Two Truths about the Future of Jewish Communal Life

Photo credit: ©JFNA/Jeffrey Lamont Brown

By Beth Cousens

Last winter, as the implications of the global pandemic began to be evident, The Jewish Federations of North America turned to other continental network organizations to face the uncertainty of what lay ahead together. Since then, the National Pandemic Emergency Coalition has met regularly for sharing, brainstorming and problem solving. This kind of partnership was not unique. Collaborative planning characterizes this period of Jewish communal life. Through structured alliances, shared projects and informal relationships, the organized Jewish world is making its way through this crisis together.

While it’s true that countless Jewish buildings shut their doors, Jewish community infrastructure remained open from the first day, even if most activity moved online. Synagogues gathered members for sacred moments. Therapists offered support and analysis to clients. Schools relocated learning to living rooms. And volunteers found ways to safely bring food to the home-bound. Every Jewish organization reinvented their business model overnight. Even with tremendous loss, personally and professionally, we led the innovation of a complex system, and our accomplishments and inventions are a stark counterpoint to the pain of this time.

Through our reinvention two truths have emerged. The first is that much of the innovation we have developed will stay with us. We are planning for now and for beyond the months and years during which we may be physically distanced. We are planning for a bright future that we cannot predict but we can design.

The second truth is that we have embodied true characteristics of leadership, moving a community toward a moral vision of a better world. As organizations, we have engaged in new compromises, leaned in to vulnerabilities and given up power in the name of greater partnership. We have become more comfortable with risk, letting go of assumptions that worked only before COVID.  And this has happened both within communities and across our larger continental Jewish communal space.

Research on the documentation of knowledge sharing within organizational life – or the study of how people learn things to help organizations grow – reveals that innovation comes from structured organizational learning. This is how we make tacit knowledge otherwise explicit. We know intuitively what has been happening over the past seven months. We are living it. But we still need to talk about it and write it down in order to learn from it.

Research on crisis management suggests that we are living in a time that demands rapid innovation under stressful conditions in response to uncertain challenges. How much more could we do at this time if we had a deeper, collective understanding of our work?

The Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly (GA) starts Sunday. On Monday afternoon, at the JewishTogether plenary, we will be celebrating the organized Jewish community’s accomplishments since March (be our guest at the entire GA by registering at www.GeneralAssembly.org).

What story are we telling at that plenary? It’s your story. We interviewed seventy Jewish organizational leaders in North America, exploring the innovation and leadership that characterize this era. As part of the plenary, we will be releasing a reflective study summarizing lessons learned, celebrating our accomplishments, noting areas of needed growth and beginning our formal learning from this time.

It is a story of you, of us and of now. It is a story of how we have leaned on each other to build answers to unanswerable questions. It offers a foundation for continued learning: details of programmatic innovations that any of us can adopt and adapt and a common text to provoke conversation.

Many of us are familiar with the adage from Rabbi Nachman of Bratzlav, “Kol haolam kulo, gesher tzar meod, v’haikar lo lefached klal,” or “The entire world is a narrow bridge, and the essential thing is that we are not afraid.” We are on a bridge between two worlds, unsure of the other side and aware that our missteps could yield great suffering. How do we avoid becoming frightened?

By holding hands as we cross this bridge together. 

Beth Cousens is Associate Vice President, Education and Engagement, The Jewish Federations of North America.