Steven Windmueller
Is it Good for the Jews?

Ten Outcomes: Jews and this Pandemic Moment

I. Greatest Jewish Learning Moment in History: With the availability of Zoom, more Jews are being exposed to Jewish learning, history,  and culture than at any point in time.  Synagogues, national organizations, and federations are all reporting significant attendance for many of their educational programs. Similarly, significantly larger numbers of Jews are participating in religious worship observances. A new “virtual Judaism” is emerging that represents a level of communal engagement.[1] This thirst for Jewish engagement is confirmed in part by the data identifying levels of communal participation, compiled by Jewish Insider.[2]

2. Collaborative Culture: There appears to be a significant shift from individual and silo institutional activities to collective programs bringing synagogues among other organizations together. Such initiatives as “Scholars in their Residences,[3]” “Jew It at Home,[4]” and Judaism Unbound [5]reflect this new programmatic model. The focus on shared learning and joint engagement represents a fundamental new model of connection.

3. Virtual Community: We are experiencing a rebirth of community, as polling data reports increased numbers of participants attending worship services and participating in public gatherings. Will this pattern hold, and does it mean an end to the age of individualism? Far too soon to project. Whole new social patterns of ‘community’ are being formed in the aftermath of this pandemic. Holidays, family gatherings, meetings and religious rituals are all being carried forward in new and creative ways. How will community be reshaped and possibly “reborn” in the aftermath of this experience?

4. Relational Judaism[6]: A central outcome in this moment has been the affirmation of the power of relationships. Rabbis with their congregants, teachers with their students, and community professionals in connection with their leadership confirm the value of personal contacts during such periods of isolation and separation. The “value-added” of belonging is affirmed in these times, as members of synagogues and organizations affirm the benefits of community and connectivity.

5. Creativity Abounds: As the virus creates contain, Jewish professionals are producing a heightened degree of creative programming and an array of alternative service delivery models. Accessing information and resources and constructing new platforms for teaching, organizing, and educating represent some of the new technological options coming on-line at this time.

6. The Rise of Jewish Family and Community Foundations: Over these five months, major Jewish foundations are playing a central role in providing critical resources and helping to manage the financial challenges facing our community. As federations continue to play a key role in communal organizing and managing the distribution of critical resources. “Localism” represents a theme central to such economic crisis, as donors are seen shifting their priorities to community-based needs, namely hunger insecurity, homelessness, and vocational rehabilitation, while stepping away in the interim from other philanthropic priorities. The impact of this financial redeployment will in the short term weaken second tier charities, those dedicated to the arts and culture, international education and programming, etc.[7] This is only the second time in American history where the Jewish communal system has been eligible for federal dollars for core operational and institutional needs. The Great Depression marked the first and only other occasion where synagogues and communal institutions were eligible for government subsidies and loan packages. The CARES Act has permitted religious organizations the opportunity to sustain payrolls and meet other budgetary needs.[8]

7. Hate in the Age of the Pandemic: Sadly, with such health crisis and economic uncertainties, conspiracy theories seem to be prevalent and dominant. As history demonstrates during such periods, conspiratorial notions represent a commonplace occurrence. Anti-Semitic actions and statements, some focusing on Israel while others seek to describe the virus as both controlled and beneficial to Jewish interests. The spike in anti-Semitic and anti-Israel sentiment has raised growing concerns among American Jews.[9]

8. Economic Dislocation: Mergers-Closures-Downsizing An economic tsunami is taking place across institutional and denominational lines. In excess of 20,000 communal professionals and staff have been laid off, as JCC’s, camps, federations, and educational institutions downsize.  Various mergers have been announced. The longer the virus requires restrictive social practices, the more significant and extensive the economic fall-out. Growing out of this transformative moment, we are likely to see emerge a 21st century communal echo-system, as we will be shifting from a 19th century institutional model that had been operating with a 20th century agenda.[10] The negative economic impact is not only being felt on Jewish institutions but also among families and individual households, as layoffs take place and jobs are terminated. One in four American households are reporting some disruption to income or employment.  Young singles, the elderly on fixed incomes, and parts of the Orthodox community are among the most negatively affected. “The Pandemic Generation” has been a term developed by sociologists referencing Gen Z and Milliennials who have experienced both the 2008 Great Recession and this virus and whose economic and social behaviors are likely to be permanently impacted by these events.

9. Isolation and Loneliness: Many psychologists are writing about the impact of this period of separation on singles, the elderly and the very young. As social animals, humans crave for communal connections. This moment prevents many of the basic interactions that define social engagement. What are likely to be both short and long term implications of this period of disconnect among family members, friends, and business associates? The longer we remain disconnected, the more challenging and uncertain will be the social, emotional outcomes from this experience.

10. The Demographic Reality: The Aging of World Jewry. A core structural reality facing our community involves the element of aging. Jews are amongst the oldest white ethnic communities in the Western world. The virus’ significant and deadly impact on the elderly is directly borne out by the data on the higher percentages of losses sustained by the Jewish community in Europe, Israel and among specific populations of institutionally-bound Jewish seniors in the United States.[11]

Indeed, there are other core trends of importance to the community and our larger society.  Over time additional insights and findings will be posted in connection with the Jewish response to the challenging events unfolding during this unsettling moment.

The data for this survey has been extracted both from Dr. Windmueller’s writings in connection with the pandemic and the work of other scholars, journalists and commentators.

[1] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/the-morning-afterwhat-we-need-to-know-about-the-coronavirus-and-ourselves/

[2] https://jewishinsider.com/2020/07/whos-watching-what-weeks-15-16-and-17/

[3] https://ohebsholom.org/event/scholars-in-their-residences/all/

[4] https://jewitathome.com/

[5] https://www.judaismunbound.com/

[6] http://drronwolfson.com/books/relational-judaism/

[7] https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/covid-19-and-the-american-jewish-economic-crisis/

[8] https://www.hklaw.com/en/insights/publications/2020/04/religious-institutions-and-the-cares-act-a-closer-look

[9] https://www.npr.org/2020/05/13/854852779/jewish-americans-feel-scapegoated-for-the-coronavirus-spread

[10] https://jewishfederations.org/federation-impact-stories/major-jewish-organizations-form-emergency-pandemic-coalition

[11] https://www.timesofisrael.com/from-new-york-to-milan-how-coronavirus-is-hitting-jewish-communities-worldwide/

 

About the Author
Steven Windmueller, Ph.D. is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. Prior to coming to HUC, Dr.Windmueller served for ten years as the JCRC Director of the LA Jewish Federation. Between 1973-1985, he was the director of the Greater Albany Jewish Federation (now the Federation of Northeastern New York). He began his career on the staff of the American Jewish Committtee. The author of four books and numerous articles, Steven Windmueller focuses his research and writings on Jewish political behavior, communal trends, and contemporary anti-Semitism.
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