As a community convener, Federation looks to the future
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As a community convener, Federation looks to the future

Reopening from COVID-19 brings new questions

As Kermit the Frog says, it’s not easy being green.

On June 5, Pennsylvania began the “green” reopening phase after the pandemic stay-at-home order. Although this change relieves businesses that lost revenue and individuals suffering from isolation and financial distress, thousands of Jewish families in Pittsburgh will continue to experience painful repercussions from the pandemic.

As the Jewish Federation works to bring people together across our community to solve complex pandemic-related problems, we have a unique view on how the virus, the lockdown and the subsequent steps to reopen affect Jewish agencies, synagogues and Jewish life. Although the current picture is challenging, I know that we can work together collaboratively, creatively and cooperatively to deploy new thinking and new models.

A survey currently in the field seeks to understand more fully the impact the last few months have had on members of our community. Jewish Federation hired the Cohen Center at Brandeis University, the same group that compiled and presented the results of our 2017 Jewish Community Study, to complete this study. Understanding both feelings and “facts on the ground” will help guide our data-informed response. We are also in constant contact with our eight beneficiary agencies to understand what they hear as well as their own financial and operational challenges.

Federation plays the key role of convener. When I try to explain our communal structure to people outside our Jewish community, I often contrast our organization to that of the Catholic community, in which the local Diocese oversees churches, schools and social services. Instead, the Jewish community has independent agencies and synagogues. The old line “Judaism does not have a pope” is absolutely true, so a convener needs to bring the disparate and unique parts of our community together to learn, to communicate and to act.

From providing major content, advice and support around how to apply for the PPP loans that nearly every Pittsburgh Jewish institution requested, to conducting sessions about security and considerations around reopening, our Federation has and continues to act centrally when it makes sense instead of having everyone “making Shabbat for themselves.”

This Pittsburgh Jewish community cooperates and collaborates more than most on this continent. Federation has, for example, brought people together for 15 years for our Tikkun Leil Shavuot. This year, we produced a Shavuot learning program online with rabbis and teachers reflecting our Jewish diversity. An incredible 911 participants joined in the learning; we achieved much more working together than going it alone.

Our Federation has consolidated a fund of almost $2 million for COVID-19 needs from three different sources: repurposing Federation dollars and dipping into emergency reserves; approaching a small number of major donors and requesting additional support; and receiving a grant from our own Jewish Community Foundation. To date, we have allocated or repurposed over $1 million toward providing food, health safety and financial support for those most in need locally and internationally. These dollars along with an expected increase in the 2020 Community Campaign will immediately alleviate some of the pain and struggles. But these dollars alone will not plug all the holes.

As we enter this early part of the green phase, I believe we must struggle with questions beyond the obvious one of how and when to reopen. As finances likely tighten over the next few years, where can we collaborate more? Can we envision changes to our Jewish institutions, many which were already struggling before COVID-19, before we are forced to do so? Do we have too many underutilized buildings that require care and maintenance? Could we redirect those maintenance dollars toward engaging people with Judaism and caring for those in need? Can we think about new structures to put us on a path toward achieving our institutional missions? What pandemic-related learning can we apply later about how to provide online content and virtual Jewish community engagement? What would we want the Jewish communal landscape to look like if we started from scratch? We need to address these questions and more.

Jewish Federation learned our own lesson from our decision to sell our 60-year-old building in Oakland and to lease space. We gave up some of our identity, but we lowered maintenance and upkeep costs and gained the flexibility to rethink how much space we may need. By applying learnings from remote work during the pandemic, the Federation is already rethinking our business processes to be more efficient and effective.

In “The Muppet Movie,” Kermit sets off on a challenging journey to make people happy. Similarly, the power to create change is in our hands. The time is now.

In Jewish Federation’s role as convener, we welcome facilitating the conversations about new models for Jewish life. Are you ready for your journey? PJC

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

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