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Friday, January 22, 2021

What Can History Tell Us About Recovering From a Crisis?

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With the news of a COVID-19 vaccine being rolled out as soon as this week, many are rightfully dreaming of the day when we can finally exit our quarantines.

The “coming out” process no doubt will be slow, somewhat disjointed and likely to include a number of unexpected challenges. Longer term, lifestyle behaviors and choices may have changed permanently during the pandemic, just as they have transformed during prior moments in American history.

How well our federations, synagogues and agencies plan for and execute these transitional stages will be the most challenging venture our communal system has ever faced. Fortunately, earlier moments in American history may offer some insights as to how the public sphere and the communal sector can and will respond.

The Spanish Flu

Although we have limited information on how the Jewish community collectively responded to the 1918 pandemic, we do have specific examples of heroic actions taken by Jewish physicians and public servants in seeking to contain and treat the “Spanish flu,” as it came to be known. Various Jewish community histories, including New York, San Francisco and Dayton, reference Jewish physicians and caregivers providing their expertise and assistance. In San Francisco, for example, a number of Jews, including Lawrence Arnstein, helped organize the Red Cross response. Congregation Emanu-El Sisterhood president, Matilda Esberg, was involved in helping to mobilize the community.

1st March 1919: Two men wearing and advocating the use of flu masks in Paris during the Spanish flu epidemic which followed World War I. (Photo by Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

Just as they did in 1918, Jewish frontline workers around the world, including physicians, researchers and care providers, are playing critical roles in managing this pandemic and developing vaccines and drugs in response.

After the pandemic of 1918 ended, there was no “moment in time” when conditions warranted a uniform “coming out” mobilization. Instead, services and activities rolled out gradually over time. There were, however, communal efforts to create “check in” moments, where the government united with civic and Jewish organizations to assist the jobless, homeless and hungry. With COVID-19, too, we are likely to see a slow reopening.

The Great Depression

Historian Beth Wenger argues that New York Jewish life also experienced a transformation after the Great Depression. During the Great Depression, Jews not only worried about their financial stability and their security as a minority but also questioned the usefulness of their educational endeavors and viability of their communal institutions. According to Wenger, the Great Depression set in motion new forms of Jewish adaptation and acculturation in the United States:

Jewish families pooled their resources … Children remained in their parents’ homes to pursue education when jobs were scarce and postponed marriage and childbearing. Jewish neighborhoods nurtured a sense of Jewish community and provided support networks for working-class families.

Based on a 1936 survey of 456 congregations in the Metropolitan New York City area, the synagogue community reported a collective debt of $14 million. Wenger reports that New York’s Temple Emanu-El witnessed a 44% decrease in its membership, and the Brooklyn Jewish Center reported the loss of half of its 1,500 families.

The financial parallels between the Great Depression and 2020 are undeniable: Although the Jewish community has yet to assemble information on the fallout from the current crisis, synagogues across the country are citing the loss of congregation members, indications of unbalanced budgets and the necessity for budgetary and program reductions.

The financial parallels between the Great Depression and 2020 are undeniable.

The Depression era also sparked a religious renewal in America. In response, synagogues of that period, joining with churches, created a national Drive for Religious Recovery, paralleling the federal government’s National Recovery Act. Congregations instituted “Loyalty Days” designed to attract synagogue participation, using the slogan “Every Jew Present and Accounted For.”

According to Wenger, the changes in Jewish communal life that the Great Depression spurred “decisively shaped the character of American Jewish life in the twentieth century.” In particular, the American rabbinate saw a unique opportunity to galvanize Jews to engage in volunteer service. Employing radio broadcasts and newspaper advertisements for the first time, the rabbinate attempted to encourage Jewish learning and synagogue involvement and speak out on public policy and social justice issues. Nearly a century later, COVID-19 has ushered Zoom programming as a new form of engaging Jewish audiences.

Although fundraising by Jewish charities in the 1920s achieved extraordinary results, during the Depression, Jewish social service agencies acknowledged that they could no longer meet the needs of the community’s most vulnerable (a 40% increase in caseloads of families in crisis). This new reality fostered a debate among charities over whether they could continue to uphold the “Stuyvesant Promise” — a promise that the first arrivals of Jews to New Amsterdam (New York) declared to Dutch Governor Peter Stuyvesant that they would take care of their own. Many Jewish social service institutions eventually decided in the 1930s that they needed to partner with government agencies to provide relief services.

We can see parallels between the 2020 government funding initiatives and the policies introduced in the 1930s. Based on a survey carried out by the JFNA (Jewish Federations of North America), some 579 groups reported that their applications for assistance from the April 2020 federal stimulus package had been accepted. Loans ranging from $5000 to $5 million were awarded to these institutions, with the median being $256,000. JFNA estimated that more than $500 million in loans have been provided to the Jewish community.

The War Years

Jonathan Sarna and Jonathan Golden argue that the World War II American Jewish community “presented a mixed picture. It was a community at home in America and proud of its achievements, but still uncertain of its identity or its position vis-à-vis other Jewish communities in the world.” Sarna and Golden acknowledge that Jews still faced discrimination, “yet under President Franklin D. Roosevelt more Jews had entered public life than ever before.” 

By the time the war concluded, some 550,000 Jews had joined the armed forces, accounting for 4.23% of all soldiers in the United States military. The total number of Jewish war casualties was 38,338. Approximately 26,000 Jewish men and women in uniform would receive citations for valor. Although the number of Jewish deaths from the coronavirus is likely not as high (an August report issued by the Jewish Agency indicated that an estimated 2,200 Jews around the world — outside North America and the former Soviet bloc countries — have died from the coronavirus), World War II and COVID-19 shared an environment dominated by loss.

But unlike the 1918 pandemic or the Great Depression, public celebratory expressions took place once the war was over, as Americans collectively rallied on V-E (Victory in Europe) Day and V-J (Victory over Japan) Day. The immediate years following the end to the war saw American families, including Jews, moving to suburbia, returning to school and opening new businesses. Officially, the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, known as the GI Bill, served as the impetus by providing low-interest mortgages and offering stipends covering tuition for veterans attending college.

We are likely to see similar recovery stimulus packages after COVID-19 passes, and once the new president is in place, additional proposals to assist with economic development and recovery will likely be proposed.

The Year Ahead

In moving forward after COVID-19, the Jewish community has an opportunity to launch new initiatives, just as it did after the 1918 pandemic, the Great Depression and World War II. Drawing upon our history of early health, economic and political challenges, what are some ideas we can adopt from crises past?

  • Creating a check-in moment (group hug)
  • Inviting folks to choose to continue with online programming and/or in-person access
  • Ritualizing this experience, memorializing our losses and welcoming folks back
  • Developing a reflective moment: What did we learn about ourselves, others, and our society during this pandemic? Mapping these memorable experiences will be particularly significant for future generations!
  • Organizing ways to thank “front line workers”
  • Pre-planning so we will be ready the next time such a situation faces us

The year 2020 represented a unique experience in which many of us learned to live creatively in isolation. The year before us will represent a different type of personal and public challenge as we successfully reintegrate into the public square. Fortunately, we can rely on some historic wisdom to address the array of operational, financial and social considerations of institutional reentry.


Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Studies at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR, Los Angeles. Dr. Windmueller’s writings can be found on his website, www.thewindreport.com.

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