For Everything There is a Season

by Mark Wilf, JFNA Chair and Eric Fingerhut, JFNA President/CEO

Originally printed in Jerusalem Post on July 17, 2020


“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1). We will never forget the spring of COVID-19. We lost loved ones. We closed our schools and businesses. Millions of people became unemployed.

But we have also seen remarkable resilience and leadership. Healthcare workers inspired us with their dedication, while rabbis consoled mourners in Zoom shivas. In addition, Jewish Federations swung into action. Together with effective governmental advocacy and intense community-wide collaboration, our collective response produced remarkable results across North America.

We also helped Jews around the world. Jewish Federations’ partners at the Jewish Agency for Israel made loan funds available to devastated Jewish communities in Europe and South America, and the JDC helped support the struggling nonprofit sector in Israel and the needy in other countries.

History will clearly record that the core organizations of Jewish life responded to the global pandemic with speed and generosity. However, this crisis is not over, and our communities remain at risk. With ever-changing predictions about the course of the virus, there are urgent steps we must take.

Support health and safety

When it comes to reopening, each community center, school and camp knows the relative risks and needs of their members best. But they all need clear public health standards, regular supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE), access to rapid testing and results, reconfigured facilities, and augmented programs. The safety risks that were so obvious after the outbreaks in Pittsburgh, San Diego, New Jersey and New York have only grown over the past few months.

Of course, private philanthropy will be needed, but the costs of reopening cannot be the absorbed by private donors alone. Federations led the effort to create the federal government’s Nonprofit Security Grant Fund, and we worked to ensure that the nonprofit and faith-based communities were included in the government’s response to the pandemic.

The Paycheck Protection Program helped us stay solvent when we were forced to close our doors this spring. Similar efforts are now needed as we work to send our children back to school and restore the essential elements of Jewish life.

Recognize increased need

We are facing a serious and prolonged economic downturn. The demands placed on organizations that provide food and shelter, mental and physical healthcare, and vocational support will grow tremendously. Philanthropists and government already have done a lot, but the real needs are just becoming apparent. We must prepare ourselves for a much longer emergency period.

We are proud of the $175 million in emergency funds raised by Federations these past four months and of the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund that has helped so many institutions stay afloat. But there will be a second wave of need as public benefits run out.

We are creating a fund to help raise additional resources for our front-line providers and are partnering with JPro to support unemployed Jewish professionals. When Congress returns to Washington next week, we will urge congressional representatives to address these urgent economic and social service needs.

Support promising innovations

Much of what we are doing online we will gladly return to an in-person setting as soon as it is safe to do so. But we have also learned that we can bring quality educational content to more people than ever before. We can also include people in our meetings and discussions who cannot be physically present, and we can gather globally in powerful ways.

Many creative and dynamic outreach efforts have been made during these past few months, including the Jewish Service Alliance’s Serve the Moment campaign, Hillel@Home, BBYO On-Demand, the Moishe House Living Room, our own Jewish Changemakers Fellowship, and so many more. Federations have also organized volunteers to support and check on vulnerable community members in incredible numbers. These initiatives were launched across the full spectrum of Jewish life, and we need to invest in these innovations to keep them growing.

Deepen connections to Israel and Jews around the world

When the skies were full of planes bringing us on trips and conferences, the lack of an overall strategy to deepen relationships between the Jewish state and the Jewish people globally did not seem as pressing. But now that the skies are closed, we are reminded daily of our shared need to work together. We have been meeting with members of the new Israeli government, and they have all made clear that they are committed to deepening relations with Jews around the world. Indeed, the first action of the government not related to coronavirus was to adopt a landmark report on exactly this topic. While we may still disagree on many things, we will use this time to build new paths to a shared future for the Jewish people.

COVID-19 is a new challenge, and it continues to unfold in unexpected ways. But it is the values we have carried with us for generations that enable us to respond effectively: the power of collective action, the necessity of collaboration, and the responsibility to care for the entire community. That’s why we know that if we continue to act decisively, we can move from a season of pain to a season of rebuilding and renewal.

Mark Wilf is chair of the board of trustees of The Jewish Federation of North America. Eric D. Fingerhut is president and CEO of The Jewish Federations of North America.