Post-COVID, Jews Must Rely on Building Skills, Weiss Says

July 28, 2020 – By STEVE ARNOLD

HAMILTON – Jewish communities know how to build, and that’s a skill journalist and author Bari Weiss says will be critical in shaping a post-COVID reality.

In presentations to Jewish Federation campaign launches in Hamilton and Montreal last week, the former New York Times editor and op-ed writer said there’s almost no chance of a return to “normal” when the current pandemic dies out. For the Jewish world, that’s going to challenge some long-held beliefs.

Bari Weiss

“We are part of a people that knows how to build,” she told her Zoom audience in Hamilton. “We are a people who have renewed and rebuilt out of the embers more than any other people in history.”

Building that new world, she told her audiences, will require hard decisions about what is essential in Jewish communities.

“We must decide what will be essential for healthy Jewish communities,” she said. “Is it money for schools, for community hunger, for camps?

“Fancy galas, as fun as they are, don’t make the list because they don’t secure the future of a healthy Jewish community,” she added.

Weiss surprised the world July 14 when she suddenly resigned from the New York Times, citing persistent harassment and antisemitism from colleagues.

In her resignation letter, posted online at https://www.bariweiss.com/resignation-letter, she wrote “lessons about the importance of understanding other Americans, the necessity of resisting tribalism, and the centrality of the free exchange of ideas to a democratic society—have not been learned. Instead, a new consensus has emerged in the press, but perhaps especially at this paper: that truth isn’t a process of collective discovery, but an orthodoxy already known to an enlightened few whose job is to inform everyone else.

“My own forays into Wrongthink have made me the subject of constant bullying by colleagues who disagree with my views.”

Much of that harassment, she wrote, was antisemitic, something she said can be combatted not by becoming more insular, but by reconnecting with what it is to be Jewish.

Weiss has studied anti-Semitism closely. She won the 2019 Jewish Book of the Year prize for her volume How to Fight Anti-Semitism.

“The true response to antisemitism is to affirm our Judaism, it’s about digging deeper into our Jewish identity,” she added.

“Some communities have lost sight of what being Jewish is all about,” Weiss said. “Blind support for Israel is not being Jewish. Being Jewish is about more than our complex tribal politics.”

She was quick to add she remains a strong supporter of Israel and Zionism, which she called “the idea that has saved more Jewish lives than any other in history. She is not, however, a fan of current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We are not famous for our magnificent cathedrals, we don’t build grand monuments,” she said. “Our monuments are our schools, our camps, our youth movements and our institutions of learning. Our monuments are our families and our children.”

To rebuild and maintain those monuments the Hamilton Jewish Federation (HJF) will trying to raise $1.3 million in its new community campaign. That’s the same as last year’s goal, but a separate emergency campaign seeks to raise another $150,000 to support agencies in danger of being overwhelmed by COVID-related demands.

The previous campaign collected 98 percent of its goal.

Gustavo Rymberg, CEO of the HJF, said special demand is being felt by the kosher food bank, in general areas of food security, and by the loss of community participation as employment and incomes dip, which affects Jewish institutions and parents’ ability to pay tuition at Jewish schools.

“More organizations are going to be on financially fragile ground now and that will further a previous trend toward mergers and consolidation,” Rymberg said. “Our response to this crisis will be remembered as one of our finest moments.”

Recovery Campaign Launched for Community’s ‘Greatest Challenge’

July 27, 2020 – By JANICE ARNOLD

MONTREAL—Declaring that the COVID pandemic poses a “possibly existential threat to Jewish life as we know it,” Federation CJA here will try to raise $100 million over the next two years to meet the immediate needs of community members most negatively affected and to ensure the long-term survival of needed institutions.

The Community Recovery Campaign, launched virtually on July 23, replaces the traditional fall Combined Jewish Appeal, now in its 103rd year. It is co-chaired by prominent businessmen Mitch Garber and Jonathan Wener, who stressed that the 90,000-member community now faces its worst crisis in generations.

The Federation estimates 3,000-5,000 Montreal Jews have become “newly vulnerable”’ due to loss of employment or business and economic hardship exacerbated by social problems, and will need community support. These people are in addition to the approximately 18,000 who were already receiving some kind of relief before the pandemic, Federation says.

Garber said there are families who cannot make their mortgage or rent payments, let alone continue to send their children to Jewish day schools or maintain synagogue memberships.

Wener, a veteran community leader, commented on the economic fallout and human toll of the pandemic: “I have never seen such carnage in my lifetime,” he said. “This is our community’s greatest challenge in living memory.”

Demand for low-cost housing alone is up by 400 percent, says the Federation, which has recently opened a subsidized apartment building. The psychological stress of the ongoing health crisis is evident in increased domestic violence and addiction the Federation’s agencies are seeing.

Federation estimates that 300 Montreal Jewish community members have died from COVID, and a moment of silence was held for them during the launch of the Community Recovery Campaign.

The Federation has cut its own expenses in order to re-allocate resources to where they are most needed, said CEO Yair Szlak. Its staff has been reduced by 30 percent through layoffs and attrition. Remaining staff have had their salaries reduced, with senior management seeing cuts at a higher percentage, Szlak said.

The net result is a reduction in human resources expenses of more than 60 percent. Other costs have been trimmed by close to 70 percent, he said.

Its dozen agencies have also slashed their overhead, and Federation is now funding them on a monthly basis, Szlak said. A much “leaner” community apparatus is anticipated for the foreseeable future.

The campaign’s priority is to provide relief to those newly turning to the community over the next 12 to 18 months so they can get back on their feet and not become permanently dependent, said Federation president Gail Adelson-Marcovitz.

“This could mark the beginning of a period of significant decline for the community if we do not act now,” she warned.

A sum of $40 million is earmarked for an emergency fund, with the remaining $60 million sought going to what would have been the general campaign.

The launch’s guest speaker was Bari Weiss, who surprised many when she resigned as a staff opinion writer and editor at The New York Times this month.

In her letter to the paper’s publisher, which she made public, Weiss claimed she had been “bullied” by colleagues during her two years on the job, ostensibly for her pro-Israel views and advocacy against antisemitism, as well as for her unpopular conservatism.

Connecting to the Zoom conference from San Francisco, Weiss said the COVID pandemic should make Jewish communities in North America ponder deeply about what is “essential,” and that may not include the impressive physical structures like those she grew up with in Pittsburgh.

Instead, she suggested, communities should prioritize what ensures a sustainable and full Jewish life for all.

She urged communities to “think audaciously” about what their post-pandemic Jewish life will look like, and perhaps find an example in the early Zionists who took a leap of faith in leaving sometimes comfortable lives in Europe to fulfill an ideal.

“If there is a silver lining, it is that this is an opportunity for tshuvah, for return to what truly matters…to decide what is essential for generations to come,” she said.

Weiss, author of the book How to Fight Anti-Semitism, said her sense of security as a Jew in America was shattered by the murderous attack on the Tree of Life Synagogue, where she had her bat mitzvah.

Now, as an outspoken “public Jew,” Weiss said she is the recipient of criticism “as a Jew” and worse, death threats, but this has only strengthened her conviction to “represent the Jewish people in a way that reflects well on all of us.”

Antisemitism has “intensified” with the pandemic, she said, because “historically, whenever there has been turmoil people look for a villain, and that has almost always been the Jew.”