“There is a single Jewish world: intertwined, interconnected.” While some may interpret this quotation from Ralph I. Goldman (z’’l), JDC’s visionary former leader, as speaking to the Jewish community, I believe Ralph was referring to the way in which we, as Jews, see the world. Ralph worked to promote the same core value across the Jewish world: “All of Israel is responsible one for another.” He often reminded colleagues about the need to be open to change, as what a Jewish community may need in one generation may be different than what it needs in the next.
This year, I have the privilege of serving as JDC Entwine’s Ralph I. Goldman Fellow, and I have had to be open to change: I did not expect to spend my fellowship working to develop and implement immediate COVID-19 prevention and support for vulnerable communities across Africa and Asia. But in the face of a global pandemic, there was no other option — I had a responsibility to help.
It has been inspiring to watch and support the work of so many organizations that have responded with agility and focus. Overnight, teams deployed life-saving services such as food and medication or information and materials to ensure community safety and health. Local economies transitioned from making saris to facemasks. The current COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the services needed, imagined, and offered by Jewish communal institutions.
As a Jewish professional working on COVID-19 response, I see three tenets of change have emerged, each one rooted in Jewish responsibility and resilience:
1. Asking “why.”
“Why” is an inherently Jewish question that is part of our moral compass. Echoing Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, “We ask not because we doubt but because we believe.” In times of change, create a safe space in which we can ask “why.” “Why are we doing this activity? “Why does this take precedence? Having worked as part of an international team across multiple continents, I can affirm that this process leads to transparency and increased engagement. It empowers teams to understand and take greater ownership of their role in the overall mission, often leading to improved processes and innovation. It is an ostensibly scary positive-feedback loop that will return dividends.
The current COVID-19 pandemic has fundamentally changed the services needed, imagined, and offered by Jewish communal institutions.
There are two important caveats to asking the question “why.” First, “why” may create discomfort or lead to answers that we dislike, and that is okay! Second, asking “why” should not lead to adverse consequences for the person asking, as it was done for Kiddush Hashem, or for a greater Purpose.
There is a Hebrew expression “Emun and Firgun,” which says it’s not just about having the right people on your team or just believing in them — emun. It is about cultivating a deep level of trust and unconditional support — firgun. Emun and firgun cultivate synergy and allow a greater impact, be it on an individual or organizational level.
We have been working remotely now for four months. For health and safety reasons, people have moved to different continents, and outside responsibilities have impinged on the workday in many unexpected ways. We’ve all had to learn to trust that the work deliverables will be done, even if someone isn’t always online during the workday. It’s not just talent — it’s trust.
It’s about celebrating your employees who conduct a midday workout, a science experiment with their kids, or take a cooking break to protect their mental health. It’s about having faith and belief in the employees and inspiring them to stay committed to their work. Echoing many sentiments of Jewish thought-leaders like Echad HaAm, let’s urge for the acceptance and celebration of Jewish pluralism in all aspects of our lives.
3. Glocal — Global yet local.
It is important to remember COVID-19 is a pandemic that affects everyone — but differently. It is critical to engage from a place of understanding and empathy. We are all on the same journey, but taking different paths. Some of us started off in debt, with preexisting health conditions, alone, or unemployed. Some of us have gone into debt, become sick, felt alone, or lost our jobs. It has been anything but easy to say goodbye to beloved colleagues who have lost their jobs. It has been worrying to hear from friends who have been quarantined or had family members test positive for COVID-19. It has been devastating to hear from those who’ve lost someone.
Employing Benedict Anderson’s language, the global, or even national, village is an imagined community. We don’t know every permutation of every narrative, but our imagination is at work. We succeed by listening, supporting, and modeling gratitude and reflection. In that way, we build Am Echad — one people — that can reflect together during Shabbat prayers and truly say, “how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity.”
This is not the first time a pandemic plagues humanity, and it will not be the last. Let’s not rush to return to “normal” or “make up for lost time” at work. Let’s reflect and articulate the timeless lessons that have made us stronger as individuals, teams, and communities. Let’s support our intertwined and interconnected realities.
When Ralph passed, the Jewish Journal reflected, “Ralph always looked forward. He recognized that the world at large and the Jewish world were always changing…whether regarding social welfare, health or the revival of Jewish life.”
Let’s continue to prioritize communal wellness and health. Ralph’s legacy and the JDC’s impact are a testament that these goals go hand-in-hand. Let’s imagine tomorrow, today. In the words of Rabbi Hillel, “If not now, when?”
Joshua Yudkin is the current Ralph I. Goldman Fellow with JDC Entwine. An epidemiology PhD student at the University of Texas Health Science at Houston, Yudkin was recently awarded a Fulbright research award to continue his work in global health.
Previously, Yudkin served as the Chief of Staff for Israel Education and Engagement at Hillel International where he helped lead the development of their Israel education, engagement, and experience strategy on campuses worldwide.