I am an urban planner by training, and I’ve long been curious about our community’s sense of place. In the wake of the pandemic, I’m wondering if we will see a shift in how we move between our public and private spaces, and how we think about Jewish places. Will it fundamentally change how we experience the Jewish community?
After the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue and the home became central places. The 20th-century American Jewish template added community centers, social service agencies and eventually camps and day schools. In recent years, we started to ask what makes a Jewish place amidst so much choice about where we spend our time – particularly with more time than ever spent at work, in cultural and culinary places, in parks and sports venues, and online.
The pandemic will further focus our attention on space. The experience of place over the past two months has been simultaneously constricting, as we create work and study spaces in our homes, and expansive, as we connect with colleagues, friends and members of our families around the world. With this heightened awareness of space, two trends will accelerate. They may seem contradictory, but they are, in fact, complementary.
Neighborhoods and micro-communities have never mattered more. We are more aware of those immediately around us and we are responding as neighbors and small communities to help those nearby with grocery shopping, making masks and more. We will see more teleworking which will create more daytime neighborhood activity and influence how we think about the locale of Jewish community services.
These accelerating trends will call for our Jewish funding to focus even more keenly on hyperlocal places, building on existing trends: OneTable dinners where recent college graduates can meet up for Shabbat already take place in multiple locations simultaneously rather than expecting everyone to convene for a larger meal in a central location. Likewise, Honeymoon Israel is intentional about selecting participants from the same or neighboring zip codes so that it is easier for the group to say connected when they return. We even have synagogues that offer religious school during the week at multiple locations to remove traveling as a barrier.
We are also more aware than ever of the need for coordinated responses. Like many Jewish communities, ours came together with a great sense of urgency to raise an emergency fund that is able to collectively consider and prioritize vast and complex needs. We heard loudly and clearly from our donors that they wanted the result of the coordinated response to be impactful.
There are similarly moments in Jewish life that demand a sense of peoplehood – of belonging to something bigger than oneself. When eight million Israelis – and many more Jews online – stand together to hear the siren in Israel to commemorate Yom HaZikaron, we are experiencing the collective. When 500 campers join together for Shabbat on Friday night, they are being introduced to the collective. These are important Jewish moments that we need to continue to fund because they contribute so powerfully to a sense of belonging.
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Within the collective, we have the opportunity to bring more people together to make decisions on important Jewish community issues. Our current communal volunteer structure requires people to travel sometimes long distances from their work or home to be a part of the conversation. As we become more nimble with virtual meeting tools, we are learning that virtual engagement can be productive – and a viable way to get a diversity of voices “in the room.”
Hyper-localism and the collective: These can seem at first blush to be contradictory trends, but they are each important to consider in Jewish life. Now is a profoundly important time to consider how we gather – and to envision what we want to cultivate in our communities with a strong sense of belonging.
That will surely look different than it did 10, 20, 50 and 100 years ago. I believe that changes to how we think about our Jewish places will accelerate coming out of the pandemic in ways that will further address how we live, work and experience meaningful community.
Jodi Lox Mansbach is the Chief Impact Officer at the Jewish Federation of Atlanta.
Renegotiating the tension between the hyper-local and the collective