How has COVID-19 affected Jewish organizations?

There is a recognition that this new reality we are in is not settled, and it is unclear as we see these waves of COVID infections come in, said William Daroff.

Women wearing protective face masks pause to take in a view as they walk on the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan on the first day of the park's re-opening following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., July 16, 2020 (photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
Women wearing protective face masks pause to take in a view as they walk on the elevated High Line Park in Manhattan on the first day of the park's re-opening following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York City, New York, U.S., July 16, 2020
(photo credit: REUTERS/MIKE SEGAR)
WASHINGTON – As the US experiences a spike in new COVID-19 cases in the past month, many Jewish organizations are struggling financially. The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations hosted on Tuesday a webinar to discuss what the organizations have learned, and where they are headed.
William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents, told The Jerusalem Post that the situation with nonprofits and Jewish communal organizations is still very fluid and very much up in the air. There is a recognition that this new reality we are in is not settled, he said, and it is unclear as we see these waves of COVID-19 infections come in, now mostly in the southern and the western United States.
He said that planning in this environment is like “playing Rubik’s Cube on steroids” because so many potential options exist for what the future will look like.
“One top level is on philanthropy,” Daroff continued. “People who were donors to Jewish institutions in January and February, now find themselves being recipients of social service assistance from Jewish agencies because they have been laid off or had their hours reduced or otherwise have financial difficulties, as well as sickness and illness because of COVID.”
Speaking about layoffs, furloughs and pay cuts at Jewish agencies across the US, Daroff said that lack of certainty creates instability within the Jewish communal world and within the nonprofit world.
“There will certainly be a number of nonprofits that were around in March that will not be around when we get out of this,” he said. “And part of that will be the efficiencies of the system that nonprofits come together and figure out how they can do more with less, or which agencies can be merged into others. But there will be agencies that are needed and necessary, but just don’t have the resources to sustain themselves and will disappear.”
Daroff said that he is worried about Jewish communal organizations sustaining themselves through this crisis and after. “Most nonprofits do not have a huge rainy day fund,” he noted. “These agencies are focused on providing critical services to help people and not on holding funds back, so they have big financial cushions to rely upon.”
Some of the institutions are pay-for-service, such as Jewish Community Centers (JCC), which have seen a massive decline in income in the past four months.
Doron Krakow, president and CEO of JCC Association of North America, told the Post that there are 173 JCCs across the United States and Canada, that pre-pandemic, would generate roughly $1.6 billion annually. About 1.5 million people would attend these centers in-person weekly, he noted. “It’s the biggest point of contact for the North American Jewish community that we have on a face to face basis.”
A major stream of revenue is the Jewish summer camp program, with about a hundred thousand kids a year. “We are the largest employer [in the community]; we have 37,000 full and part-time staff that work in JCCs during the year, and in the summer, another 17,000 camp staff. So all together, over 50,000 people are on our payroll over the course of the year,” said Krakow.
The JCCs are 80% self-sufficient, meaning that fundraising covers only 20% of the operating budget. “But that, which is typically our strength, became a very substantial challenge for us because when COVID came along, most of the JCCs were compelled to be closed for extended periods,” he said. “And so most of the income from users disappeared entirely.”
And because the summer camp season was so severely affected this summer, which is a significant season for revenue, it creates problems both in the present and in the future, he said.
“We have 25 overnight camps, and all 25 have canceled their summer season because of COVID,” Krakow noted. “We have about 150 day camps. Most of them are operating, but with only a fraction of the number of kids that they usually get.” He mentioned that more than 10,000 employees, which is roughly 25% of the year-round staff, either have been furloughed or laid off.
One significant source of help was the federal loans program. “It brought in over $140 million in cash flow at a tough time, it was very helpful, and that allowed JCCs to continue to employ a significant number of staff for an additional period of time, but that money wasn’t going to last forever,” he noted.
Another source of help came from the Jewish Federations of North America.
Eric Fingerhut, the CEO of JFNA, told the Post that many Jewish organizations made it through the first wave because of the ongoing support of the Federations.
“We powered a system and helped bring in $500 million in federal loans, and locally accelerated our annual allocation and created emergency funds,” he said. “Over 160 million additional dollars were allocated thanks to reserves and endowment, which helped our community survive the immediate hit of the crisis.”
Fingerhut said he believes that this is going to be a long-term recovery.
“The virus has not yet been eradicated, and there’s no proper treatment yet,” he said. “It would be a long-term recovery, even if we were back to normal in terms of our health right now because the dislocation was so severe, but we don’t think we’re back to normal in terms of our health. We anticipate a long period of our institutions in need of extra support.”
He noted, however, that he is optimistic that the community can meet the challenge.
“When the Federations provide support year in and year out to the community when they run annual campaigns year in and year out, in good times, and otherwise – people wonder why do we need this? And this is why. For the community to respond in a time of crisis, you have to be organized,” Fingerhut continued. “You can’t organize instantly in the face of an emergency and expect you to be able to respond to the need. And because we are there year in and year out, we were able to react instantly to this unique circumstance. And it’s why we’re prepared for the long haul.”
The Harold Grinspoon Foundation has committed up to $10 million to participating Jewish overnight camps affiliated through its JCamp 180 program. Winnie Sandler Grinspoon, the president of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, told the Post that "as philanthropic investors who care about supporting the Jewish community into the future, we consider camp to be an important place to invest."
She added that from the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that the coronavirus was going to deeply impact summer camps, which rely on tuition for most of their revenue. "A summer of lost tuition could mean the end for many of our camps."
According to the official announcement in the foundation's website, Camps participating in the All Together Now matching grant for Jewish camp will be eligible to receive $1 from the Foundation for every $2 they raise from other donors beginning March 30, 2020, until December 31, 2020 up to a maximum based on camp size and utilization.
"We decided that this was the moment to give boldly, to give beyond our usual spend levels. None of us want to look back years from now to realize we had this incredible asset the community built over these years and that we did not step up to save it," she continued. "That’s why our board acted quickly to issue $10 million in new emergency grant funding for camps. We know our matching grant program won’t solve the entire problem that camps face, so we hope our commitment inspires others to help with needed funds to protect and sustain Jewish camp at this critical moment. This is that rainy day we saved for, and we want to make sure we do everything we possibly can to save camp.”