Jews have long had a reputation for being pessimists.
The quintessential Jewish telegram is said to read: “Start worrying. Details to follow.”
And for good reason. Over the centuries we have endured so much prejudice, brutality and tragedy from anti-Semites that if you showed us a silver lining, we’d look for the cloud.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see that, when a diverse group of about 60 Jewish men and women were asked the other night whether they tend to believe the Jewish community will come out of the Covid pandemic better or worse than before, a whopping 76 percent answered “better.”
I found the response encouraging and inspiring, an antidote to the perception that our communal institutions — synagogues, camps, day schools, JCCs and organizations — may never recover from the financial devastation Covid has wrought.
Granted, this was not a random group that was polled. They were alums of The Conversation, the annual Jewish Week-sponsored retreat that over the last 15 years has hosted more than 750 accomplished and thoughtful people who are living intentional Jewish lives. So they tend to be doers.
The group in question participated last Thursday evening in a 90-minute Virtual Conversation, via Zoom, on the subject: “Imagining A Post-Pandemic Jewish Community. Discuss.” Like the in-person Conversation that it was modeled after, the program was designed to provide a safe space, however virtual, for discussion. It allowed participants with diverse backgrounds and views to listen to and really hear each other. It was an all-too-rare exercise in civil discourse.
In framing the evening at the outset, I noted that our history as a people has shown that we’ve endured far worse than this pandemic, tragic as it is. And we’ve survived, and flourished.
The question is whether we are up to the challenge today, communally and personally.
There is much to be proud of how our community has responded to date with innovative thinking, creative technology and generous philanthropy. And yet there is much to worry about our future.
The Jewish federation movement, though seen by some critics as Old School, stepped up and has done what it does best – respond to an emergency. In this case, that meant providing major funding to bail out and help sustain a wide range of Jewish institutions. UJA-Federation continues to play a leading role in this impressive effort.
Foundations and funders also were remarkably quick to work together and come up with more than $90 million in interest-free loans and grants within a few weeks. And the funding has continued. In making tough decisions about prioritizing their dollars, the funders, understandably, have favored innovative projects and collaborative efforts rather than just propping up established organizations.
When Covid struck, synagogues and Jewish day schools had to pivot almost overnight from in-person worship and teaching to virtual services and classes. Some have done so with great thoughtfulness and compassion, learning and improving along the way. High Holiday virtual services were everywhere this year, and standout efforts drew record numbers.
But how many of us will go back to the synagogue post-Covid? How will our houses of prayer have to change to draw us in again?
The cost of day school tuitions has been a major problem for decades. Will online learning be the way of the future? Will parents continue to pay the high costs amidst these drastic economic conditions?
For years, rabbis have been critical of lavish spending on weddings and bar and bat mitzvahs. Not much worked until Covid hit, and families had to adjust radically in scaling simchas down. Will we go back to extravagant celebrations on the other side of the pandemic?
Among the silver linings of the pandemic has been the dramatic increase in virtual learning opportunities: Torah study and Jewish-content classes, lectures and seminars have drawn large numbers of participants from around the world. Similarly, virtual Shabbat services have made a wide variety of religious experiences available for exploration. And Zoom shiva visits have allowed us to comfort friends who live across the country, or across the world.
What other changes will – or should – remain? It was all up for discussion the other night.
There was a general consensus that the pandemic has served as a wake-up call, however harsh.
For starters, it was clear that the participants relished the opportunity to meet and engage with other caring Jews at a time of social and sometimes physical quarantine. It took them no time to get into deep-dive discussions.
In small breakout groups, they expressed major concerns about an uncertain future as the reality of a long-term pandemic has taken hold. There was acknowledgment that pre-Covid “normal life” is not coming back, that our inability to plan and predict our path makes us feel increasingly vulnerable, and that it is likely that a number of our Jewish institutions, lacking the ability to pivot or reinvent themselves without sufficient funds, will not survive.
But there was also a general consensus that the pandemic has served as a wake-up call, however harsh. Its forced isolation has made us appreciate the basic human desire for connection and community. We’re re-thinking the value of long work hours and business travel; we’re turning increasingly inward, devoting more energy to family, friendship, spiritual health and doing our share to make the world a better place.
There was much discussion about closing the divides in our society, underscored by the severity of the medical, economic and educational impact of Covid on the most vulnerable. There were calls to radically re-think Jewish communal priorities, with an emphasis on assuring they serve our current and future needs. And there was a realization that we can, and should, take advantage of the collapsing boundaries that have separated us geographically, denominationally and in other ways for so long.
In the end, imagining a Jewish future that focuses on innovation, inclusion and inspiration can lift our spirits at a time when we look forward not only to grand communal goals but to tender personal ones, like finally hugging the people we love.
Gary Rosenblatt (Gary@jewishweek.org) is the editor at large of The Jewish Week.