Difficult Discussions -- Part 1, May 15, 2020

During the pandemic, I have had a lot of time to think and read. My focus is on the path forward for Jewish communities. Outside of a few centenarians in our community, none of us have experienced anything like this. This is not the Spanish flu. This is not a cyclical financial recession. This is not a natural disaster that swept through one community quickly (tornado, hurricane). It is a global pandemic impacting everyone and everything.
Columnist Bari Weiss recently wrote in The New York Times, “This pandemic demands something bigger than all of us…Let this be a re-calibration, the pandemic as a tuning fork to get back our pitch. What could be a better reminder of what really matters – and what absolutely doesn’t.”
She might as well have been talking about every Jewish community around the world.
Several years ago, many of you will remember a process called “Jewish Portland Tomorrow.” A group of 12 community leaders spent several months re-imagining our Jewish community. They generated several recommendations. The concept was not well received by Jewish community organizations. And our public sharing of the idea focused too much on potential budget savings and not enough on the communal impact.
The most important lesson I learned during that process was if our community was serious about forward-thinking changes -- it is better to make change during a time of strength, not crisis. Be planful – not reactive.
Sadly, we were not prepared to do anything then except protect turf and silos.
Now we have a crisis! The entire world has been turned upside down. We are not blind. We can all see, even with the state slowly reopening, the unemployment numbers, economic distress, and deep concerns of everyone. We all share in that.
Fortunately, our Jewish community has responded ably to the initial challenge. The COVID-19 crisis campaign has raised in excess of $800,000 and already granted $603,000 to dozens of Jewish organizations across the state. The requests for funds keep coming. If not for these funds, and even more importantly, the Paycheck Protection Program SBA loans (our community organizations received $6.1 million!), how many of our Jewish organizations would already be in crisis? How many Jewish communal professionals would have been furloughed or laid off? To date, we have minimized that. But these funds will be gone by June 30. What happens then?
There are scores of articles in the Jewish and secular press about “what will be” for non-profits. None seem overly optimistic.
Steve Windmueller, retired professor of Jewish communal service at the Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles, wrote, “For organizations and synagogues, for foundations and federations, for camps and schools, in many ways this is a 'restart moment' that permits leaders the unique opportunity to employ this 'down time' to reset the mission, vision and programmatic directions for their institutions.” Clearly, this restart is not limited to individual organizations, but requires the collective wisdom and shared input of the broader community, our social service, religious, cultural and educational networks, and other institutions in reimagining the Jewish future. How quickly can we do this?
Over the next few weeks I am going to write some challenging “thought pieces” for our community to consider. I am confident I will share ideas that may be unpopular, even with me. (Disclaimer -- They represent only my views and not the Jewish Federation.) At the same time, no community leader would be doing their job if they shied away from difficult discussions at this critical time.
The impact of this pandemic will not go away any time soon and most believe things will never go back to what we considered “normal.” This includes our Jewish communal institutions, all of whom will be impacted by lower donations, fewer members, less enrollment, etc.. There is no way around it. It is highly likely that some organizations may cease to exist and mergers will take place.
The tension of ensuring the survival of a Jewish nonprofit and ensuring that it is well positioned to thrive on the other side of this pandemic is very real. The needs to survive now – rapidly shifting programs to remote platforms, creating resources uniquely designed for these platforms, sometimes making difficult budget decisions, and more – are not necessarily the same needs, exclusively, that will lead to a thriving organization in the future.
We have learned so much over the past nine weeks about how creative and nimble our Jewish organizations can be. We have an opportunity now to create and enhance ways for connection and participation. We can “dream new dreams” for our Jewish community. Everything is “on the table” for discussion.
Cindy Chazan, former Vice-President of the Wexner Foundation recently wrote, “The time to start thinking and planning is now. Now is when we need to plan and lead towards the future, as unknown as it is, so that we can develop the post-pandemic vision to start out with. Now is the moment for both volunteer and professional leaders in our Jewish community to bring openness, grit, nimbleness, and resilience to what the 'new normal' will be.”
Are we ready?
Shabbat shalom and stay healthy.
Marc N. Blattner
President and CEO
Two quick program notes:
Do not miss The Great Big Jewish Food Fest – May 19-28 -- a 10-day festival that includes cooking demonstrations; discussions around the role of food in Jewish identity; social events such as happy hours and Shabbat dinner gatherings; activities for kids, and more.
Speaking of food, a community member sent me the following “ranking of 40 Jewish foods.” You be the judge compared to your own personal taste.
I also want to bring to your attention the Days of Gratitude, a worldwide initiative to build resilience through intentional expressions of gratitude from May 22-30. The Jewish Federation of Greater Portland is a participating partner in the program. To learn more, click here.


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