Ten months into the global COVID-19 pandemic, five months since the murder of George Floyd, and less than two weeks from one of the most contentious election years in American history, finding a silver lining in all this tragedy and hostility is very difficult.
Everything feels more divided and disjointed than ever; tensions and conflicts raging in every corner of the world, and even between Jews in the Diaspora and Israel, are suffocating even the most optimistic among us.
Wherever you look, 2020 has been a year of unprecedented challenges. People everywhere are struggling to make sense of the acrimonious winds swirling all around them, and having a hard time adjusting to the hardships of the pandemic — the restrictions, lockdowns, the fear, the suffering.
And even though finding rays of light piercing all this darkness is not easy, they do exist. From the courage of the first responders and healthcare professionals risking their lives to save others, to the heightened awareness of the systemic injustices pervasive in the US and elsewhere, to the families that have been brought closer together than ever by sheltering in place, there are positive things worth acknowledging and even celebrating. In fact, some of the limitations and problems we have experienced this year have sparked real progress and creative achievements, and underscore the ways we, the Jewish people, and others have demonstrated great strength and resilience.
A great example of how Jews the world over are rising to today’s profound challenges can be found in our online behavior. In the US, virtual Jewish communities are not only providing a way for people to engage when they cannot otherwise meet face-to-face, but people are actually connecting online like never before, even in some cases surpassing attendance in traditional physical settings.
Anecdotally, at least, we see signs of deep Jewish engagement everywhere. Several reports (LA Jewish Journal and JTA) in the Jewish media showed that many synagogues and temples in the Reform, Reconstructionist and Conservative movements were experiencing far higher-than-average attendance at Shabbat services and other events nationwide. Subsequent studies of participation in High Holiday services and activities found a similar spike, unquestionably because of the new and innovative approaches many rabbis, cantors, educators and congregations embraced to increase their reach.
The pandemic has also sparked a surge in creativity, as groups seek to bring their content and programs to ever-increasing audiences. Movements targeting specific demographics, especially younger Jews, are seeing big spikes in virtual programs. Hillel International, which builds community for college-age Jews, and it’s Hillel@Home platform offered scores of programs, from webinars with celebrities like Black-Jewish basketball star Amar’e Stoudemire to online e-sports tournaments to a Dead Sea environmental tour.
Others are similarly pivoting creatively. Over the High Holidays, Moishe House partnered with a global Facebook community called Corona Crush for Expedition Love in the Sukkah, which paired Jewish singles ages 21-39 in a free, immersive digital challenge. Others such as BBYO launched a March Madness-like challenge for teens to design new engagement programs and win funding. Newer organizations including JewBelong and Haggadot.com are providing free innovative resources for Jews of all backgrounds.
Meanwhile, the Jewish Insider daily e-letter started the “Jewish Nielsen” feature tracking how well various Jewish organizations were doing in convening people to virtual meetings. In one typical week, Zoom meetings ranged from over 600 people to over 1,700 participants.
Certainly, each of us longs for the day when we can return to regular, in-person social interaction and it is unclear whether increased participation in Jewish life online will translate into greater communal engagement when we emerge from this pandemic. My hope is that the lessons many of us learned this year will promote the use of ever-improving online tools and other means to connect the Jewish people in unprecedented numbers and ways, a critical step in unifying and strengthening our people for an increasingly challenging world.
Just this year, the initiative I lead, Our Common Destiny, inspired thousands of Jews from around the world to vote virtually on their Jewish priorities, helping to crowdsource the Declaration of Our Common Destiny – a document President Reuven Rivlin has called a potential “roadmap for the future of the Jewish people.” What we aim to show is that Jews from Argentina to Canada, and from Russia to South Africa, regardless of their level of observance or their respective Jewish journeys, all share much more in common than what often divides us.
Central to the mission of Our Common Destiny is warmly embracing every Jew as they see themselves. We believe diversity is a blessing, and are committed to using the core principles, values and traditions that have united the Jewish people for centuries to unify and strengthen ourselves, now and for the future. We refuse to pretend we’re all the same: in fact, the more than 14 million Jews in the world today represent a rich, complex and beautiful mosaic that forms the very foundation of our peoplehood — the bonds that have united us through global dispersion, defended us against bigotry and violence, and helped us survive our darkest hour, the Holocaust.
The vast majority of our differences are complementary, not contradictory. By working together, I am confident we will emerge from these days of seemingly unending divisions and strife, just as we have always managed to overcome whatever obstacles have been placed before us. And I am optimistic about our future, a bright one in which we, the Jewish people, no matter the challenges, continue to find creative ways to connect and unite, to strengthen our community every day.
Since each of us has a pivotal role to play in realizing that dream, we must not let the current circumstances isolate or divide us. As Rabbi Irving “Yitz” Greenberg teaches us so convincingly, we must “choose life” in seeking to improve the world through goodness in our every action, and work together to overcome these days of discord and crisis. We must connect and create the future we want for ourselves, our children and all the generations that follow.
We must, and we can.