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The Coronavirus Is Killing Off American Jewish Institutional Life

With emptying coffers and no end in sight, many Jewish institutions no longer see COVID-19 as a crisis to weather, but rather as a new reality

Armin Rosen
July 07, 2020
Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography
Andrea Klerides/Michael Priest Photography

Shortly after the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Washington, D.C.’s Metropolitan Police Department conducted a security survey of the city’s Jewish institutions, counting every synagogue, nonprofit organization, advocacy group, senior home, and kosher restaurant in need of protection against a potential mass shooter. The final number of such potential Jewish target across the 68 square miles of the District of Columbia, recalled a local synagogue board member who had served as a liaison with the police department, was 95—ranging from GatherDC’s alternative Yom Kippur services, usually held in a bar’s backroom, to the day school that the president’s granddaughter attends.

In Washington, and in America more generally, a sprawling organizational infrastructure sustains that notional and constructed thing referred to as “Jewish life”—an ever-endangered concept that’s believed to be an essential element of one’s selfhood and well-being. Those 95 institutions reflect an American conviction that something so tenuous and yet so important as Jewish identity cannot be left to the traditional channels of Judaic socialization, like the family or the synagogue. The association-building of American Jews has left behind summer camps in Mississippi, rabbinical schools in Cincinnati, and three Jewish community centers in the Washington metro region alone.

In March of 2020, the institutionalism of the American Jewish community met the raw power of the coronavirus. The American vision of Judaism hadn’t exactly been thriving prior to the horrors of March—the communal power and emotional pull of American Jewish religious movements and other mainline organizations had been waning for years. But the pandemic did something that terrorism, anti-Semitism, financial crisis, intermarriage, the BDS movement, and other real and imagined enemies of the American Jewish community could never accomplish: It wiped out everything, in one blow, all at once. Everything American Jews had built, along with seemingly everything else in a once-open and dynamic country of 350 million people, wilted before a disease that couldn’t be stopped. All certainties vanished at once.

“How do we start reimagining what the Jewish community is going to look like post-COVID?” Gil Preuss, CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, wondered this past May. “Because we’re not going back to the way it was before. And the impact that it’s had, not just on our operations but on how people connect to Jewish community, how identity is transmitted from one generation to another—all of these things are going to change in ways that we may or may not be able to predict.”

The coronavirus could be analogized to a tidal wave, a destructive force that crashes over everything and everyone and then sucks the ruins into a swiftly receding ocean. In reality the pandemic has been a slow, painfully drawn-out crisis—it’s as if a couple feet of water have stuck around after the wave crashed, with no one knowing how long it will take to drain it all, and who or what will still be there once the water’s gone. For months, every level of American government has effectively outlawed entire sectors of the economy, while also shuttering all educational institutions, nearly every library and recreation center, and nearly every day care. These edicts put some 40 million Americans out of work, and have forced surviving industries to reckon with a world in which any human contact is viewed as a potential death sentence for someone.

The federal government attempted to lessen the impact of the lockdowns—which wiped out businesses, derailed untold millions of lives, crowded out nearly all other non-virus-related health care, and arrested or reversed the intellectual and emotional development of countless children—through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, Economic Security Act (CARES). Passed with bipartisan support on March 27, 2020, the CARES Act included a provision called the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) that allowed companies and nonprofits with fewer than 400 employees to apply for low-interest loans and grants that would prevent them from shedding or furloughing staff. The money had to be spent through the end of June, creating uncertainty as to what, if anything, would happen if the country was still shut down by then.

There were also aspects of the pre-crisis economy that couldn’t be so easily frozen in place, no matter how much government aid was poured in. Certain business models, such as Jewish overnight summer camps, of which there are 160 in the United States, work off of prepayment for services that might no longer be deliverable. Some nonprofits make the bulk of their budget on events that could no longer be held—like synagogues that refill their coffers through annual dinners and fundraising drives scheduled around High Holiday services that are now being canceled across the country. Other ventures, like kosher caterers that no longer have any weddings or b’nai mitzvot to service, operate based on revenue expectations that the virus has rendered null and void.

The U.S. government’s intervention in the plague economy has had the effect of staving off a worldwide financial meltdown and keeping the stock market buoyant. As important as federal action may have been for limiting the worldwide social and economic damage of the pandemic, the stability of U.S. markets has also had the effect of widening the gap—both financially, and in day-to-day lived experience—between a semi-insulated managerial elite, for whom the coronavirus was an inconvenience, and small business or nonprofit sector employees, for whom it has been a potentially life-altering cataclysm. The brunt of the catastrophe has been borne by organizations that aren’t massive enough to withstand a three-month—or a six-month, or a 24-month; who even knows—lacuna in normal life.

