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The Pandemic, the Future, and Jewish Organizations: Leaders Reflect

A conversation with seven CEOs.

The roughly one-year mark since pandemic restrictions began, along with a new phase of vaccine progress, converge to create a milestone moment. We sat down with seven leaders of Jewish organizations—all alumni of our CEO Onboarding Program—to take stock of the lessons they will remember from the eventful past year, and the insights they’ll bring into the future.

The participants were:

  • Paul Bernstein
    CEO, Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools
  • Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal
    CEO, The Rabbinical Assembly
  • Addie Goodman
    President & CEO, JCC Chicago
  • Heather Moran
    CEO and Executive Director, Sixth & I
  • Rabbi David Rosenn
    Executive Director, Hebrew Free Loan Society
  • Miryam Rosenzweig
    President and CEO, Milwaukee Jewish Federation
  • Todd Schenk
    CEO, Jewish Social Service Agency (JSSA), Rockville, MD

In March 2020, what went through your heads when you first understood the severity of the pandemic?

Addie Goodman: I don't think any of us, and certainly not I, had any inkling how long the true crisis would last. I wasn't prepared to engage in months of crisis management. I'd never done that before. Even though we’d had bomb threats and other shorter crises in the past, this was totally new territory. And if I had been aware of the length of this situation, then I would have guided my team differently. Honestly, I would have supported myself differently. I just didn't realize that the adrenaline was going to have to last for a year. 

Rabbi David Rosenn: When COVID hit, we thought, “Okay, here’s something we know how to do.” And we stood up a stripped-down version of our general-needs loan that would be much more accessible to people, because we figured there would be extra costs associated with illness, childcare, and more. Then, three days later, it became utterly clear that this was not just a “respond-with-the-tools-you-already-have-in-your-toolbox” kind of situation. So I suggested to my board that we just to tell everybody to stop repaying their loans. Debt forgiveness — we've never done that before. And we did that for four months. And that’s cash flow; that's lifeblood for us. So that was not an easy decision, but I think everybody felt that clearly this was the right thing to do. 

“If I had been aware of the length of this situation, then I would have guided my team differently. Honestly, I would have supported myself differently. I just didn't realize that the adrenaline was going to have to last for a year. ”

Early on in the pandemic, we heard from some CEOs, “This is not the job I signed up for.” And from others we heard, “My organization was made for moments like this.” Where were your reactions on that spectrum?

Heather Moran: When COVID hit us, I had the most intense feeling of imposter syndrome that I've had since I took this job. I know I’m well-positioned for my role, I love it, I love the organization, and I understand it. But I was completely overwhelmed by the feeling that decisions that I would make would make everything unravel. Having said that, I feel incredibly proud and energized. We ended up working so well together doing things that we never imagined we would do. We decided to double down on local work in the arts community, creating programs to help local artists, in ways we had never done before.

Paul Bernstein: When COVID hit our community, schools were dramatically affected right from the start. So we did things very quickly. Jewish day schools did have—if not necessarily a playbook for this—we had experience with responding to things like Parkland, Harvey, Pittsburgh. As a network of day schools, Prizmah was ready to facilitate rapid information-sharing among schools, since in COVID, no one knew exactly what to do. The Monday of the week of Purim is when we had the first major webinar about how to run a school online, led by the first school that did it. They had all of two days’ experience by that point—but they were ready to share what they were learning. It gave the rest of our network a head start for what was to come. Our team was listening to what was going on and channeling the needs and effort of the schools. My job was to back what they were learning, and provide space for rapid, fast-changing responses.

For yourselves and your teams, how have you dealt with burnout and emotional challenges?

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal: I feel some responsibility to model what I really want rabbis in the field to be doing and what I want my staff to be doing, which is to create boundaries and to create time for self-care. So, much more than any time in my career, I’ve been focused on that piece. And I'm public about it; I show myself on my bike on Facebook. If I'm taking a day off, I write something about it. Because I don't think anybody thinks I'm lazy, but I do want them to see that I'm publicly taking that time, because I want them to do the same.

Miryam Rosenzweig: We are all living and working through this pandemic. It’s not business as usual, its compounded by the fact that we are all home, taking care of our lives while work hovers. I learned that it is important to speak about the challenges. So I talked about it in a staff meeting; I said, “I suffer from anxiety.” And saying it out loud to my team was very, very freeing for me. The number of people who reached out for support afterward was incredibly restorative for me, and helped me understand the different stresses facing of my team. This was a vulnerable leadership moment and I did it intentionally to create an environment where we can speak about challenges and support each other.

