Diaspora community groups near collapse: Can Israel save them?

Israeli think tank argues that “harnessing the momentum of distance learning” can strengthen Jewish continuity and bonds with Israel.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Jewish communities and organizations around the world are reportedly under threat of collapse due to the corona crisis, and Israel has the means to help them, says a Tel Aviv think tank in a series of recent position papers on the issue.

While it is widely believed that Jews have died well out of proportion to their population numbers from the deadly virus in the U.S. and Europe, the economic crisis engendered by the virtual shutdown of global commerce over the last two months is an even more serious emergency for Diaspora Jewry as a whole, says the Reut Institute.

Jewish organizations have downsized sharply and many communities have narrowed their focus to supplying emergency aid to an exponentially greater number of families than were supported pre-corona.

Meanwhile, the major financial downturn has meant that resources that could be counted on in the past to support activities that strengthen communal bonds may no longer be available, at least not in the near future.

The nonpartisan and nonprofit policy think tank says that Israel now has the opportunity to reinforce those bonds because Jewish education is the key “in building a Jewish identity amongst its recipients” – and Israel is a world leader in online education.

While traditional settings such as schools are closed due to the pandemic, “the Israeli model not only includes distance learning as a substitute for classroom learning, but also a supportive social-educational framework that provides students with an emotional response,” said the report.

Looking to the upcoming summer vacation, with Jewish camps likely not in the offing, online alternatives in the informal educational sphere can also be a valuable tool to kindle Jewish connectedness.

The report also pointed out that distance learning will also make Jewish education affordable to almost every pocket. This could also be a game-changer in strengthening Jewish identity, as the infamously high cost of Jewish schooling made it a burden that too many families could not take on, especially in the United States.

There is a “window of opportunity” now, says Reut, to create new, exciting content that will speak to Jews who span the spectrum from unaffiliated to Orthodox. This could “strengthen shared Jewish concepts and feelings of connection throughout the Jewish world.”

Another welcome outcome of such an innovative approach to Jewish education could be the renewal of global Jewry’s bond with Israel — and vice versa.

“The more educational institutions in Israel that are able to connect with and enrich such an online space, the more empowered Israeli society will be to feel a sense of connection and solidarity with world Jewry,” said the report.

On May 26, The Jewish Agency in conjunction with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry will convene a global roundtable with Jewish organizations to discuss the impact of the coronavirus crisis.

The Jewish Agency’s announcement of the online gathering said that “the forum will also discuss the preparations for a possible second wave… and identify new opportunities, initiatives and communal structures, as well as ways to help redesign communities.”