A time for change
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OpinionGuest Columnist

A time for change

"We should not only ask ourselves, 'What do we do?' but also clearly define, 'What do we not do?'"

Jeffrey Finkelstein
Jeffrey Finkelstein

In June, just months into the pandemic, consulting firm McKinsey interviewed business executives. Ninety percent of these executives said they expected the fallout from COVID-19 to change fundamentally the way their companies do business over the next five years. Appropriately, the article was titled, “Innovation in a Crisis: Why It Is More Critical Than Ever.”

Jewish Pittsburgh needs innovation, too. To date, many Jewish agencies and congregations have adapted beautifully by altering existing programs and services to work virtually or through a low-contact model. Long-term success will require not only these short-term innovations but also major changes — potentially, a complete rethinking about where and how Jewish agencies and congregations provide services for Jewish life. While many institutions struggle to survive, McKinsey argues that such a crisis provides an ideal environment for reinvention.

Some ingredients for that innovation environment stem from long-term, structural changes that most of us know well but that we have addressed only in part. These trends include more Jews moving to the suburbs, more young Jews moving to Pittsburgh, people connecting with their Judaism without traditional Jewish institutions, more multifaith households, and more demand for activities inspired by Jewish values such as Jewish cooking classes, volunteering and more.

Some of the environmental elements moving us toward innovation stem from necessity. The costs of adapting to COVID-19 have challenged some of our Jewish agencies. The Squirrel Hill Food Pantry faces new demands, including more complex cases. Community Day School, Yeshiva Schools and Hillel Academy face additional technology needs and expensive cleaning and safety protocols as well as the need for space for social distancing. The JCC lost millions in program revenue during the shutdown. JAA faces challenges including numerous additional COVID-related costs on top of ongoing, inadequate reimbursement from Medicaid. These added expenses are due to universal testing of residents and staff, increased care, medical supplies, facility upgrades and staffing costs. COVID-19 has also caused delays in JAA’s admissions and curtailed community services, resulting in millions in lost revenue.

Like it or not, these long-term concerns force us to ask the fundamental question of why our institutions exist. Harvard Business School professor Michael Porter defines strategy as “deliberately choosing a different set of activities to deliver a unique mix of value.” More simply put, we should not only ask ourselves, “What do we do?” but also clearly define, “What do we not do?”

These questions need not be abstract. Social service agencies could ask questions of themselves such as, “Does service delivery require the same facilities, or could next-generation care offer Jewish services remotely? Can we capitalize on acceptance of virtual programs and services to meet the needs of a wider audience in more far-flung locations? Should we focus resources on the highest impact elements of our services?”

For agencies and congregations focused on Jewish continuity, we could ask, “What does the next era in Jewish outreach look like? How do we best develop Jewish identity in the next generation of Jewish households? How do we cooperate to reach out to Jews moving to Pittsburgh? What do we need to do to get Jewish families engaged in Jewish life in the way they want to be engaged rather than the way we want them to engage? Can we expand our inter-organizational cooperation to refer families seamlessly among our agencies and congregations, unselfishly sending the families wherever fits them best rather than trying to keep them at our own organization?”

The Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh has pushed for some of these changes for more than a decade prior to the current crisis. For example, a study the Jewish Federation commissioned almost 10 years ago from architectural firm Rothschild Doyno Collaborative posited five different scenarios to combine and rethink aging buildings. Various initiatives have looked at combining services, sharing programs and increasing collaboration.

A few innovations met with success. AgeWell Pittsburgh, a collaboration on senior care between the JCC, JFCS and JAA, won national praise and replication in other cities. The Agency for Jewish Learning was disbanded, with services spread to the JCC and the Federation. Riverview Towers became The New Riverview and merged with JAA. Despite these successes, our actual attempts at change are still limited.

We have an opportunity now to determine the changes that will propel our community to the future and allow us to have maximum impact. We can control our destiny as opposed to being forced into an unsettled future.

Change is hard and will present some of the greatest challenges of a generation. Doing nothing, however, leads to potential decline for the Jewish community we love. We need to see the present crisis as an opportunity to remake a brighter future, and the Jewish Federation is committed to help make these changes a reality. PJC

Jeffrey Finkelstein is the president and CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh.

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