Congregation Adath Jeshurun of Yassay,” Credit: Eden, Janine, and Jim.

May 13, 2020; Forward and the JTA

The Jewish community’s national nonprofit infrastructure is being hit hard by COVID-19’s economic weight. Since the end of April, three major associations have announced large staff reductions that weaken their ability to serve their constituents and provide leadership. Their troubles may be sending an early warning to the sector of a serious threat from this ongoing crisis: critical infrastructure being eaten away.

We know that economic devastation has cut deeply into the nonprofit sector. From the pandemic’s early days, NPQ has been tracking its impact and the many nonprofit organizations forced to cut back. The plight of these national Jewish organizations may be a sign we are also losing the structures many local organizations rely on for support, meaning guidance and expertise may not be there when they need it most.

Last week, the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the nation’s largest network of synagogues, totaling 850 congregational affiliates, announced it had been forced to reduce its staff by 20 percent. As reported by the Forward, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, leader of the movement, emailed his staff with the bad news:

Unfortunately, we are now at the point that the long-term viability of the URJ is at risk if we do not reduce personnel costs further. The impact of COVID-19 on all our revenue streams has been crushing, and we anticipate it will take several years to recover. Consequently, our organization must get smaller.

According to the Forward, this action follows pay cuts in the organization of between three and 16 percent back in April. Reductions will touch all URJ’s departments, including the movement’s political lobbying wing, the Religious Action Center.

The week before, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) reported that the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), which links together 450 community organizations that employ around 10,000 people and distribute a total of $3 billion annually, has been also forced to deeply reduce staff numbers. At the end of April, Hillel International, which leads a network of campus-based, community-building organizations, also cut its staff by 20 percent. Each of these organizations plays a central role in coalescing disparate local organizations around a common purpose and mission.

These contractions will certainly be felt by their constituents. National organizations identify best practices and set operational standards to guide the work of local community affiliates. They provide operational expertise beyond the reach of an individual organization and an ability to look forward to their network’s future needs.

COVID-19 has threatened the funding model upon which each organization has developed to balance their needs with those of their affiliates. As JFNA’s CEO, Eric Fingerhut, and chair Mark Wilf explained, “The usual ways we have built the financial support for our work are not available to us right now. Missions, community events, and even visits to our donors’ homes and offices are going to be severely limited for the near future.”

How national organizations navigate these waters will test their ability to move through the pandemic and beyond. COVID-19’s impact threatens dues and fees from their constituent organizations, and as valuable as their services are, turning to affiliates at this moment is difficult when local organizations are also under economic strain. Beyond their own organizational survival, they are challenged to demonstrate their ability to help the networks they lead come through with limited damage.

The JCC Association of North America (JCCA), which leads a network of 164 community centers, put most on part-time status to balance its budget. But it has aimed to play a role beyond protecting itself. It has set as its mission ensuring its constituents can recover and move forward. In an open letter on its website, JCCA challenged donors to create a loan fund for this network that would provide the organization’s constituents with “a billion-dollar backstop. We will be ready to do our part on the day after. We need you to do yours today.”—Martin Levine