The new Jewish year of 5781 has begun. Now comes Sukkot—a time to both celebrate and to contemplate and experience the fragility of life, as represented by the Sukkah. Who would have anticipated, in the fall and winter of 5780, how imminently fragile—that a global COVID-19 pandemic would bring such tremendous instability and uncertainty, immediately changing the way we work, teach our children, care for one another, and maintain our Jewish traditions.
Schools and businesses, closed. Millions of jobs, gone. Cherished lives, lost.
Yet we’ve also seen remarkable resilience and leadership. Essential workers—those who care for the sick, keep us safe, and ensure we have food on our tables—have inspired us with their courage and dedication.
Jewish congregations and organizations, both large and small, have deftly shifted programming and operations to remote platforms. By Zoom, we’ve gathered to console mourners, provide crisis counseling, engage in innovative Jewish programming from around the world, and connect with family and friends in new ways.
Across North America, Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) leaders quickly assembled the national networks representing the core organizations of Jewish life, as well as leading philanthropists—and Jewish Federations swung into action. Here in Washtenaw County, with JFNA’s guidance, the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor (JFGAA) convened our local Jewish communal organizations and provided information and resources to successfully apply for Paycheck Protection Program loans that helped them stay solvent while continuing to pay dedicated employees even as they were forced to halt or adjust programming.
As our 2020 Annual Community Campaign was winding down, our new COVID Emergency Fund was ramping up. From its reserves, the Jewish Federation seeded the fund with $75,000—which generous community donors more than matched with $83,000 of their own—to support local organizations, congregations, and individuals facing pandemic-related financial crises. Federations across the country have collectively raised $175 million in emergency funds to address the needs of their communities
Around the world, our partners at the Jewish Agency for Israel have made loans to devastated Jewish communities in Europe and South America, and the JDC has supported the struggling nonprofit sector in Israel and the needy in other countries. Our own 2020 Annual Community Campaign allocated funds to our partners in Israel—such as Hand in Hand Schools and Youth Futures—to help them continue to provide essential services in new ways as they have likewise adjusted to the realities of physical distancing.
As long as this crisis persists, the Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor—along with JFNA and all other Federations—stands ready to continue to address the needs of our community.
Supporting health and safety
Our local organizations and congregations continue to be thoughtful, creative, and diligent in determining when and how to safely open—or to offer programming in new and innovative ways. Jewish Community Center staff worked tirelessly to develop and implement COVID-19 safety guidelines, policies and procedures, and—with money from the COVID Emergency Fund—necessary infrastructure improvements. The JCC was thus able to open the Early Childhood Center and Camp Raanana, providing safe, supervised summer activities for children and respite for working families. Resources from the COVID Emergency Fund have also been used for technology and personal protective equipment, enabling Hebrew Day School to offer in-school instruction and our congregations to provide meaningful programming and support to congregants.
Although we have not had many opportunities to gather, we know that non-COVID-related safety risks continue to grow as well. The Community Security Fund we initiated last year has provided support for facility upgrades and security guards at local Jewish facilities, and we secured U.S. Department of Homeland Security NonProfit Security Grants—a federal program established with JFNA leadership—in excess of $113,000. These funds will enable Chabad of Ann Arbor and Temple Beth Emeth to upgrade their physical infrastructure to improve security and safety in a manner recommended by the Secure Communities Network and local law enforcement.
It will take all of us to continue to work together to develop new ways to support our community as we aim to send our children back to school and to restore the essential elements of Jewish life.
Addressing increased need
The COVID-19 pandemic has caused significant economic distress, and we are facing the possibility of a serious and prolonged economic downturn. Tremendous demands have been placed on our premier social service agency, Jewish Family Services (JFS), which provides food, mental and physical healthcare, and vocational support. Philanthropists and the government have helped, but real needs continue to grow.
JFNA has recently partnered with major philanthropists to establish the Human Services Matching Fund to help Jewish Federations increase funding to support Jews in need through local human services agencies and programs. Our community will be eligible for up to $60,000 in matching funds if we raise $120,000 in new and increased donations for social services provided by JFS and other programs providing care and support to our most vulnerable.
Providing innovative engagement
We are all looking forward to the time when we can gather safely. At the same time, we have learned that we can bring our community members quality content, include people in our meetings and discussions who cannot be physically present, and gather globally in powerful ways.
There have been many creative outreach efforts these past few months, including: Federation’s Annual Meeting by Zoom, with a keynote address by Eric Fingerhut, president and CEO of JFNA; a “Giving Tuesday” celebration of unity highlighting the work of our local organizations and congregations; on-going Zoom calls with members of our Israeli partner community in Nahalal on a range of topics; a presentation on the tax ramifications of the CARES Act by top planned giving experts; and a Donor Appreciation Event with Chef Michael Solomonov, a collaboration with 32 other Federations. Our Jewish Young Professionals have continued to offer quality programming online and in small groups held in accordance with state guidelines. We are committed to utilizing all available resources to deepen our connections with one another and with the global Jewish community even as we remain physically distant.
Driving long-term planning
Community planning was an aim even before the onset of COVID-19. This crisis has brought into stark relief the necessity of developing a vision for our Jewish community—and for a strong, collaborative, and innovative future.
JFNA is utilizing Scenario Planning to help Federations—including ours—to navigate the challenges and opportunities presented by an uncertain world. In the coming months we will be exploring this process to address near- and longer-term communal needs, while we also begin an all-encompassing visioning and planning process to set the direction—as a community—for a vibrant, welcoming, caring, inclusive, secure, and sustainable Jewish community in Washtenaw County.
“COVID-19 is a new challenge,” wrote JFNA Board of Trustees Chair Mark Wilf and Eric Fingerhut in a July Jerusalem Post article, “and it continues to unfold in unexpected ways. But it is the values we have carried with us for generations that enable us to respond effectively: the power of collective action, the necessity of collaboration, and the responsibility to care for the entire community. That’s why we know that if we continue to act decisively, we can move from a season of pain to a season of rebuilding and renewal.”
As we sit in our Sukkot—perhaps with fewer in-person guests than in the past—we encourage you to consider all that you value in our community, and how we might work together to meet our challenges and to strengthen and sustain our vital Jewish infrastructure for decades to come.
Randy Milgrom, Board President, Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor
Eileen Freed, Executive Director, Jewish Federation of Greater Ann Arbor