This Too Shall Pass, but Who will be Left Behind?

How organisations and those who we engage face a new type of (very Jewish) dilemma.

By Joey Leskin

There is very little that the Jewish community does so well as adapting to new circumstances. We have done it through history, on macro and micro levels, yet mostly it is in isolation; we are the only ones adapting, among some sort of normative (read: hostile) environment. The COVID-19 virus has posed a new question to the Jewish community: how adaptable are you, when the whole world around you is also being forced to adapt?

Sitting with my Italian-born student intern Rebecca in a London café last week, it was more evident than ever that for all the organisational structure, complex internal processes and online grandstanding of most Jewish nonprofits, the real gold was in the personal interactions, the real-life chevruta without even requiring overt Jewish content.

“I love London. I want to be here and support students with you. Italy, it’s a disaster but it’s my country. Being away, it’s hard. You know how it is.” I did know, to an extent. Only three years ago as the JDC Fellow in Turkey, I had been faced with the dilemma of deserting my post to return to my family or sticking with what I signed up to, in the midst of relentless terrorist attacks and a military coup. In the end I had stayed.

“You are the only person who can decide and I’ll support you either way. You leave, be with your family but in quarantine and at risk. You stay, do Seder with my family and teach us some Italian. Both sound pretty terrible, honestly.” Rebecca laughed, at least. We sat for two hours, any guilt from not being at the office replaced by emotional logic that this, truly, is my work. She left feeling more reassured and later returned home. This dilemma is the new norm for Jewish students and young people who are away from home during this crisis, as their expected narrative disintegrates and their challenges are magnified.

I work as the Director of Abroad Experiences for KAHAL, a nonprofit committed to supporting Jewish study abroad students. There are thousands of Jewish students abroad every year and in the 2019/20 academic year alone we have engaged over 2000 of them around the world. With the drop of a virus-tinged hat, everything has changed as 95% of programs have closed with universities the world round recalling their students and suspending classes. Like Rebecca, we too had a choice: suspend programming, accepting that our student-base has gone home overnight; or rip up months of planning and process as we quickly figure out how to create not only an entirely new program, but also develop a new purpose. We chose the latter, utilising our small size and flexible nature to pivot towards the disruption and proactively meet it head on.

Since the first day of March, we have turned our entire organisation around, configuring our purpose to support formerly-abroad Jewish students regardless of their whereabouts. We find professional support for those struggling mentally with the unexpected termination of a Semester they have been anticipating and saving up for financially for years. We source medical experts to allow students and their parents a consultation to make sense of the developing situation. We source internships in Israel and the US in coordination with local partners and official guidelines. The list goes on.

We do this relentlessly, yet ironically the benefits that allow us to pivot also yield a fear felt by so many small businesses: we may not have the means to survive through the adaptation. Despite knowing this too shall pass as we adapt and wait out the crisis as the Jewish people are so practised in doing, the global reaction to stock market uncertainty and medical unknowns may leave us permanently damaged. My peers and partners worldwide are experiencing a similar challenge – when Jews cannot congregate, we lose a core facet of Judaism itself: community.

Jewish people worldwide are quickly and effectively developing creative methods of upholding our spiritual, cultural and educational customs; whether an online Havdalah ceremony run by BASE, challah drop-offs by Chabad, or our KAHAL office hours for students displaced by the sudden closure of their abroad program, the community has mobilized in a way that has inspired many and surprised nobody. All the while, the fear is real and the threat of organisational non-survival is tangible in a way it has never been before. For now, however, we are not content to stand by. Jews need purpose and we will continue to adapt to find it.

If you want to get involved with helping the thousands of Jewish students who have been sent home from study abroad, contact us on CovidInfo@KahalAbroad.Org. You can volunteer to meet returning students, host those who have been thrown out of dorms for Shabbat or Seder, or support KAHAL’s efforts in a number of other ways.

Joey Leskin is Director of Abroad Experiences for KAHAL.