Memorial Day of 2020 calls upon American Jewry to be bold. Naturally, as we emerge from the COVID-19 crisis bruised and compromised, the instinct may be to bunker down. At the same time, there may have never been a better opportunity to make a unique and distinct contribution to this great nation.
In all years, Memorial Day is the national holiday when the United States of America honors those who made the ultimate sacrifice in order to protect this great nation. For American Jews, it is also an opportunity to honor the Jewish women and men who have fought and died for America. By its nature, it is a holiday that celebrates its grand achievements and calls upon us, as individuals and communities, to ask ourselves what we can do for this country.
But Memorial Day of 2020 is special, being the first national holiday in the ‘new normal’ following the COVID-19 crisis. About one hundred thousand have died in the pandemic and millions lost their jobs as large and small businesses were forced to downsize or shut down. The economic implications of this crisis will be profound and felt long into the future.
Expectedly American Jewry has suffered a setback as well. Its financial foundations contracted together with the American economy and the demands on its resources have grown. While this is probably true across the continent, it is particularly true in New York City, which has been dramatically compromised by the pandemic. For American Jewry, the impact on New York City is particularly painful, since this city houses the largest and most influential Jewish community.
Expectedly, in such circumstances, American Jewry may be inclined to sink in, to lower its head and downsize its ambitions. But this would be the wrong approach, because now is the moment to do the opposite: to be bold, to think big, to be strategic and to become the one community that punches above its weight to help American recovery.
This outlook emanates from the confluence of four powerful forces and realities: first, the mission of being a light unto the nations continues to inspire thousands of young Jews to volunteer their time and focus their ingenuity on acute needs of disempowered individuals and communities. Second, technology now allows the creation and dissemination of solutions to millions of vulnerable people in near and far reaches of society. Third, Israel serves as a huge playground for new ideas that can have massive societal application in helping the vulnerable, the poor veterans or people living with disabilities in the USA. Finally, a national web of vibrant Jewish communities that can distribute solutions across America.
Realizing these giant opportunities requires seizing on the opportunities that are hidden in this crisis. Examples include the availability of top-skill talent as tens of thousands of students and young professionals who lost their jobs or may not be able to go back to school, compounded by the leap in the habits and ability for distance-working in co-designing and disseminating solutions.
The cornerstone of this outlook is a simple truth: while there is dramatic scarcity there is also tremendous abundance. Both can be found side by side in many communities, cities, counties or states. Poverty and vulnerability may exist alongside goodwill, talent, untapped manufacturing capabilities and financial resources. Furthermore, similar dynamics are unfolding everywhere: solve problems for one senior citizens home, solve problems for all senior citizen’s home. Solutions created in New York City can help people in every other large and small community and vice versa.
So the key idea here is to build a platform for societal innovation, which can allow the abundance to meet the scarcity and the best of American talent to solve some of societies’ most acute problems. Such a platform can generate multiple solutions to multiple problems generating a swell of innovation across the country.
Right now may be the best time to imagine a not-for-profit hybrid of RAND Corporation, Bell-Labs and a Social Investment Fund that combines research, policy, technology and financing. It would be paid for by the Jewish community and serve all Americans, connected to Israel but operating in the fifty states of the United States in all great cities and small communities. It would focus on issues that are unlikely to have the attention of markets or governments because there are no evident financial or political rewards.
Any day is a good day for thinking about the destiny of American Jewry. But Memorial Day is a very special day, because everything about it challenges us to imagine our place in America’s greatness.