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Seeking Connection in Disconnected Times

During the past 18 months, the pandemic has triggered a profound sense of disconnectedness, exacerbating feelings of remoteness that seem even more pronounced during the High Holidays.

When Jews across the United States and around the world ushered in the High Holidays – the 10 Days of Awe that begin by ringing in the new year at Rosh Hashanah and culminate on Yom Kippur in atonement for our transgressions – it marked for most the second consecutive year of worship taking place predominantly in outdoor spaces and online.

During the past 18 months, the pandemic has triggered a profound sense of disconnectedness, exacerbating feelings of remoteness that seem even more pronounced during the High Holidays, when synagogue attendance historically peaks in must-attend prayer by even the casually observant.

Faith can add meaning and purpose to our lives, irrespective of religion, and in-person worship is an expression of these ideals.  Our pivot to lives spent on Zoom and streaming – while essential to business continuity plans – is exhausting and impersonal.  The resulting fatigue and isolation are genuine. In fact, the Centers for Disease Control identifies social isolation and loneliness as contributory factors to mental-health issues, as well as decline in cognitive function, particularly in seniors.

The devastating impact of COVID-19 – and now its Delta variant – underscore not just the fragility of life, but also how much of it is simply beyond our control. Most of us have sought ways to regain a modicum of control, add meaning to our lives, and bridge these feelings of remoteness.

From my perspective, after nearly four decades leading several charitable foundations, what I have observed during the pandemic is that people of all faiths are seeking ways to make a difference and purpose in their lives during these tumultuous times.

Frontline responders – the healthcare workers caring for our infirmed and clerks who’ve kept our grocery store shelves stocked – make a continuous, daily contribution in the battle to beat back COVID-19.  For the rest of us, tzedakah – charitable giving – has provided the touchpoint for making that difference and assuaging this disconnectedness.

Tzedakah  – along with a commitment to the precept of tikkun olam, repairing our broken world – is emblematic of our shared humanity and the quest for closeness and contact in separated times.

The numbers speak for themselves, too.  A report on philanthropy in 2020 by Giving U.S.A. showed that Americans contributed more than $471 billion to charitable causes last year, an increase of 5.1 percent from about $448 billion in 2019.  While a sharp upswing in giving by charitable foundations accounted for the lion’s share of that increase, contributions from individuals ticked upward by more than 2 percent, as well.

Certainly, the pandemic had an uneven impact and an even more irregular recovery.  Wealthier households, insulated from the effects of COVID-19 and resulting economic shocks, had a greater capacity to give than families and communities that were disproportionately affected financially.

This pattern proved consistent with giving at the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation), which I proudly lead. Our family of 1,300 donors responded generously to this need by recommending millions of dollars in grants to pandemic-related causes from their charitable funds at The Foundation. 

In countless discussions with donors over the last year, my colleagues and I have heard a similar refrain: Tzedakah binds us to one another and strengthens our sense of community in the midst of the pandemic. Donors and community members have been engaging with us in a different way, by asking deeper, more probing questions, in even more forthright ways. Folks have reached out to us as they search for more, and we are working closely with them in their quest for philanthropic fulfilment.

The pandemic has, as well, brought younger donors – Millennials and Gen-Z – closer to philanthropy. These demographic groups have begun engaging philanthropically for the first time and are seeking causes that both align with their personal values and where they can see their contributions making a difference, 

As my colleague Naomi Strongin, who directs The Foundation’s Center for Designed Philanthropy, recently noted: “When the pandemic hit, many young donors for the first time saw millions of people lose their jobs, homes, and access to food. They witnessed overcrowding of hospitals, inequitable healthcare, racial injustice, and systemic economic and social inequities. This inspired many to take action and donate meaningfully for the first time to a wide range of pandemic-related causes.” 

As the Jewish New Year 5782 commences, although we still largely worship apart, our shared humanity, a world facing vast pockets of need, and a common desire to make a meaningful difference, are binding us together in ways like never before.

Just as Millennials and Gen-Z have found connection and a way to make a difference by engaging in philanthropy, so too have Jews across all age brackets.  As the Jewish New Year 5782 commences, although we still largely worship apart, our shared humanity, a world facing vast pockets of need, and a common desire to make a meaningful difference, are binding us together in ways like never before.


Marvin I. Schotland is president and chief executive officer of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles (The Foundation) which manages more than $1.4 billion in charitable assets on behalf of 1,300 donor families.

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