The American Jewish Main Street consists of synagogues, Judaica stores, kosher grocers, summer camps, Jewish community centers, day schools, and a few small institutes of higher learning. Many of them were struggling even before the virus hit. The American Jewish infrastructure is composed of exactly the kind of entities that are primed to be the pandemic’s biggest losers.

The coronavirus may therefore be a turning point in American Jewish history—a catastrophe with a distinct before and after, and a time in which the community’s once-successful and distinctly American models of interlocking institutions and entrepreneurial ventures came crashing down. But the results might also be more ambiguous, and perhaps more unsettling, than a straightforward clearing of the decks. It is just as likely that American Jews, like Americans in general, are trapped in a multiyear spiral of decline with no clear endpoint or outcome in sight, and no obvious means of rescue or escape.

The coronavirus has forced the most basic units of mainstream American Jewish life into a zombielike state. Synagogues can’t meet in person. JCCs are shuttered—in Philadelphia, the local community center laid off all but two of its 178 employees in late March. “The thing we didn’t have time for was planning,” recalled Barbara Birch, CEO of ORT America, an organization that helps create nonreligious education-related programs in Jewish schools around the world. “We all just left our offices one day and never went back.”

Many organizations felt the sting immediately—ORT was forced to cancel two fundraising events for the mid-March week that the virus struck. “It was like whiplash,” Birch recalled. Synagogues shut down their preschools, in some cases losing their primary revenue stream. Job descriptions changed overnight.

Zach Schaffer, executive director of the newly founded Council of Young Jewish Presidents, was supposed to spend 2020 diversifying his fledgling project’s fundraising streams in order to prove the group’s financial sustainability to the organization’s founding donor. “Obviously a lot of that is out the window now,” said Schaffer, who is also on the board of Friends of Roots, which supports a West Bank-based education and peace-building center that faces a different kind of funding challenge. Much of Roots’ half-million-dollar annual budget comes from group visits to their site near Hebron and speaking tours in the United States, both of which are on hold. A canceled spring American speaking tour immediately cost the group an estimated $40,000 in projected revenue—nearly 10% of the organization’s annual budget.

Cindy Greenberg, CEO of the Jewish service organization Repair the World, has helped lead an emergency roundtable of midsize Jewish nonprofits, and said she has heard of organizations “anticipating everything from a 15% to a 50% reduction in fundraising for next year”—a fairly wide range of outcomes, all of them negative. 

Accessing PPP money has often proved to be a nerve-wracking process. Several organizations consulted for this article missed out on the first round of loans, resulting in several weeks of agonizing uncertainty. Close relationships with one’s banker proved to be critical, and it seems that smaller, local banks were more helpful in navigating the application process than larger, more nationally focused institutions with bigger and more demanding clients to deal with. Still, none of over a dozen groups Tablet spoke to for this article said they had failed to obtain a PPP loan after applying for one.

The thing we didn’t have time for was planning. We all just left our offices one day and never went back.

But a look into even one subsector of the Jewish organizational world hints at how massive the eventual shortfall might be, even if the federal government has delayed a worst-case scenario. According to JCC Association of North America CEO Doron Krakow, Jewish community centers received $135 million under PPP, which allowed them to retain many of the 19,000 employees the centers laid off or furloughed in the early days of the crisis. Personal charitable contributions, some of which came through members converting payments for canceled programming into donations, had brought the nation’s JCCs $24 million by the time I spoke with Krakow in early June; another $18 million came from grants and loans from private foundations and various federation systems.

Yet JCCs are a $1.6 billion annual industry that depends on fees for services—preschools, gyms, swimming pools, classes, and cultural events—for 80% of their annual revenue. Some 75 JCCs were scheduled to reopen in some dramatically reduced form by the end of June. But then what? No one knows. “I think we are thinking in terms of 90- and 120-day increments,” Krakow said.

This is about as far ahead as anyone but the most steely-eyed pessimists—who might be proven right—can responsibly plan. “Right now we’re asking, what does it look like for us a year for now to be in the same situation?” one congregational rabbi said in early May. On the other hand, there was a time when even Jewish summer camps believed the crisis might spare them. “It was: OK, let’s look at the calendar; there’s 12 to 14 weeks until camps are starting, that’s plenty of time for the world to figure this out,” said Avi Matanky, director of Moshava Alevy, an overnight camp outside of Los Angeles. “We all had this optimistic point of view in the beginning that camps would be OK.” Now that it is July, we know that they are not.

