Where Do We Go From Here?
Reflections On 2021
A Jewish Response to These Uncertain Times

Reish Lakish said: In order that the year may conclude together with its curses, and the new year may begin without the ominous reading of the curses.1

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

A new year provides us with the appropriate occasion to offer resolutions, make predictions and even offer aspirations for what might be next!

Indeed, as so many have expressed, we will be happy to see the end of 2020. We should remind ourselves that we entered this year with the promise of a robust economy and the start of a new and exciting decade, these earlier expectations now seem so remote, to some extent unreal.

With all of its complexities and challenges, these twelve months have represented for many of us a systemic nightmare and a national trauma. We have endured a ten-month pandemic, experienced racial strife and anti-Semitic conspiratorial expressions, and encountered a dysfunctional American political system.2

How should we understand this time frame? For certain, we have witnessed a period where untruths were permitted to stand as “facts.” We endured threats to our democracy as we were introduced to “alternative realities.” We have and are experiencing cyber-attacks designed to paralyze and compromise government agencies, the corporate sector and more. Our country has seen nearly one-third of a million of its citizens perish from COVID-19. In this moment, millions are experiencing hunger, remain jobless, while facing evictions.

What were the compelling stories during this year that may have been lost amidst these many problematic, unsettling headlines? The human dimension defined how people made a profound difference in the lives of their fellow citizens. We come away from this moment with a heightened appreciation for teachers, health care providers, and emergency personnel. These extraordinary expressions of humanity will need to be carried forward as our living legacy. Goodness as a civic virtue must be affirmed.

Indeed, this past year reminds us of the value of our relationships, the importance of health and wellness, and the necessity of preparedness. Upon reflection, the year 2020 represented a unique experience in which many of us learned to live creatively in isolation. In so many different ways we encountered ourselves through the experience of separation. Through this pandemic, we confronted the sacred value of relationships, the meaning and centrality of friendships.

If one reads and believes the 2021 predictions and forecasts, the year ahead offers some compelling promises and outcomes. The technological innovations, economic forecasts, and cultural achievements would appear to be impressive.3 The availability and distribution of vaccines may serve as our critical lifeline in moving forward.

The year before us will represent a different type of personal and public challenge as we will eventually re-emerge into the public square. Fortunately, with reentry, we can rely on some historic wisdom to assist us with what may lie ahead. After the 1918 pandemic, the Great Depression, and World War II, Americans created various celebratory moments, and this we can and should do again:4

  • Ritualizing this experience, memorializing our losses and welcoming folks back.
  • Developing a reflective moment: What did we learn about ourselves, others, and our society during this pandemic? Mapping these memorable experiences will be particularly significant for future generations!
  • Organizing ways to thank front line workers
  • Pre-planning so we will be ready the next time such a crisis-moment faces us.

What Lies Ahead?

The tasks before us are significant, as they are essential. The real work ahead is core to who we are and what we represent:

  • Restoring Health: The physical, emotional and social well-being of our society must be seen as core to our future!
  • Returning to Civility: Are we able to create a responsible and sustained dialogue within this nation and within our community? Our political elites must emulate and foster this behavior of engagement.
  • Reasserting Trust: Will we construct the elements of transparency and inclusion essential to return a level of belief and confidence in our leaders, institutions, and one another?
  • Re-establishing a Dialogue around Race and Culture: Can we move to a place where our society is able to have a candid conversation around the issues of racism and where we begin to confront the corrosive issues of cancel culture and anti-Semitism.
  • Rebuilding our National Economy and Infrastructure: This nation must address our basic functional resources and structural needs if we are to successfully operate and compete in the global marketplace.

For Jews, we will need to be a part of each of these essential conversations, but in addition we must also address the particular considerations that define our community:5

  • Revisiting the Jewish Communal Story: Over these many months our rabbis, educators and communal professionals creatively reinvented Jewish learning, transformed religious and spiritual practice, and provided for the delivery of vital human services. These innovative contributions helped to sustain and preserve us. Our federations and foundations were essential partners in underwriting and supporting core initiatives to maintain our communal order.
  • Reimaging Community: As we move forward out of this pandemic, our religious and human service infrastructures will be financially challenged, and many of our families, having experienced emotional and physical challenges, will require our assistance.

In the months ahead, we as a community, meaning our agencies, synagogues and schools, will be in transition. The pandemic will add a new urgency and focus on the state of our communal order, its financial and structural viability. Who we were, will not be what we are about to become!

We will also be experiencing something strikingly different, the rise of a Pandemic Jewish Generation, young folks would have lived through both the 2008 Great Recession and the 2020 Pandemic. How have these transformative moments altered their Jewish consciousness, economic and communal sensibilities? In the 1930’s we catalogued the Depression Generation, identifying their distinctive cultural and social behaviors.

  • Reopening Essential Jewish Conversations: Even as we may disagree about communal and Israeli politics, how can we talk to and with one another? What are the opportunities and the threats we as a community need to consider? These are the difficult, yet essential conversations that must take place!
  • Re-establishing the Diaspora-Israel Connection: How do we define the essence of our historic and contemporary relationship? What does that mean at this time, even as we may differ around policies and practices, what are the binding features to align us as a people and culture?
  • Repositioning our Community: How we engage our fellow Americans in conversations around race, ethnicity, culture and community will signal how prepared and committed we are to change the civic discourse and social practice.

How we tackle these and other existential questions before us will be the measures that determine how we and our society will be judged. These expectations will serve as a fundamental test of our humanity, compassion and commitment to change the place from where we begin 2021 to a fundamentally different outcome at year-end! We are being asked to move from a point of disengagement and disruption in order to create a different paradigm of connectivity and community.

Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com

1 https://www.sefaria.org/Megillah.31b.10?lang=bi&with=all&lang2=en

2 https://scriptions.huc.edu/descriptions

3 https://www.forbes.com/sites/bernardmarr/2020/12/07/the-10-biggest-business-trends-for-2021-everyone-must-be-ready-for/?sh=26a7aa9fc585

4 https://jewishjournal.com/commentary/325913/what-can-history-tell-us-about-recovering-from-a-crisis/

5 http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/the-revolution-is-upon-uspreparing-for-the-new-normal/