Article Library / Policy Papers

The Diaspora Jewish Community, Post-Pandemic: Trends and Recommendations

The COVID-19 pandemic has dramatically changed the way Jews practice and express their Jewishness. Because the possibility exists that things will not return to the pre-pandemic norm, measures must be taken to assist Diaspora Jewry address the recent developments and their impacts, turning them into opportunities for renewal and growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically changed the way Jews practice and express their Jewishness. In crises of this kind, it is natural to hope for an eventual “return to normal,” and many Jewish institutions harbor such hopes. It may be, however, that things will not return to the pre-pandemic norm. Given that possibility, a number of measures should be taken that will enable the Jewish community and its institutions to be reasonably well prepared should the “new normal” pose a challenge to the old Jewish culture.

These measures relate to two aspects of Jewish life:

Infrastructure: Over the last several decades, Jewish communities built substantial infrastructure that served the earlier model (which some, especially in the American context, referred to as “civil religion”). Should it turn out that this infrastructure is obsolete, the community will have to embark on a gradual process of converting the infrastructure of the past into the infrastructure of the future.

The cultural character of community life:  Recent changes may also affect the cultural character of Jewish life, as well as its social framework (group encounters and personal interactions). We need to prepare for the impact of these changes, so that they can be turned into opportunities for growth.

 Background

Judaism is a culture whose essence is collective. The religious precepts and laws were given to “the children of Israel,” and some of them can be realized only in a communal context. In the Diaspora, where Jews are a minority, the critical importance of Jewish life’s communal character applies to the social and demographic spheres as well.

The coronavirus pandemic has significantly compromised the ability to maintain a shared communal life. New habits have developed: mask-wearing, working from home, social distancing, conducting one’s everyday life within the nuclear family (or alone), digital meetings, and more. The impact of this adjustment is, of course, evident in Diaspora Jewish life, in the professional, interpersonal, cultural, recreational, and other spaces.

COVID-19 changed things suddenly and starkly. “Our Jewish temples in America are suddenly shaking, suddenly empty, and none of us can quite see where we will be wandering next,” wrote David Suissa, editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal (Los Angeles), dramatically comparing the pandemic to the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple.[1]

Most synagogues in the US and other countries ceased operating indoors and switched to remote (virtual) prayer services. Many minyanim (prayer quorums), especially those of Orthodox communities, moved to yards and parking lots. Informal Jewish education’s flagship programs, Birthright Israel and MASA Israel, were suspended. Community centers discontinued their physical operations, with the center of gravity moving to remote activity. Israeli shlichim (emissaries) could not function as they normally would. Jewish educational institutions had trouble holding classes.

 Communities

As yet, there has been no systematic collection of data on how Jewish communities have managed during the pandemic. However, a sampling of several hundred reports points to major trends that merit methodical study.

Jewish institutional membership: The number of people registered as members in Jewish institutions does not appear, so far, to have declined significantly. However, the meaning of institutional membership, and the kind of investment required of members, have changed. The main reason membership has not significantly eroded is that many institutions have decided to forego member financial contributions to their upkeep, or to greatly reduce the financial requirement.[2] Such a decision at such a time has a dual meaning: members neither pay, nor come. This translates into membership that continues, but with thinner commitment.

Institutional activity: There appears to have been a certain rise in the number of Jews taking part in Jewish activity. The reasons for this increase attest to the opportunities afforded by the crisis.

  • High availability. Many Jews aren’t leaving their immediate environments very often, and are available for activity.
  • Convenience and accessibility. Activities are held digitally, at the click of a mouse.
  • Emotional need, during a time of distancing, to connect with the community.
  • To this, as noted, we may of course add the lower cost of participation.

Nature of the activity: Except for Orthodox institutions and organizations (in particular, Haredi ones), most institutions have closed for community activity, almost without exception. All activities – prayer, study, talks – have moved to the digital arena, which changes the nature of the encounter in several important ways.

