From Our CEO
Jewish Life in the Time of Covid
January 29th, 2021

A year ago this month — what feels like an eternity ago — we mobilized our community to take a stand against anti-Semitism. Over the course of a few weeks in late 2019, we’d seen the fatal shooting at a kosher grocery in Jersey City, the knife attack at a rabbi’s home in Monsey, and near daily attacks against visibly Jewish individuals in Brooklyn. In response, with our partner the Jewish Community Relations Council of New York (JCRC-NY), we organized the “No Hate. No Fear.” march and rally for the first Sunday of 2020.

The New York Times ran an editorial urging participation: “To protect all of us, New York needs to show up against anti-Semitism. We need to march in the streets, together.”

And show up we did. On a frigid day and with very short notice, more than 25,000 people of all backgrounds and ages, New Yorkers and delegates from around the country, marched with us. As we stood shoulder-to-shoulder on a packed Brooklyn Bridge, we made it clear that anti-Semitism would never diminish the Jewish community. Nothing would ever prevent us from living vibrant Jewish lives. Praying together. Celebrating together. Learning together.

Then came Covid.

Anti-Semitism didn’t disappear; indeed, the pandemic gave new voice to the oldest hate. Our work combating anti-Semitism has continued unabated, with our major Community Security Initiative (a joint program with JCRC-NY) fully up and running, helping to enhance security at the nearly 2,000 Jewish institutions across New York.

On a parallel track, Covid raised an immense new challenge: What becomes of the Jewish life we were marching to protect — praying, celebrating, learning — now that we’re forced apart?

As has been proven throughout Jewish history, we’re a resilient people, and during this almost year of lockdown, Jewish life has adapted, persevered — and, yes, even flourished.

Annually, UJA supports a broad range of nonprofits locally and globally offering an extraordinary array of programming for Jews of every (or no) affiliation. Some of these nonprofits are large and established, others small start-ups with big ideas. Between them, they offer innovative Jewish learning, community building activities, Shabbat dinners and holiday programming, teen engagement, leadership training, and far more to tens of thousands of community members. There are programs for people of all ages and abilities, with the aim of nurturing a Jewish community that sees and welcomes all.

And throughout the pandemic, not only did UJA's partners pivot to continue their programming in some form, they seized the opportunity to engage people they may not have otherwise reached.

Just a few examples:

– One Table is a grantee that makes Shabbat accessible to as many as possible. Usually their work involves helping people host Shabbat dinners at home. Now, One Table is helping host virtual Shabbat dinners and piloting a program called “Shabbat Alone, Together” to provide resources for vast numbers of young people celebrating Shabbat on their own.

– In the former Soviet Union, the Jewish Agency’s Sunday school program in Moscow ran a holiday marathon of arts and crafts, songs and stories. For many families, this kind of programming is their only connection to Jewish life. In normal times, mothers and children attend in person; fathers are notably absent. But with the virtual holiday programs, far more fathers were there to celebrate with their families at home.

– Shabbat Unplugged is an organization aimed at bringing Shabbat experiences to Israelis of all affiliations. Over these last months, they’ve been training local volunteers to facilitate creative programs. As an example, they organized a “Kabbalat Shabbat on the balcony” featuring famous Israeli singers performing and leading services outdoors from their homes. Another program arranged socially distanced visits with the homebound elderly.

– When many camps were unable to open for in-person sessions last summer, 21 of our local JCCs joined together for the first time to offer "Summer in the Cloud," a virtual platform that connected hundreds of campers and families across the region.

In March, UJA’s scholar-in-residence, Rabbi Menachem Creditor, began hosting a learning session on Facebook, weekdays at 9:00 am, that now attracts thousands of devoted viewers, including from Canada, England, Israel, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and across the United States, creating a brand-new spiritual community. This morning marked Rabbi Creditor’s 222nd day of community learning. And just yesterday, I had the chance to talk from across the globe with Rabbi Dr. Warren Goldstein, the chief rabbi of South Africa, about life there during Covid, with hundreds listening from both countries.

Of course, we all crave the opportunity to be freely together in person. But we cannot underestimate the value of virtual programming to break down barriers, making Jewish life more accessible to a wider audience. These times have shown that online or off, how we connect as a Jewish community continues to evolve and grow.

I think back to that cold January morning last year when we marched, none of us knowing what was to come. If we had, we would have paused to contemplate the sheer wonder of so many of us standing closely together. And what we marched for then animates us still: the joy and beauty that comes with living full and meaningful Jewish lives.

Shabbat shalom