The Jewish camp problem had an added, nasty twist. Much of a summer camp’s budget, usually around 40%, is spent during the 10 months of the year when camp is not in session—a camp has to pay insurance, mortgage, and upkeep costs, while also supporting a year-round staff and preparing for the coming season. Deposits and camper tuition—which total $300 million for the country’s Jewish sleepaway camps, according to Jeremy Fingerman, CEO of the Foundation for Jewish Camp—are often spent as soon as they’re received. The annual off-season fixed costs in running these camps is about $150 million, which is paid for on a rolling basis through camper tuition for the coming summer.

At the time Fingerman and I spoke in early June, 115 Jewish summer camps had announced they were canceling their sessions for 2020. That’s a lot of money that has to be returned. “Even just one summer of operation is going to have a multiyear impact,” Matanky predicted—by this time next year, camps will have had a year of bills to pay that hadn’t been offset with any comparable infusion of revenue. As a result, many camps are in danger of going broke and disappearing.

In a sense, Camp HASC, in upstate New York, isn’t broadly representative of what Jewish summer camps are going through right now, as the camp serves children from religious backgrounds with developmental disabilities. For campers and their families, HASC can be a life-changer, but the worthiness of the organization’s mission offers little protection from the hard realities of the crisis. “We’re going to have to look very, very hard to make up all the literally over a million dollars that we spent keeping the lights on,” Camp HASC executive director Rabbi Judah Mischel explained. In addition, the camp canceled five in-person fundraising events scheduled for the time around Pesach. “This is an existential threat to our program,” Mischel said of the coronavirus. “It really, really is. But I don’t believe klal Yisrael would allow Camp HASC to close.”

In some sectors the coronavirus didn’t look like a potential deathblow. Synagogues have cut their dues and brought many of their events online. Zoom fatigue is common—“I don’t believe the rabbinate is going to move to virtual,” Dov Linzer, rosh yeshiva of the liberal Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah rabbinical school in Riverdale, New York, hopefully predicted—but it’s better than nothing. Maybe Zoom is even the future! “Rabbis are saying more people are joining for morning minyan than they ever did. Did they ever want to get rid of that?” said Gil Preuss. Probably not.

Certain businesses were forced into hibernation, which is of course preferable to being ruined. The Israel Book Shop, a Judaica hub in Brookline, Massachusetts, has cut its hours and seen a “significant” drop in business, according to associate general manager Edie Dovek. “People are not coming in to buy talesim because there are no bar mitzvahs going on.” Still, the store remains open for deliveries and curbside pickup.

As Rabbi Menachem Genack, who is in charge of all kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union explained, the OU has been conducting remote inspections of kosher meat facilities. “Someone goes around with his iPhone” while a faraway inspector who is familiar with the facility’s layout “tells the person where to go. It’s been an effective approach.”

Not everything can be done over the phone, though. Rabbi Dov Schreier, who oversees the supervision of kosher caterers for the OU, estimates that caterers have lost 80% of their business. “Caterers are not doing well at all. With some caterers their doors are literally closed. They have nothing to do, and if somebody calls, they don’t even know what to tell them.”

Drew Rosen, who runs Nes Catering in Los Angeles, saw much of his business evaporate as he went from fully servicing events with 300 people to occasionally dropping off food at ones attended by 30 people at most. “Most of my people were on call,” he said of his usual employees. “I just haven’t been calling them.”

True to his business’s name—which means miracle in Hebrew—Rosen is hopeful things will recover, even if he can’t be sure what the simchas of the post-COVID era will even look like. “People will still have simchas—they have no choice. It’s just a question of the size of the events.”

There is some reason to believe that Jewish day schools might be able to weather the plague. School doesn’t begin until September, and they have plenty of time to formulate reopening plans and figure out how steep of a shortfall they face. Then again, tuition deposits are coming due in the midst of an economic and public health catastrophe. Somewhere between 30% and 50% of students are typically on scholarship at an average Jewish day school, which operates on fairly thin margins in the best of times, according to Maury Litwack, executive director of the Teach Coalition, a group which advocates for day schools in the New York region. “A 10% increase or 30-40% increase in scholarship, these are all not good scenarios,” Litwack said. Rabbi Bini Krauss, principal of SAR Academy in Riverdale, told Tablet his school is anticipating a 25% increase in scholarship needs next year, on top of whatever spending is needed to prepare the facility for virus-safe, in-person learning in September.

