and in moments of crisis. 

By investing in JLC, the Jewish philanthropic community created an organization that is now positioned to meet the evolving needs of the Jewish community in all kinds of moments. Building infrastructure for the Jewish communal world and for the professionals and volunteers who lead our community is always a worthy endeavor — because when we build something of value, we create the potential to unlock exponential value we cannot imagine. 

Rabbi Ana Bonnheim is the founding executive director of Jewish Learning Collaborative. Avidan Halivni is the associate director of the Jewish Learning Collaborative.