  • Activities are less social. Although the participant sees many people on his/her screen, s/he is alone (or part of a small group). For most participants, the quality of the group encounter is compromised.
  • Stronger emphasis on content than on presence. If the talk isn’t interesting, participants leave (or just pretend to be present), meaning that the encounter has no meaning apart from its content.
  • The  local dimension of activities is altered to the point of obliteration. Because the screen is the locus of activity, it is less important whether the viewer belongs to a specific community. Basically, multiple communities can be grouped under one “roof,” with no meaningful difference in the end-user experience.[3]
  • In many organizations, the leadership has had to adapt to the new reality. The switch to Zoom has, to some degree, changed the nature of committee and board meetings. It has also altered the rabbinical and community leadership roles. “I feel like I have learned how to be a 1950s live television producer,” says Rabbi Serge Lippe.[4] Once, television drove the emergence of a new style of political leadership. We can certainly speculate about whether Zoom will be ushering in a new style of Jewish leadership.

Life after COVID

It’s too early to predict how the pandemic will end. Accordingly, expert opinions about the future of society post-COVID should be taken with a grain of salt. These statements are rife with conjecture and controversy, and short on certainty.[5] However, we will try to glean a few directions for focused discussion on how the end of the pandemic will affect Jewish communities.

Accelerated change processes: One common conclusion drawn by experts is that the pandemic is accelerating developments that had been underway before COVID-19 came on the scene. In general contexts, these developments include a switch to digital commerce, to remote work and remote learning (at least in part), to greater demands for socioeconomic policy, and more. If we presuppose a similar pattern in Jewish contexts (and that assumption should be treated with caution), this translates into a continued decline in the number of those affiliated with the religious streams, in the number of synagogue members, in the number of those who identify as Jews “by religion,” in the Jewish in-marriage rate, etc. We should also expect that Israel will more quickly emerge as the world’s largest Jewish community.[6]

From closeness to distance: Almost all agree that, in several areas that even before the pandemic were known to be moving in the “remote” direction, there will be no going back. In the Jewish world, such a development could have consequences for joint learning, conferences and themed events, and for the work habits of organizations and movements. The question of online religious ritual (prayer, holidays) is more complex.[7] Studies of quite a few countries and societies have identified a tendency toward strengthened faith among religious community members, and a desire for greater participation in religious gatherings once the pandemic has ended.[8]

A move toward digitization: Most experts assume that, in the coming years, remote capabilities for human interaction will improve, thanks to further development and upgrading of simulation and other technologies. The Jewish community will have to invest in these technologies, which in some cases will become more crucial than buildings and event venues. In the course of this transition, it will also be necessary to adapt content and rituals/ceremonies to meet the demand for remote access to parts of the Jewish cultural world.

Community and environment: As in other areas, the pandemic is generating a movement/countermovement paradox. As we distance ourselves physically in order to stay healthy, we also experience a greater need for closeness – for support during the crisis. The main development communities will have to face is a decline in their value as suppliers of content, which will be available via the digital marketplace regardless of what the nearby/immediate community can offer. In contrast, communities will be accorded value, perhaps added value, for the safety net of emotional support they provide.[9]

Borders and nationalism: The paradox can also be seen in the “globalization” context. Many experts expect the pandemic to promote isolationism and reduced reliance on trade and cultural relations with other countries. However, the pandemic is also fostering a recognition of the need for global, cross-border cooperation vis-à-vis the crisis. In the view of Ivan Krastev, the pandemic has both revealed the failures of globalization, and served as an agent of globalization.[10]

Since both Israel and the Jewish people benefit from the globalization of culture, the trend toward isolationism (if it arises) will affect Jewish communities: anti-Semitism will spread; there will be fewer face-to-face encounters; Israel’s willingness to absorb immigrants will erode; there will be stronger cohesion among Israeli Jews and a retreat from global Jewish peoplehood (the prevailing view is that COVID will reinforce territorial nationalism more than ethnic nationalism[11]); and more.

The US and China: The pandemic’s impact on humanity extends far beyond the scope of this article. However, we would be remiss not to mention the possibility (one that many expect to be realized) that the pandemic has strengthened China in the global context, while posing a political, economic, and leadership challenge to the US.[12] This forecast, along with the fact that most of the world’s Jews (those of Israel) rely on American support, or live in the US (American Jewry), will likely have consequences for both the power wielded by the Jewish people, and power relations within the Jewish people.

Recommendations

The following recommendations are intended primarily for Jewish foundations and the major Jewish organizations.

