How has Jewish Life changed in 2020? – opinion

From the US to Asia, synagogues are closed, social and religious events do not exist, and individuals and communities keep their relevance “only virtually.”

Worshipers at the Western Wall adhere to Health Ministry regulations by maintaining social distance.  (photo credit: THE WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
Worshipers at the Western Wall adhere to Health Ministry regulations by maintaining social distance.
(photo credit: THE WESTERN WALL HERITAGE FOUNDATION)
Jewish life, traditionally full of social interactions and direct communication, has been dramatically transformed in light of the novel coronavirus pandemic. From the US to Asia, synagogues are closed, social and religious events do not exist, and individuals and communities keep their relevance “only virtually.”
But sooner or later it will all come back. And, as I’ve always believed, human nature does not change that quickly, and I am very skeptical about those who believe that COVID-19 will change the way we speak and socialize. Yet, some aspects of Jewish life may change in 2020 and beyond with lasting effect both on the institutional level and private life.
First, public health specialists both in the US and Israel are speaking more and more about a recovery that will send the young and healthy or already infected to the workplace in order to revive the economy, but the high-risk population will stay home or be treated separately.
This differentiation will send thousands of elderly people to a long period of quarantine. This reality will, of course, require a wider economic and social safety net provided by the institutional Jewish community and charity organizations. However, the broader impact is more dramatic.
Most traditional Jewish institutions, from synagogues to national Jewish organizations, have been mainly attracting the older population. Research shows that younger generations are looking for different ways to express their Jewish identity and interests. As a result, the community would have to devise new ways to keep these institutions alive during this generational transition. Millennials would have to rise to the challenge.
Second, Jewish philanthropic giving will have to be reorganized. According to polls, Jews give disproportionately to non-Jewish institutions, such as art and cultural institutions and academic programs. While these for sure would suffer due to closure of buildings and diminished disposable income post-crisis, the healthcare crisis and the ongoing medical needs will put a lot of pressure on Jewish foundations and individuals to change their priorities and restructure their giving. The world and the Jewish community will live with the virus for a while, and Jewish philanthropy will have to adapt. Nonessential needs will take a back seat.
Third, as the US is heading toward an economic recession and all financial assets have been devalued, generally, financial contributions to Jewish institutions and organizations will see a sharp decline.
Moreover, as we live a limited life with the virus moving forward, alternative giving, such as time and physical goods, will be affected. In Israel most charity organizations already moved to survival mode. This new reality calls for great efficiencies in Jewish organizations. Mergers among organizations might be a necessity to save costs and jobs.
Following the Great Recession of 2008 we expected similar dynamics. Yet, in a few years markets rebounded and organizations found new areas of expertise and fundraising. This time, however, things are much more distinctive. And, as many Jewish organizations are less relevant than they used to be, the current crisis may finally trigger the much-required reorganizations.
Fourth, the Jewish world will move from the global to the local, from international affairs to domestic policies. Jewish advocacy around issues such as global antisemitism and providing basic needs and security to Jewish communities globally will still be around. Yet, public health and alternative educational models are domestic topics by nature, which would require domestic and local response. Many Jewish organizations that focus mainly on international affairs and advocacy may lose many of their goals and supporters.
Finally, the novel coronavirus pandemic is the first major threat to the community that impacted all streams simultaneously and similarly. Ultra-Orthodox and Reform Jews have been fighting the same virus in the hospitals and funeral homes. This is a unique opportunity.
Over the last two years, Jewish news was occupied with stories about the America-Israel gap crisis and the radicalization of many Jewish groups in America. COVID-19 is an equalizer of uncanny proportions. It provides a special leadership opportunity for American and Israeli Jews to bring communities together, even if they don’t have much in common during normal days. Send a Zoom invite across the pond.
The Jewish leadership in America has two options. The first, to wait and hope that it will all come back to January 2020. A Jewish version of Groundhog Day. The second option is to start and understand that some hidden long-lasting trends are emerging quietly behind us.
Many claim that the COVID-19 response was too little too late. The Jewish response should not be.
The writer is an international economic law professor, adviser and media commentator.