By Michael B. Horn
It is no great secret that many Jewish nonprofits are struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic. As events are cancelled around the country and the world, organizations are scrambling to maintain their relevance in a low-touch economy.
The transition to virtual events has come more easily for some, as lectures have turned into webinars and celebrations into livestreams. For others, such as those whose business model revolves around travel, the pandemic has effectively pressed pause on their mission. Philanthropic funds of various sizes have been created to try to bolster some of these longstanding Jewish institutions struggling to stay afloat in these uncertain and challenging times.
With the economy in a downward spiral, donor dollars are tighter now than ever, and philanthropists should reassess where they can make the greatest impact today.
With many states re-imposing restrictions, which threatens the reopening of the economy, it appears that physical distancing is here to stay for some time. As we adjust our lives to fit this new reality, funders should take a look at how their dollars can help foster Jewish life and connection in this strange new world.
Luckily there are existing Jewish organizations based off of an online model that before COVID-19 were already making a real impact. As these small, forward-thinking nonprofits suddenly find themselves in demand, they are working tirelessly to scale at a rapid pace to provide their much-needed services to larger audiences, often for free or at a highly discounted price. What they offer is not only convenient; it is also necessary for the continuity of Jewish connection during a pandemic that separates us all physically.
Today, trips to Israel are on hold. Hillel’s college programs are on hold. Jewish summer camps are on hold. What is not on hold is Jewish education, and specifically, online Jewish education.
Though often seen as a regimented platform tied to a physical space, Hebrew school has successfully made the transition from the synagogue into the living rooms of parents across the globe. In the home, Hebrew school is more visible than ever before. It’s an area that has been long overlooked in the Jewish philanthropic world, but the pandemic has provided the optimal opportunity to change the way we think about our children’s Hebrew school experience.
As any parent can now attest, a distance-learning platform that is actually built to be online, rather than an in-person, physical classroom program which migrated to a computer screen, can make a marked difference in a child’s attention span. There are a few organizations that have been focusing on Jewish online learning for years, and now is the time for philanthropists to wake up and give these nonprofits the time of day. This is where you will see an immediate return on investment. Online Hebrew school and distance learning are not new ideas, and this kind of learning will persist into the future. It will keep the next generation and their families engaged in Judaism during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
This is not to say that other organizations should not be funded. They absolutely should be, and they also desperately need assistance to make it through the pandemic and continue their important, positive contributions to Jewish life. But today, and tomorrow, the online Hebrew school space is where Jewish connections are taking place for our children. The advantages are numerous, from accessibility to affordability to gaining the ability to learn at home as a family.
Study after study has shown that Jewish education is the number one thing that predicts a meaningful Jewish life in the future. There’s no reason to shortchange our children now.
Michael Horn has written several books on the future of education, including Blended: Using Disruptive Innovation To Improve School and Disrupting Class. He is a senior strategist at Guild Education and an advisor to ShalomLearning.