By Mark Wilf
B’chol dor vador chayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatza mimitzrayim — in every generation, each Jew should regard themselves as if they personally came out of Egypt.
When we read these words in the Haggadah — as we did this past week in Jewish homes all over the world — we usually take it to mean that we should each feel personally connected to the story of the redemption from slavery, and thus never take our freedom for granted.
But perhaps the Haggadah is warning us that each generation will face its own moments of crisis — its own Exodus moment — during which we will be required to summon the vision and courage to save our families and the entire Jewish people.
It is certainly true that every generation of leaders has had its own challenges. My parents were Holocaust survivors. They came to America to build their family and their business, and then helped support the Jewish community and the state of Israel through multiple crises and opportunities such as wars, the fall of the Soviet Union and much more.
My fellow board members and I are acutely aware that protecting our community during the COVID-19 pandemic, and then helping to rebuild and reimagine Jewish life after the crisis has passed, will turn out to be one of the most significant challenges that my generation will face during our time in leadership.
As leaders of the Federation system, we love to be involved in building flourishing Jewish communities. But even during the best of times, we have important responsibilities to those who are most vulnerable. That is why we support and maintain an extensive network of human service agencies and programs that are critical lifesaving measures and underscore our commitment for all those who need our help. On top of that, we support and maintain an extensive network of Jewish education and engagement programs as well, for everyone from newborns to seniors. And we remain deeply connected to Israel and to Jews all over the world — partnering, visiting and providing funds to meet the needs of our far-flung people.
To give some sense of scale, the 146 Jewish Federations across North America raise and invest more than $900 million per year to support the needs of all Jews and to create vibrant Jewish life here and around the world. It is that network, built and maintained over decades, and those funds, raised year after year, that put us in the position to respond to the current crisis.
The programs that are right now mobilizing to support the needs of our community were in place because of the love and care of so many over the years.
And yet the regular resources of a community are clearly not sufficient to meet this crisis. So Federations have been taking extraordinary measures, reaching into endowments, accelerating campaigns and allocations, creating emergency funds and spending down reserves, all to meet the needs of the moment. To date, Federations have allocated more than $100 million above and beyond the regular support they provide to our community agencies, and have even helped support nonprofits struggling in Israel and endangered Jewish communities elsewhere in the world.
But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. While working tirelessly to keep the community afloat, our Federations have also led countless acts of chesed, delivering food to those shut in and personal protective gear to health care workers, increasing mental health services to the isolated, and much more. And we have collectively created JewishTogether.org, which has helped all Jewish nonprofits and synagogues learn how to access the new Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Plan and connect to many more spiritual and practical resources to get us all through this crisis.
People ask me, “What is to become of our community?” or “What will our community look like when this is over?” And I always say the same thing: This is what our community looks like — organized, caring and ready to tackle any challenge.
Together, collectively, we will continue to lead a community that never loses its purpose or its way. Though our world and our community are facing an unprecedented challenge, we know what to do and we know how to do it. To everyone who needs help in this crisis, please reach out to your local Federation and let us know. We will be there.
And to all those who can offer help, please reach out to your local Federation to join the effort.
B’chol dor vador. From generation to generation, the work of community goes on, and the work of the Federation system goes on. This pandemic is but one of our generation’s challenges. We do not yet know the full extent of the harm that COVID-19 will cause, but we will continue to meet this crisis head on, as our predecessors met the challenges of their day.
Mark Wilf is the chair of The Jewish Federations of North America’s board of trustees.