In the research sphere: We need to map the status of Jewish institutions pre-COVID, to monitor their status during the pandemic, and to assess the pace of their return to normal after the pandemic. This mapping should cover the institutions’ financial status, the pace of donations, fluctuations in membership numbers and activity, the degree to which community structures are being utilized, and more. This will facilitate early identification of those areas that are returning to “normal,” and those where we should anticipate changes entailing policy reevaluation.

In the content sphere: Work must be done by the different Jewish streams aimed at adapting religious ritual to the digital age. This will involve experimentation with models for holidays, study, prayer, and other forms of ritual/ceremony. We recommend allocating resources for innovative experiments in the Jewish cultural sphere, to facilitate the rapid development of a culture adapted to the new era.

Resource pooling: We must prepare for the possibility that resources will have to be transferred from buildings and other physical structures to digital infrastructures, including ones that can also serve communities in different geographical locations (for example, there is no reason why each community should hold separate classes on the weekly Torah portion if most of the audience is listening remotely). Resources will also be freed up to support local community work oriented toward meaningful personal relationships among community members.

Israel and the Diaspora:  Institutions concerned with strengthening Israel-Diaspora relations should prepare for the (uncertain) possibility that there will be no “return to normal” in terms of the number of trips, gatherings, and the like. Thus, while institutions should indeed ready themselves for a potential return to normal, they must also devote energy to identifying and developing other options for deepening the Israel–Diaspora relationship. The digital dimension actually opens up many possibilities for natural and ongoing cross-continental interaction.

Conclusion

In our present state of uncertainty, institutions have to make “robust decisions” that will preserve their ability to operate and flourish, whether the pandemic persists in the long term or whether things go back to normal. These decisions must also take changing community realities into account. The coronavirus has disrupted Jewish life, but the experience of past pandemics shows that there are ways of putting such shocks to use as drivers of innovation, revitalization, and growth.

[1] Suissa, David ,”Suddenly, Our Jewish Temples Are Shaking,” Jewish Journal, May 17, 2020.

[2] Ain, Stewart “Amid Covid Slump, Synagogues Finding Pays to Innovate,” The New York Jewish Week, July 14, 2020.

[3] Some synagogues took advantage of this situation to bring well-known hazzanim into relatively small congregations – sometimes at the expense of the local leadership, which usually plays this role.
Hanau, Shira, “Synagogues opt for technology over ‘homegrown’ talent for High Holidays,” The Jerusalem Post, July 21, 2020.
[4] Stack, Liam, “Rosh Hashana in the Pandemic: Rabbis, Cantors and Video Crews,” The New York Times, September 18, 2020. “I feel like I have learned how to be a 1950s live television producer,” said Serge Lippe.”

[5] See, for example: Fareed Zakaria, Ten Lessons for A Post-Pandemic World,  W.W. Norton, 2020; and this collection of assays in the Financial Times: https://www.ft.com/aftermath; and The World After the Coronavirus, Foreign Policy (https://foreignpolicy.com/2021/01/02/2021-coronavirus-predictions-global-thinkers-after-vaccine/).

[6] See: “The Future of World Religions: Population growth Projections, 2010-2050,” Pew Research Center,  2015 (https://www.pewforum.org/2015/04/02/jews/).

[7] See: Cooperman, Alan, “Will the coronavirus permanently convert in-person worshippers to online streamers? They don’t think so,” Pew Research  Center, 2020.

[8] “More Americans Than People in Other Advanced Economies Say COVID-19 Has Strengthened Religious Faith,” Pew Research Center, 2021.

[9] Quite a few experts in the field of psychology believe that the pandemic could potentially have a long-term effect on people’s psychological resilience. See, for example, Prof. Karestan Koenen, at the Harvard Gazette (Outbreak forced changes big and small, some of which are here to stay, 2020); Poon, Linda, “What Our Post-Pandemic Behavior Might Look Like,” Bloomberg CityLab, May 26, 2020.

 

[10] Ivan Krastev, Is It Tomorrow Yet? Paradoxes of the Pandemic, Penguin, 2020.

[11] Krastev, Ivan: “The Seven Early Lessons of the Global Coronavirus Crisis,” New Statesman, March 2020.

[12] See examples: Fukuyama, Francis, “The Pandemic and Political Order,”, Foreign Affairs, 2020; “Covid crisis has accelerated big trends in China’s favour” Financial Times, 2020; “The Future of US Policy Toward China: Recommendations for the Biden administration, Brookings,” 2020.