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Quarterly Update:
Summer 2020 / 5780
Helping people apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions in the here and now and cultivate Judaism’s evolving wisdom tradition as an enduring source of value for human civilization over the long term.


I. Letter From The President

II. Meet Our Grantee Partners
III. What Our Partners Are Up To
IV. What We're Up To

Letter From The President

Dear Friends and Colleagues, 

Among the many trivial disappointments wrought by the COVID pandemic is the repeated postponing of Christopher Nolan’s hotly anticipated summer blockbuster “TENET.” Nolan loves to play with time—his breakout film “Memento” is a Bach fugue of interwoven chronologies, one moving forward in time and the other backward in time until they meet in the middle as the film ends. But it’s the temporal clockwork of “Dunkirk” that feels most relevant as we approach the end of our first half year of #COVIDtime. The film tells three concurrent, nested stories: the multi-day evacuation of the British army from Dunkirk, France, early in World War II; the day-long misadventures of a platoon of British and French soldiers caught up in the evacuation; and an intense hour in the lives of a pair of RAF pilots providing air cover for the British flotilla. As "Dunkirk" weaves among these three narratives, the viewer’s affective experience of time dilates and compresses relentlessly, from the relative calm of thousands of anonymous soldiers arrayed on the beach, to the nerve-jangling intensity of a 45-second dogfight filmed from the cramped cockpit of a Spitfire. 

This toggling between the wide angle and the tight focus, between measured pacing and frenetic activity, feels like a uniquely apt allegory for the experience of these past six months living with COVID-19. I was just recounting with my family those early days in the lead up to and following Purim when it seemed like our understanding and expectations changed literally hour-to-hour: Should we attend the megillah reading? What do I need to bring home from my office if I’m not going back? Why can’t I find frozen broccoli anywhere? Masks or no masks? Is our kids’ school going online until Pesach? Memorial Day? The rest of the school year? 

At a certain point, however, that accelerated rate of change slowed, certain things became clearer, it became possible to plan for weeks and months instead of hours and days. And now, as we prepare again for the start of the school year, I feel the tempo picking up again. Will the hybrid and in-person experiments work? At what cost? What are the trade-offs and alternatives? To pod or not to pod? It’s a lot. 

This distorted sense of time is just one of the myriad complexities of this unprecedented period, but it’s one that highlights for me how essential it is for us to record the stories of this experience. Psychologists have long recognized the ways in which the stories we tell ourselves about our personal experiences have profound implications for our identity formation. Some, like Marshall Duke at Emory University, have begun to argue that this link between story and self also applies to families and, potentially, communities. Part of our ability to integrate this supremely disjointed and fragmented experience in a way that allows us to emerge intact will be how we tell our pandemic stories—to ourselves, to one another, and to future generations. 

As Jews, crises have been crucibles in which much of Judaism’s greatest wisdom has been forged. Hanukkah, Purim, and Pesach are profound encapsulations of the Jewish community’s response to historical calamity. calamity. The flourishing of Reform and Orthodox Judaism were both reactions to the upending experiences of the Enlightenment and Emancipation. We’re still coming to terms with the radical theological and philosophical implications of the Shoah. And even the Talmud can be conceived of as a colossal, centuries-in-the-making reckoning with the destruction of the Temple. 

As Yosef Yerushalmi writes in his classic text Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory, one of Judaism’s unique innovations was the Tanakh’s elevation of human historical experience as the foundation of our tradition: “For the first time the history of a people became part of its sacred scripture.” 

Ensuring that the particularly Jewish stories of the pandemic are thoughtfully and intentionally chronicled will not only help us emerge more whole from these extraordinary times, it will also enable our descendants to learn from and make meaning of what we’ve endured. Who knows what this generation’s version of the Talmud will be? 

