COVID-19 Is a Crisis for Jewish Life in the Diaspora – and a Chance to Remake It

A major post-coronavirus shakedown is about to hit Jewish institutional life. Who is best prepared to survive it?

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A whole cycle of the Hebrew calendar is passing in coronavirus lockdown, furloughs, closures and isolation. How will the Jewish world look in its wake?
A whole cycle of the Hebrew calendar is passing in coronavirus lockdown, furloughs, closures and isolation. How will the Jewish world look in its wake?Credit: AP

Cast your minds back just three months back to Seder night, the one annual event in which most Jews participate, no matter their religious denomination or level of observance. Recall that moment when it dawned upon you that this year, there would be no multi-generational feast, and we’d all be having the meal with at most our nuclear families – or just ourselves. 

Now go online and read up on the efforts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19 which, in the best-case scenario, will only be widely available by mid-2021. Yes, next Pesach, our Seders are likely to be isolated as well.

A whole cycle of the Hebrew calendar will have passed before we have any realistic hope of resuming something resembling normalcy. By then, we will have all experienced family simchas and life cycle markers in lockdown or, at the very least, under extreme social distancing; weddings, bat and bar mitzvas, births and, sadly, too many funerals through zoom. 

No matter how you and your friends and families experience Jewish communal lives, whether through shuls, schools, community centers, cultural events or social get-togethers, all will have been severely curtailed. And in the meantime, the budgets of all these institutes are under severe strain, with thousands of employees furloughed or laid off. Some will not re-open when we are finally released from the coronavirus clampdown.

Naturally, there will be those for whom praying in a minyan three times a day was always a way of life and will resume doing so almost automatically. And there will be the families with the means to "compensate" themselves by holding grandiose belated bar mitzvas and weddings with six-figure budgets once it’s permissible (some in Israel are irresponsibly trying to stage their events now before another lockdown stops them). 

Rabbi Aaron Bisno delivers his Erev Shabbot sermon at a service streamed live on Facebook. Rodef Shalom synagogue, Pittsburgh. March 20, 2020
Rabbi Aaron Bisno delivers his Erev Shabbat sermon at a service streamed live on Facebook. Rodef Shalom synagogue, Pittsburgh. March 20, 2020Credit: Gene J. Puskar,AP

But wide swathes of Jewish life, especially outside Israel, will struggle to resurrect themselves. Even as the global economy slowly recovers, for many there will be far more pressing priorities.

This is going to be a much bigger problem for non-Orthodox communities and individuals in the Diaspora.

In Israel, no matter how bad the Netanyahu government’s mishandling of the crisis and how deep and enduring the resultant economic depression, the Hebrew calendar is also the national one and Israeli-Jewish culture will endure. And in Orthodox and Haredi communities around the world, resuming full religious and ritual life, in synagogues, yeshivas and seminaries, will be the first priority to which all communal resources will be devoted. 

The Haredi commonwealth in Israel and the Diaspora has been badly shaken by the pandemic, suffering a disproportionate number of deaths while question marks grow over the leadership of the many rabbis who initially promised their followers that "Torah" more than quarantine and masks "protects and saves." But the changes there will take place over a generation. These are long-term trends which were in place before the pandemic and have now been strengthened. 

Another long-term trend in train before the crisis was the falling membership rates of many non-Orthodox Jewish communities and organizations.

Established (institutional, centralized) Jewish life in the Diaspora was already facing acute and multiple dilemmas revolving around one key query: How to remain relevant? And now that many Jews will be facing straitened financial circumstances, where will paying membership dues come in their new list of priorities? Will foundation money and other avenues of fundraising be sufficient to make up for the shortfalls? The answers to both questions are already pretty clear.

Orthodox men practice "social distancing" as they pray outside the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 20, 2020.
Orthodox men practice "social distancing" as they pray outside the Chabad Lubavitch World Headquarters, in the Brooklyn borough of New York, March 20, 2020.Credit: Mark Lennihan,AP

Some old-school Diaspora Jewish institutions are going to close and others will have to drastically scale down their operations. There are already those planning to jump in to the vacuum, such as Israeli government-aligned organizations, like the Jewish Agency, which is already issuing wildly unrealistic forecasts of a quantum leap in aliyah. Chabad will find it relatively issue to make up for any fundraising drop with the volunteer fervor of its cadres of thousands of life-long shluchim.

But neither of these are large-scale or grassroots solutions. Moving to Israel will remain a course that relatively few Diaspora Jews will take. The majority of those remaining in golus will not embrace Chabad’s messianic and parochial vision of yiddishkeit. So can the large religious streams of the Reform and Conservative movements, and the often cumbersome non-denominational institutions of the old Jewish establishment, come up with a post-COVID-19 Jewish alternative?

There are no easy answers. But the first new concept that those who will try and keep non-Orthodox Jewish life from coronavirus-induced dwindling in the Diaspora must recognize is that formal membership of movements and organizations is no longer a viable model for the future.

It will be too expensive and not high enough a priority for many Jews no matter what place Judaism has in their lives, when they have more pressing needs on their shrinking incomes and savings. And for many of those for whom Judaism does occupy a significant place in their existence and identity, there is an ever-increasing range of ways to celebrate that identity which do not involve formal membership. 

This was already the trend for a number of years and now with the pandemic, Jewish disestablishmentarianism will likely go in to hyperdrive. 

Jewish life will still be partly about communal and ritual services – synagogues as venues for simchas, burial services, day schools and summer camps. But the competition for providing these, for donors and for those prepared to pay, will mean amalgamations and the emergence of much leaner and efficiency-driven communal structures. 

A girl with a Star of David painted on her face attends a pro-Israeli demonstration near the United Nations in midtown Manhattan in New York City, July 28, 2014. Credit: Reuters

And there will be a space for something new. A new form of Jewish life, one which can grow and thrive in the Diaspora, not dependent on Israel, but cross-pollinating with it. 

What will fill the vacuum? For some perhaps it will be social activism, but the version of tikkun olam as pursued by those of a certain ultra-progressive persuasion is unlikely to appeal to the majority of Jews unwilling to buy into an inflexible set of beliefs. Likewise, a Jewish existence based solely on lobbying for Israel-Palestine issues, whether from the right of the left, will remain a niche pursuit. 

Whether as a religion, a culture, a tradition, or an identity, Jewish life has to offer much more than partisan politics. Without, it will wither away. But it was withering anyway before the virus jumped over from a bat in Wuhan.

This is the opportunity to reimagine and recreate Jewish life in any of the ways that new grassroot and non-denominational cultural initiatives have already been doing in recent years and in in many more ways we have yet to conceive of. 

For anyone who believes in Jewish Diaspora life, this is the time to start thinking about creative and accessible new forms of Jewish culture and Jewish literacy, which are not reliant on ideological or religious movements, brick and mortars institutions and well-staffed organizations. For donors and for those in positions of leadership, who still have the resources: this is where you should put the money. It’s where things are going, whether you like it or not. 

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