Communal Responses to Pandemic

On May 6th, the Institute convened a session for the fellows and graduates of the Mandel Executive Leadership Program with Eric Fingerhut, President and CEO of JFNA, Doron Krakow, President of JCC Association of North America and Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. The three network leaders engaged in a wide-ranging discussion about communal responses to COVID-19, sharing insights on the immediate adaptation underway, as well as what may be required to survive and emerge stronger from the crisis. We are pleased to the share the full webinar and a brief recap of the discussion in this post.

Jewish communal institutions are facing a range of challenges and demands as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. JCCs have been hit hardest from a business standpoint. On average, JCCs derive 80% of their revenue from direct fees-for-services, which evaporated overnight in early March. As the largest employer in the Jewish community, they have had to let-go, furlough, or reduce the salary of 19,000 full- and part-time employees, or nearly half their workforce. JCCs are bracing for another major hit with the closure of summer camps, an anchor of their annual programming and major revenue source. JCCs have moved some of their programming online and are providing sites for critical services, such as food and blood drives, and childcare for essential works. Beyond the immediate financial pressures, Krakow shared that the crisis is providing an opportunity to “look forward and begin the renewal of our work as the community’s town square.”

JFNA and local federations have leaned into their purpose as communal conveners, advocates, and funders. In describing the response of federations, Fingerhut reflected,“all of a sudden, we are reminded with absolute clarity, of what the role of federation is in every single community—it brings the community together, it knows the needs of the community, and it leans in to ensure that the needs are being met through agencies and programs.” Since March, federations have raised and distributed $100m to local agencies, above the $900m raised in last year’s annual campaigns. Federations are working quickly and responsively, taking money from endowments, and simplifying and expediting grant cycles to meet immediate needs. They have also provided critical technical assistance to local Jewish organizations applying for SBA loans, totaling $300m in relief, and likely upwards of $500m across the community.

The 300 Jewish day schools in the Prizmah network adapted rapidly to virtual teaching and learning. Some of the first schools to close in the country were Jewish day schools, such as SAR in Riverdale, New York. Within days of widespread school closures, SAR was able to share learning and best practices with colleagues in the network—a fact Bernstein points to as a sign of strength in the field. The transition to virtual learning for Jewish day schools has been characterized by a dual commitment to content delivery and community building. Financial pressures are now beginning to mount for families and reenrollment is a growing concern. Prizmah predicts a $200m budget shortfall for schools across the network next year and the potential for permanent closures. While the immediate logistical and financial pressures are great, Bernstein hopes that Prizmah will be able to help schools “think creatively and get beyond the technical challenges to the more adaptive ones.”

Fingerhut, Krakow, and Bernstein agreed that the interdependence of Jewish communal institutions has never been clearer and that collaboration will be key to a successful response. JFNA convened an emergency coalition of eight national umbrella organizations plus CEOs of other Jewish nonprofits. This body comes together regularly to share information and resources for response efforts, a level of coordination not seen in the field to date. Beyond addressing immediate needs, the members of this coalition are forging personal and institutional relationships that all three leaders believe will create pathways for tackling deeper challenges in the years ahead.

Some pathways for cooperation are already evident. Bernstein pointed to the closure of camps as an opportunity to launch experiments that would bring together local organizations—such as camps, schools, and JCCs—that don’t typically collaborate or share resources. Krakow suggested that the crisis could provide an opportunity to right-size the community’s infrastructure and think critically about how each player can contribute toward a greater whole. Fingerhut shared his optimism that the solidarity and collaboration we are seeing today will last long into the future, making it possible to break down silos, competition, and other barriers that impede collective work. All three leaders emphasized that a return to “normal” is not possible, or even desirable. Their hope is that this crisis will create space for more imagination and a linking of arms to address present and future challenges facing the North American Jewish community.

— Eva Heinstein