The coronavirus quickly exposed just how little of Jewish life can actually operate without groups of people gathered in physical space. There is little agreement across American society as to how many additional COVID infections or deaths we should be willing to tolerate in exchange for a more normal and more emotionally, economically, and practically sustainable way of life. The topic is rarely discussed in terms so stark, and that might be for the best: Most Americans aren’t empowered, or required, to perform such morbid arithmetic.

But many Jewish leaders don’t have the luxury of ignoring the normality-versus-morbidity dilemma. As Matanky put it, “The two questions that we have to ask ourselves are: Can we open, and should we open?”

Jason Rosner, the rabbi at Temple Beth Israel of Highland Park and Eagle Rock, an unaffiliated shul in the Los Angeles area, has already told his board that the synagogue should not reopen unless it is capable of strictly following everything in a 30-page, state-issued guidance document. When services return, social distancing would have to be aggressively enforced: “I considered getting a staff, a shepherd’s crook that’s 6 feet long, to push people,” he said. “I’m not joking.”

According to state guidelines, there will have to be temperature checks at the door and at least 6 feet of spacing between families. The first four rows of the synagogue will need to be empty because of a 14-foot projection of virus-laden particles that occurs when people are singing. “There is also an issue with the Torah service,” Rosner noted, during which at least four people are usually huddled closely together. “I’m not sure how we would get around people touching the Torah or borrowing talesim or prayer books or anything like that.”

In mid-May, Rabbi Elazar Muskin, who leads Young Israel of Century City, also near Los Angeles, said he was in the process of sending out a survey to his congregants, to gauge when and how they would be comfortable returning to shul. “Then we can decide, how many minyanim can you possibly offer, how many people can be allowed in, what will be the layout of the different rooms, how do you handle entrance and exiting so that social distancing is still maintained?”

Security procedures may be needed to enforce a cap on minyan sizes and to keep people from sneaking in and creating crowds of unsafe size. Still, another rabbi told me he would be uncomfortable with such an arrangement, even if it proved necessary. “I have no interest in becoming a police officer and telling bubbe, sorry, you’re number 11, you need to leave,” the rabbi said, before adding: “We may do that, right? We may still do that.”

For many rabbinical students, there is nothing more fundamental to their training than the chavruta—study partnerships in which two people decipher and debate Jewish texts, often in fairly close physical proximity. Dov Linzer, the rosh yeshiva, notes that in Israel, some yeshivas had introduced learning pods of four to six students, while seeking to minimize interactions between these pods. “Chevrutas can be 6 feet from one another,” said Linzer. “It’s possible. If they’re at the same table it doesn’t sound crazy, even if one’s at the head and one’s at the foot.”

In consultation with medical experts, the New York Jewish day school SAR will likely be breaking its students into groups of 12 to 15 each, with teachers occasionally rotating between them. “There will be Talmud teachers teaching or supporting math,” Rabbi Krauss anticipates. The school will also need an extensive and potentially costly retrofitting in order to even operate. “My office will be a classroom, the gym will be a classroom, the lunchroom will be a classroom, every space in the building will be a classroom.”

Even then, it might be necessary to alternate groups of students between distance and in-person learning, depending on how many people are legally allowed to be in a single classroom at a single time. “And if the governor says schools aren’t open, we have to prepare for that too,” Krauss added.

This is a time for openness, it’s a time for listening, and if Jewish organizations can’t do that right now, I’m not confident we’ll be able to fully rebuild.

None of this sounds easy. And even if it’s at least theoretically doable, should it be done? Rosner said that at the beginning of the crisis, he wrote a rabbinic opinion that he submitted to his board: The Jewish people were in existential peril, requiring the synagogue “to make allowances that would otherwise be out of line with traditional practices.” In early May, the Orthodox Union advised that shuls should only begin meeting two weeks after the authorities permit them to do so, just in case the societywide reopening ended up being premature.

But there are also consequences to remaining closed for too long. Some of the most severe costs of national and communal dormancy are intangible—they come in the form of canceled experiences, the cumulative effect of millions of missed chances for personal growth, and the subtle psychic and spiritual corrosion caused by prolonged separation from, and intense fear of, one’s fellow human beings. Hebrew Union College President Andrew Rehfeld, who is a sociologist by training, referred to this stretch of dead time as a “natural experiment”—an observable real-world event of possible social-scientific value. “We’re going to have data beginning this year of what happens when you completely take Jewish summer camp out of the North American Jewish community.”

