I spent this week in Israel and Washington, D.C., all from the comfort of home, unimpeded by the snow that brought New York to a standstill.
Thanks to the magic of technology, UJA had two different missions happening on two different continents. The common theme, of course, was Covid. Each mission reflected on how the pandemic has severely taxed our communities while also inspiring creativity and collaboration.
The other theme was the state of our society. With Israel about to face another difficult election, its fourth in two years, and America emerging from our own bruising election season, we’d do better to listen and learn from different voices. These missions were a great place to start.
First, our trip to Israel.
Every year, members of UJA’s planning staff and volunteer leadership travel to Israel to meet with grantees and learn about growing needs in the Jewish State, hear from leaders across the diversity of Israeli society, and evaluate our current programmatic investments.
This year, when for the first time in our lives we can’t just hop on a plane to Israel, 90 participants joined the four-day mission — three times the number who would have typically joined our in-person planning trip. Our oldest participant was 96 years old. Our youngest, a baby in New York spotted on his father’s lap. And the mission was intense: we had over 35 meetings and panel discussions on multiple tracks from 8:30 am to 2:30 pm each day.
One panel, highlighting how Israelis have coped with Covid, brought together women in leadership positions from across the broad spectrum of Jewish life — secular, Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox, and Haredi. Each spoke movingly about creative ways they’ve brought their communities together for learning and prayer.
Another panel focused on the significant economic impact of the pandemic, particularly on already marginalized populations. A positive development, cited by many (including the former CEO of Microsoft Israel), is how the normalization of working from home could benefit households on Israel’s social and geographic periphery. These groups, including Haredi and Arab Israelis, hopefully now have easier pathways to employment in the high-tech industries located in major cities, far from their homes.
In another session, focused on Haredi economic empowerment, we heard from Tehilla, a member of the Haredi community who shared her story. When one of her six children tested positive for Covid, all six quarantined in a two-bedroom apartment. After an initial period of despair, she became determined not to allow the crisis to define her. She used the time with her kids at home to upgrade their secular education, allowing them for the first time to use the internet, something that she and many in the Haredi community have resisted.
Contextualizing the change, Tehilla said, “An egg acted on by outside forces is destroyed, but when it breaks from the inside, new life emerges.” Indeed, Tehilla’s willingness to share her story with a non-Haredi American audience, using a computer and Zoom, is itself evidence of a shift, suggesting larger changes in how the Haredi community might interact with technology and broader society going forward.
Back in Washington, D.C...
Organized by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the virtual mission to D.C. brought together over 3,000 participants from across the country, including 400 from New York.
The mission, planned to coincide with the start of the new administration, was an opportunity for the Jewish community to voice our concerns about social service needs, anti-Semitism, security, and Israel. Seeking open dialogue with both sides of the aisle, we heard from numerous speakers, notably Senators Schumer and McConnell, Speaker Pelosi, and Representative Scalise. We also met with seven freshmen members of Congress, including our own Kathy Manning, the newest representative of North Carolina and the former chair of JFNA.
A session with Senator Gillibrand focused on government’s role in addressing food insecurity through SNAP benefits and other subsidies. Underscoring the challenge, David Greenfield, CEO of Met Council, UJA’s largest partner in distributing kosher food, told us that pre-pandemic, 1.2 million New Yorkers were food insecure. That number is now over 2 million. With our significant support, Met Council has increased their food delivery from 5 million pounds pre-pandemic to 15 million pounds this last year. It’s clear that to meet staggering needs, philanthropy and government will need to work together more closely and creatively than ever before.
In a New York-focused session, former Deputy Mayor Dan Doctoroff, who helped lead the revitalization efforts after 9/11, said that crises can catalyze communities to become even better. And that while it will take strong leadership to bring people together around a shared vision for the future of the city, Dan was optimistic that New York would emerge strong.
The overall takeaway from both missions is that Covid has created dramatic new landscapes of need, in New York and in Israel. Yet in some very positive ways, we’re never going back to what was. We’re working together across communities in innovative ways. We’re finding new ways to engage with people and lift them up. And when we can’t be in-person and must go virtual, we’ll take full advantage — creating a more accessible experience, so babies and nonagenarians can be “in Israel” together.
What an exhausting and exhilarating week, even without the jet lag and only our experiences and learnings to unpack.