Heather Moran: I find myself doing a lot more triangulating between team members, trying to help everyone see that everybody is going through a lot right now. So many of people are struggling and taking things more personally than before, and I’m having so many conversations about dynamics in the workplace. We spend time in team meetings talking about things like giving people grace, benefit of the doubt, that kind of thing. I feel a responsibility to do this work, but also, I'm not a social worker. I’m realizing that actually, it isn't my job to make sure that everybody on my team is happy. That isn't in my job description. It is in my job description to make sure that everybody on our team has the tools that they need to feel supported in their work, but that's different from being responsible for their individual and personal happiness.

“I talked about it in a staff meeting; I said, ‘I suffer from anxiety.’ And saying it out loud to my team was very, very freeing for me.”

What has changed about your relationships with your boards?

Todd Schenk: The ability of board members to relate to what is so important in our services right now, because they are also living it, has fostered a different kind of connection to the work. Suddenly they’re not talking about somebody else's issue that we’re responding to; they can see it in themselves, their neighbors, and their own family members—the impact of isolation, the impact of trying to school children at home, the impact of not being able to visit a parent who's in a facility. All of those things are very much part of each of our lives and our board members’ lives as well. So a lot of our board members have now invested even more in being able to share in the response of the agency.

Miryam Rosenzweig: We often talk about the essential partnership between our lay leadership and the professionals. We felt the partnership in a completely new light. Our board chair joined every internal COVID response meeting, even though in the early days of the pandemic, we were meeting six times a week. Our board met weekly for months to ensure we can make decisions and respond quickly to the community. My team and I felt the partnership with our lay counterparts in a deeper way. We were in the trenches together. We struggled with the challenges, disagreed and then we had to rely on each other’s knowledge and role to get things done. How has the partnership changed? It’s forever transformed.

“The ability of board members to relate to what is so important in our services right now, because they are also living it, has fostered a different kind of connection to the work.”

What were your experiences as Jewish organizational leaders during the protests, unrest, and conversations taking place about racial injustice over the summer? 

Rabbi Jacob Blumenthal: Both the Rabbinical Assembly and USCJ signed on to a communal letter supporting Black Lives Matter. I'm proud we did so, and there's a lot more we need to be doing. I got lots of very pleased responses and a number of very critical ones. And getting a gauge for where our people are in the Conservative movement on these issues, it turns out, is very complex. We have a fairly complicated community around these issues, and it was a wake-up call, but not everybody was woken up in the same direction.

Todd Schenk: As a service organization, we're used to dealing with the impact of discrimination on people's lives. But it's really hard to acknowledge our own role in causing that pain. That's not usually our place—our place is to try to fix something that happened to somebody, something that we were not involved in. So stepping up as an organization to acknowledge our own role in structural racism is painful. Our approach was to clean up our own house before we start making proclamations about what needs to happen in the rest of society. And we met with some skepticism internally about whether we were being reactive to a social movement and our commitment would wane the minute that media attention subsided. But our commitment is to sustain a focus on these issues and really understand and address how they're impacting our organization. We're an organization where a third of our clientele are People of Color, 60% of our staff are People of Color and our board is zero People of Color. That's a pretty stark picture of who we are as an agency. And it’s something that our board recognizes needs to be addressed. So there's been a response, there have been some learnings, but we're nowhere near a final destination.

“It was a wake-up call, but not everybody was woken up in the same direction.”

Will society learn lessons or change on the other side of this pandemic?

Paul Bernstein: It's going to take time to figure out what is going to change permanently, or to what extent the pendulum will swing back to old habits. I do think there are things that we can look forward to being different. That might be in collaborative spaces, for example—collaborations across the Jewish community. And maybe we’ll truly recognize the value of what we had before COVID. In the day school world, the reasons why these schools have done so incredibly well is because K-12 education is about so much more than getting grades, which was always true, yet has been recognized and appreciated much more during the pandemic. A great education is driven by our values. It is about whole child development and their mental health. It is about family. It is about community. And of course it’s about excellent academics. Jewish schools are actually very good at all these things, but weren't appreciated for them in quite the way they are now.

Addie Goodman: A number of people have said to me, “I used to commute an hour each way. I'm not doing that again. No way, that is not the life I want to lead.” I think that this time with family, the time with our spouses and our children, this unexpected time together, has given us a focus on family that we haven't had as a society in a very long time. And we're talking about what's core to being human. How do I want to live my life? What is the society I want to live in? How can I help build that society? We’re internalizing, and acting upon, these questions in new ways.

About the Authors
  • Mordy Walfish is the Chief Operating Officer at Leading Edge.

  • Dena Farber Schoenfeld is Vice President of Executive Programs at Leading Edge.

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