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Thursday, April 9, 2020

Jewish Leaders Must Establish an Emergency Fund to Combat Pandemic Fallout

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When the news first came that Milwaukee Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had donated $100,000 to support the team’s arena employees and cover their salaries while the NBA was suspended because of Coronavirus, it was no surprise his teammates immediately joined him, with a match from Bucks’ owners.

Giannis, last year’s MVP and a favorite for this year’s now-suspended season, is a fan favorite, not only for his performance on the court, but for his kind, family-centric, cheerful leadership in the community. Other teams followed suit, and like so much about the NBA that is admirable, we see how pop-culture icons can have great impacts in our society during times of crisis.

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Also during these past weeks, a series of text and email chains have been passed around from Jewish leaders who have had to make difficult decisions about school, synagogue and center closures to flatten the curve and bring this pandemic under control.

Appropriately, the first concern is for the health and safety of our children, families and employees. Taking cautious and protective measures is challenging, particularly at a time when the response of our federal government has laid bare its own limitations of leadership and vision.

Municipalities, state governments, private health organizations and other civic-minded Americans are left to patch together the appropriate response. We all are figuring this out as we go, and the crowd-sourcing of ideas out there is helping people realize we have much work ahead. However, with determination, creativity and discipline, we can solve this.

At JCP in Lower Manhattan, where I work, our teams of lay and professional leaders have been working closely with each other to create transparent and well-hewn messaging around these issues. We made the decision to close our Early Childhood Center and Hebrew School Project before any known cases; predictably, two members of our community tested positive for the virus within 48 hours of that decision. As an institution, we are committed to paying our teachers and staff during this two-week hiatus, but like most nonprofit and for-profit businesses and organizations, we still are figuring out what is next.

What do we do if these closures last into the summer? How will we educate our children and families and continue to pay employees and staff? The strain on budgets of already stressed organizations will be enormous. And this multiplied effect already is wreaking havoc on the global economy.

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It is time for American Jewish leaders − Federation executives, organizational leaders and philanthropists − to convene and establish an emergency fund to aid our centers and synagogues in a time of grave national crisis. Not only is this form of tzedakah a pillar of Judaism, but so is our obligation to those who work with us, serve others alongside us, and share in our destiny with us.

Not only is this form of tzedakah a pillar of Judaism, but so is our obligation to those who work with us, serve others alongside us, and share in our destiny with us.

The Torah teaches we are to “love thy neighbor as thyself” and each human is made in the “Divine Image.” We have an obligation at this fraught and challenging time to muster our resources and establish a Jewish Communal Fund for the Coronavirus pandemic, to ensure all those individuals and families know that as we work our way through this crisis, we will continue to care and provide for one another.

We have an obligation at this fraught and challenging time to muster our resources and establish a Jewish Communal Fund for the Coronavirus pandemic, to ensure all those individuals and families know that as we work our way through this crisis, we will continue to care and provide for one another.

We have responded in this way before. It was the vision and generosity of American Jewish leaders that rescued more than one million Jews from the former Soviet Union as it teetered on collapse; and a similar successful effort was carried out to rescue Ethiopian Jews. In a matter of days, millions of dollars and Herculean logistical efforts led to great humanitarian success.

What we now face with the Coronavirus pandemic is an even greater crisis affecting not only the Jewish community but our diverse families, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens.

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If other leaders and philanthropists want to answer this call, I am here to help.  

If not now, when?

Andy Bachman is the executive director of the Jewish Community Project Downtown in New York City.

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