For some, this social experiment seems particularly cruel. Mischel said that working at Camp HASC is a “rite of passage” in the Orthodox community, and a chance for young people “to build themselves as responsibility-takers.” The reverberations of a missed summer are “incalculable”—and that’s just for staff, let alone the campers and their families, for whom the supportive environment of summer camp can be a lifeline.

Another group that would seem to be at a great disadvantage during this crisis is GatherDC, which attracts Washington’s unaffiliated young Jews to non-shul-based Yom Kippur events. As executive director Rachel Gildiner explained, GatherDC, which is only 5 years old, “is trying to fight against this experience of a young Jew walking into a space of 150 people and feeling completely alone,” something they accomplish through happy hours and various other social and religious happenings aimed at the capital’s numerous Jewish transplants.

For Gildiner, the coronavirus was a chance to think through why the organization’s work was valuable in the first place. GatherDC’s purpose wasn’t to hold events in physical space, but to foster relationships and a sense of belonging in a city with an infamously isolating social environment at a moment when people make life-shaping decisions about dating, marriage and families. Gildiner believes that the world beyond the crisis offers the Jewish community a chance to rethink how it can create something meaningful for the people it serves. “This is a time for openness, it’s a time for listening, and if Jewish organizations can’t do that right now, I’m not confident we’ll be able to fully rebuild.”

The wave of social atomization and disintegration being propelled by the virus will undoubtedly weaken larger, mainstream American Jewish organizations. Pillars of the American Jewish community have already downsized during the crisis, with the Reform movement, Hillel International, and the federations in New York and Boston laying off large numbers of staff.

The organized religious denominational movements were some of the weakest pieces of the American Jewish infrastructure before the virus hit, and it’s only going to get worse for them: Youth groups and camps are shut down, programs involving travel to Israel (or really anywhere) are canceled, and the movements proved to be nonfactors in how many rabbis determined how they would handle the crisis—the Conservative movement didn’t issue official guidance on Zoom services until months into the shutdown. Dues payments to the movements are likely to plummet, both because synagogues are strapped for cash, and because congregations might not think paying them is worth it anymore. One rabbi said his synagogue would likely pay only a fraction of a $90,000 annual bill from the Conservative movement. “What are they gonna say, you’re out of the United Synagogue? They need us more than we need them.”

The federations also seem especially vulnerable. For a while, the American federation network looked like a dinosaur—an outdated system for linking dying or pointless institutions to one another. But whatever their issues, America’s 146 federations operate at an organizational and financial scale that is still unmatched within the American Jewish community, bringing in $1 billion a year through their collective annual fundraising campaigns, along with another $2 billion to $3 billion invested through donor advised funds.

Jewish Federations of North America CEO Eric Fingerhut said that the federation system’s size allowed the Jewish community to push for faith-related nonprofits to be included in the CARES Act. “We were able to move seamlessly between Congress and the White House,” said Fingerhut, hinting at the question of who else, if anyone, would be around to take on such a role on the Jewish community’s behalf if the federations are seriously weakened, or cease to exist. In New York, UJA Federation had dispersed $11 million in emergency grants before March was even over.

Interviewed in late April, Deborah Joselow, UJA Federation’s chief planning officer, said the grants were aimed at “reaching people who really have had their lives turned upside down,” rather than rescuing organizations from disaster. “All of us are very clear that we’re not going to come out of this looking like we did going into this. I think the most that we can hope for … is that we will come out being the community with our vital organs in place.”

The Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund, a $92 million effort created by eight private foundations and overseen by JFNA, is leading a more nationally focused effort. The fund dispenses grants and loans that effectively supplement the half a billion dollars that Jewish organizations received under PPP. The probable funding shortfall is still ghastly, but at least the JCRIF loans and grants can buy organizations additional time to recalibrate. The Grinspoon Foundation has also launched a $10 million program to match grants made to Jewish summer camps. But no one is pretending any of this will be enough to bring things back anywhere near where they were in early March. “A lot of people have looked at JCRIF and said, that’s ‘the’ answer. But it’s totally not, and it was never intended to be ‘the’ answer. We need so much more philanthropy and so many more financial tools in order to address this,” said Felicia Herman, executive director of The Natan Fund and the manager of JCRIF’s grant program.

There is no timetable for a vaccine, never mind its distribution or its administration. Even if a vaccine comes, there will still be no timetable for employment ramping up to pre-crisis levels, and certainly no roadmap to the societywide psychic reprogramming that will allow people to trust each other and their institutions again.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.

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