By Doron Kenter
In Fourth Grade (or thereabouts), we learned the five “W”s – Who, What, Where, Why, and When. Whether it was in service of a book report or a current events project, we asked and answered the five “W”s, guiding us to certain of the essential issues at hand. In this strange environment that we’re all navigating, there is no shortage of questions to be asked. Who needs help? (Literally everyone.) Who can/should we help? (A harder question.) What kind of help can we offer? (My professional life focuses primarily – but not exclusively – on financial forms of assistance, but of course there are so many answers to this question.) Where should we focus our efforts? (Another hard question, with issues of access, local vs. communal responsibility, and more.) Why should we help? (Take your pick.)
But the question been disproportionately boring its way into my mind lately is the last – When? And by when, I don’t mean it in the sense of “Now” that we so often speak about with respect to Hillel’s dictum regarding the urgency of action or, as we learn from Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, that the Messianic Era would come “today,” if only we deserved it.
Rather, I mean “when” in the sense of what is the time period for this project, program, intervention, system change, etc.? In other words, what is the timeline for what we’re hoping to accomplish, when do we expect the project to bear fruit, and when will it wind down (or how long will it continue)?
To put a finer point on this concept, I’d like to suggest three principal answers to this question, at least in the context of our current environment.
- Interventions targeting the next ~12 months. These are interventions or programs that are meant to address pressing issues in the COVID world. At most, these are meant to bridge the gap from a COVID/recession landscape to, God-willing, a return to some degree of what we were used to, or to a newly defined landscape of Jewish life and learning, engagement with Israel, etc. These types of solutions might help someone to have uninterrupted health care coverage, engage families, campers, and staff in online summer camp, or facilitate Israel education via online teleconferencing, designed to meet the needs of an environment in which people cannot readily board a plane for Israel.
- Targeting the next ~12 months *and* beyond: These are the programs and decisions that address immediate needs, but will also be useful as we transition beyond immediate needs, social distancing, and economic recession. These can include infrastructure to allow those who are unable to attend in-person events to join livestreamed prayer and learning opportunities, development of year-round engagement opportunities for camp families, and skills training to enable furloughed and laid-off Jewish communal professionals to develop new and/or improved skills that will benefit them and their communities as they return to the workforce.
- Long-term strategic decisions, interventions, and programming: Lastly, there is a category of initiatives and priorities that would be equally salient before, during, and after the pandemic, or in its absence. COVID and all that it has precipitated may have accelerated or prompted these initiatives, but they are not inherently focused on the existence of the pandemic or the new reality associated with it. This might include continued support for academic institutions and applied research, training in eternally useful skill sets, and capital projects unrelated to accommodation of social distancing and public health.
Ordinarily, one might be tempted to characterize everything as Option #2 – it is attractive to think of something as responsive to pandemic *and* impactful in years to come, particularly because of the uncertainty of what life will look like in 6, 9, 12 months and beyond. But it is also entirely possible that, in attempting to serve two important objectives, we wind up compromising both. On the one hand, a project that could be useful post-COVID may be inadequate in addressing the unique needs that we face in this environment – it might cannibalize other essential programs, divert necessary resources (including staff time and creative energies), or ignore the critical physical and existential needs of the COVID era. On the other hand, a project that primarily targets the COVID era may turn out to be unnecessary, less-than-ideal, or even problematic in post-COVID times. Certain online programming may be a necessity (and may be useful for those in outlying areas, among others), but we may not want to put sustained communal resources into Jewish learning and engagement that doesn’t allow for true face-to-face, human interaction, at the expense of powerful in-person and/or immersive experiences. Collaborations that meet immediate needs may create unnecessary burdens where such partnerships are no longer useful to the underlying objectives. Undue focus on sustainability may cause us to ignore the inherent necessity of making unsustainable investments to address critical, pressing needs. And the list goes on. All of this is not to say that there is one right answer to the question of timing and the arenas in which any of our programs, projections, interventions, and efforts should be focused. Rather, we should remember to ask – in addition to so many other questions – (i) what time frame are we focused on and (ii) are we sacrificing value in service of an attempt to frame our work as timeless.
“How” we do all this is, of course, an even trickier question. Tze U’lmad; Let’s go and learn.
Doron Kenter is a Program Officer at Maimonides Fund.
 Mishnah Avot 1:14
 BT Sanhedrin 98a