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From real estate to IT departments: Jewish investment post-corona

What Jewish investment has paid off the best during the corona pandemic? The answer must be the trivial amount devoted before and during the virus era to IT capabilities in our institutions, which has enabled, almost overnight, a vast amount of worship and programming to be put online to enthusiastic audiences.

After the crisis, there is going to have to be a reckoning with the relative returns on investment in technology and buildings.

Jeffrey Herbst

At American Jewish University, our online series “B’Yachad/Together: Spirited by AJU” has attracted over ten thousand viewers from across the country and a growing international audience. We have reached thousands of people never associated with the university and extended our mission by providing a vast array of programming rooted in Jewish wisdom that has informed, educated and entertained.

What Jewish investment has paid off least? The enormous funds devoted to buildings as well as the capital required to maintain, enhance, and expand structures that are currently empty and will not be operating normally for some time.

The problem, and opportunity, for the Jewish community is that the many tens of millions of dollars devoted to buildings annually exceeds by orders of magnitudes the requirements of Zoom licenses and the occasional upgraded webcam that rabbis and teachers are using to reach, in many cases, far greater audiences then they are accustomed to addressing.

After the crisis, there is going to have to be a reckoning with the relative returns on investment in technology and buildings. Of course, we are not going to abandon the vast physical infrastructure of synagogues, day schools, and camps that have been built. Indeed, immediately after the definitive end of the crisis, there may be a short-term upsurge in physical congregating as people seek finally to leave their homes. The investments in physical facilities that provide a unique experience — such as Jewish summer camp — are not going to be threatened. They may even prosper, given how different they are from any conceivable online experience.

However, there is no going back to pre-Corona days. After experiencing Torah study, services, or educational programs in the comfort of their own homes, some will wonder why they should step outside. Those unaffiliated with current structures will probably not feel compelled to join brick and mortar institutions even if they enjoyed their online programming.

Tied up with the investments in buildings has been the geographically defined nature of many congregations. Congregants attended synagogues whose buildings were close to them. However, the corona-inspired online worshipping and education that has developed has completely disrupted the association between location and institution.

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Suddenly, it is possible to experience the worship, wisdom, and programming of a vast number of institutions and teachers worldwide, irrespective of location at the same time. Of course, this was true before corona. However, the virus has massively accelerated the shift to non-local, virtual learning and introduced programming to audiences that would likely, under regular circumstances, have not changed their patterns of worship and learning.

There will necessarily be resistance to the rebalancing between the physical and virtual. The act of building physical structures is in the DNA of our Jewish communities. Yet, like everyone else, we are only beginning to learn what it means to truly embrace technology as an organic aspect of communal life.

One does not have embrace Parkinson’s Law of Buildings (“a perfection of planned layout is achieved only by institutions on the point of collapse”) to know that the old ways of doing business will not be good enough. An enthusiastic embrace of the means of reaching potentially much larger numbers of Jews, irrespective of the organizational dislocation that implies, is the only way forward.

Dr. Jeffrey Herbst is President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He was previously President and CEO of the Newseum.

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