Community Blog Now More Than Ever: Why Support Institutions of Jewish Learning and Leadership During a Pandemic?

By Carl Chudnofsky and Rosa Kramer Franck
cubbies in the beit midrash

Jewish leadership and learning don’t stop in a pandemic. In fact, we need it more.

During challenging times like these, Jewish leaders and educators must support and nourish the communities they serve; they must lead and respond in a way that is dynamic and relatable to a diverse and hurting population; they must adeptly impart the wisdom found in our sacred teachings, the lessons of the ancient sages, to their communities, even while on shifting sands themselves.

This year, during COVID-19, like many of us, our Jewish leaders and teachers have been called upon and tested as never before in their careers, and have responded by utilizing their resources and training, rooted in thousands of years of ancient Jewish text, in the wisdom of the sages. And Jewish nonprofits like ours have been here to guide and support them in this work, while helping to prepare other leaders of the future.

“There is a sense when everything starts to fall apart and break, the spiritual skillset of being able to hold people and care for them and mediate Torah becomes the most important skill set,” says Rabbi Avi Killip, Vice President of Strategy and Programs at Hadar and an alumnus of Hebrew College. “People’s souls are thirsty for meaning and for deep engagement. We have seen more than ever this year, and rabbis and clergy have been there, engaged and energized and doing more work than ever, to try to answer that call and meet that demand.”

“The buzzword of this time is resilience, where do people find inner strength and connection and grounding in their lives,” adds Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari of Philadelphia’s Kol Tzedek, a Hebrew College alumnus and a faculty member at SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva. “As we’re living through such uncertain times, it is meaningful to connect to texts that are thousands of years old and that were themselves written and born of struggle and similarly uncertain times.” 

When the world changed last spring, faculty, students, and alumni of Hebrew College found that resilience—writing “Torah for the Moment,” creating music and art filled with spirituality and support, and volunteering at hospitals and on Combined Jewish Philanthropy’s “warm line.” Rabbinical students launched an online Niggunim Seminar and teens stepped up to serve the community through a new Boston COVID-19 Youth Commission

Hebrew College also partnered with Interfaith Youth Core to offer 18-weeks of spiritual nourishment through the digital PsalmSeason project and co-sponsored an online memorial called “A Time to Mourn: Grieving Together In the Time of COVID” to remember those lost during the COVID pandemic. And Hebrew College is not alone in pivoting its offerings in responding to the pandemic. 

Rabbi Killip says Hadar has added a morning class on the Amidah—which they “would never have thought to try” before the Pandemic—and 80 to 100 people now join daily, as well as a Kid’s Mishna Club—“something we had always wanted to try, but COVID gave us the push.” The latter has grown into a new Hadar Children and Families Division.

“The institutions that have pivoted with strength are institutions that have also adapted their learning structures for the online mode,” says Rabbi Fornari. “SVARA has a 30-minute Mishnah Collective and Kol Tzedek has 30 minutes of daily study on the Amidah. People are punctuating their day the way they would have with morning or afternoon prayer, but with learning—which is easier to do with one voice at a time. This has been an important innovation of the pandemic. Learning is really nourishing, intimate, and heart-opening. And being part of a learning community that has access to ancient wisdom in a time that feels so uncertain is grounding.” 

“We could have 20 people in our studio on a Wednesday morning, but now people all over the country are able to access the experience, to come together and build community through Torah, across denominational boundaries, geographic boundaries, people who never would have met each other before,” adds Rabbi Adina Allen, a Hebrew College alumnus and co-founder and creative director of Jewish Studio Project. “We’re connecting through the screen but we’re also connecting through Torah, through this well of wisdom and creativity that we’re all dipping into, just like how we can all look at the same moon. At this time of so much loss and grief, Jewish tradition and Jewish text and the process of learning are helping us feel connected, and helping us navigate uncertainty.” 

As we approach the end of this unprecedented pandemic year, as we do every year, institutions of Jewish leadership and learning desperately need support. But why, when there are so many amazing causes and Jewish philanthropic organizations and institutions to support with your year-end charitable donations, should you support an institution that innovated during the pandemic? 

Fundraising for Jewish institutions is special because “there’s God in it,” says Nancy Kaplan Belsky, a co-chair of Hebrew College’s capital campaign. When donors support Jewish learning, they’re “in relationship with God.” Hebrew College Rabbinical School student Dena Glasgow adds: “We cannot let the pandemic strip away what is most precious to us. We need to nurture leaders and communities to affect change that will not just sustain, but grow, the Jewish community in the decades to come.” 

Rabbi Allen of Jewish Studio Project, says because there is no one definitive way that a text is understood or translated, Jewish learning in community gives people opportunities to understand new and different perspectives, to navigate uncertainty, and to prepare for the possibility of the future. 

“This is a time of so much loss and grief for sure, but it is also an incredibly fertile time of possibility, where we’re pulled back from our normal activities, new leadership is coming, we’re going to come out from the pandemic and decide how to live our lives,” she says. “Our intention in Torah study is not just learning, but activating the prophetic imagination of the individual who is learning. We need each person’s creativity and ingenuity as part of this project of re-visioning what this world, what our society, looks like. Jewish learning, Jewish community is a way to inform that, to spark that, to hold that, and to connect us to one another and to make our work feel sacred and necessary.”  

A nearly 100-year old pluralistic institution, Hebrew College empowers teen, graduate, and adult leaders to take what they learn into their communities and enhance their Jewish expression, commitment and practice for themselves and others, to ensure continued growth and vitality. We are bringing people together from different walks of life to learn about each other; to understand what ails and encumbers them; what they hope and dream to be. As Miller Center Director Rabbi Or Rose says, “As Jews, we have a mandate to care for all members of society, especially those who are marginalized, oppressed, or overlooked. This responsibility flows from our sacred texts and from our historical experience. It also requires us to partner and humbly ally with individuals and groups closest to the pain caused by the brokenness in our societal systems.”

Malak Ahmed, a teen leader participating in one of the College interfaith programs, which is made possible by charitable donations, says Hebrew College has helped her expand beyond her comfort zone, interacting with those whose backgrounds are different from her own, and learning how to engage in civil discussions on topics not spoken about at the dinner table.

“It takes a community to raise a child,” she says. “If we want our future to be stable, we need this generation to be better than the last. If we want to ameliorate the problems faced by this generation for the generations coming, we need to improve how they engage with their communities. In a program like this, teens grow up having a global education and perspective on different people, and they have ethical morals.”

It is the ethical morals that Malak speaks of that guide our Jewish institutions, so profoundly engaged in ensuring Jewish continuity, literacy, creativity, and bridge-building now and always. It is why we are personally so passionate about the work of Hebrew College, and so busy reaching out to supporters to impart the impact their charitable gifts have on creating a vibrant Jewish community.

If you’d like more information about how to support Hebrew College, please visit hebrewcollege.edu/give/ways-to-give

Learn how the CARES Act changes may impact your charitable donation tax deduction limit for tax-deductible charitable donations made in 2020.


Carl Chudnofsky is a graduate of and a member of the Board of Trustees at Hebrew College in Newton, MA, where Rosa Kramer Franck is the Director of Development.

 

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