But we can also learn from the limitations of past chronicling efforts. Another lesson we can take from Nolan’s “Dunkirk” is that no single narrative tells a whole story. The assembled regiments on the beach, the platoon and its mishaps, the fighter pilots are all essential threads in the tapestry of this story—and there are undoubtedly more yet. One of many insights from the Black Lives Matter movement is that the American story needs everyone’s voice, and that, for centuries, we have systematically excluded so many of them—particularly those of Black, Brown, and Indigenous communities—to everyone’s diminishment. As Adrienne Rich wrote: 

"When those who have the power to name and to socially construct reality choose not to see you or hear you...when someone with the authority of a teacher, say, describes the world and you are not in it, there is a moment of psychic disequilibrium, as if you looked in the mirror and saw nothing."  

We in the Jewish community have a great deal of work to do to ensure that the story we tell reflects the full breadth and depth of our community's spectacular diversity.  

Since the early days of the pandemic, we at the foundation have been committed to chronicling this experience, and particularly to ensuring that our diverse, collective stories are captured for ourselves and for future generations. 

First, working in partnership with the Covenant Foundation and the Righteous Persons Foundation, we’re supporting the American Jewish Historical Society’s project “Toward a Meaningful Snapshot of the American Jewish Community in 2020." AJHS is identifying and interviewing 36 diverse Jewish communal leaders, culminating in a collection of oral histories testifying to their experiences and the impact of the pandemic on American Jewish life. 

Second, with the partnership and support of the Jim Joseph Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, we (virtually) convened an advisory committee of 11 Jewish archivists, librarians, social scientists, and museum professionals over a period of six weeks this summer to help identify critical gaps in their collective efforts to chronicle the pandemic’s impact on Jewish communities, engage in a blue-sky brainstorm of possible responses, and then design and refine a set of high-value grant opportunities. (As part of that work, we commissioned a landscape map of current collecting efforts related to COVID-19, both within and beyond the Jewish community, which we invite you to explore.) We're pleased today to be releasing a consolidated RFP that encompasses four initiatives that will—individually and in concert—strengthen the American Jewish community’s capacity to tell a rich and meaningful story of its experience of the COVID-19 pandemic. (You can read more about this initiative in articles published this week in Jewish Insider and eJewish Philanthropy.)

As Walter Benjamin observed, “A chronicler who recites events without distinguishing between major and minor ones acts in accordance with the following truth: nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure, only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past—which is to say, only for a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments.” 



Meet Our Grantee Partners
Grants for Applying Jewish Wisdom to the COVID-19 Pandemic 
The following, recently funded projects find innovative ways to apply Jewish wisdom to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Universal Human Question

How might we record and preserve the experience of this unique moment in history so that future generations will be able to access and learn from it? 

Jewish Wisdom Applied  

Historically, crises have been crucibles in which much of Judaism’s greatest wisdom has been forged. How we chronicle and tell the story of the Jewish community’s experience of the COVID-19 pandemic—as well as the Jewish community’s responses to it—will shape the very nature of Judaism that will emerge from it.


AJHS is collecting 36 oral histories from American Jews with diverse experiences of and perspectives on COVID-19 so that future generations will be able to tell a more full, nuanced story of the Jewish response. This project seeks to capture the fear, anxiety, and loss associated with the pandemic, as well as the hope, creativity, and innovation that this moment has inspired.

Grants for Applied Jewish Wisdom
The following, recently funded projects apply particular Jewish wisdom to universal human questions.

Universal Human Question

How might our communities be places of dignity and belonging for all people?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Keshet grounds its education and training work in Jewish values of dignity and justice, and it pushes back against the ways that Jewish text and tradition have too often been weaponized against LGBTQ Jews. The organization teaches that LGBTQ Jews are not “others” to be marginalized by Jewish tradition, but owners and shapers of the Jewish tradition itself.  


Keshet’s vision is full integration of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer Jews who span various races, ethnicities, ages, economic backgrounds, physical abilities, and political perspectives. Their work includes providing resources, skills training, and consulting expertise to support LGBTQ inclusion and equality in Jewish institutions across the country.

Universal Human Question

How might we engage more people, especially youth, in reflective social justice work?

Jewish Wisdom Applied

Jewish texts and tradition offer ancient wisdom for addressing the unique challenges of this moment in history. The RAC will explore a diverse array of Jewish stories and teachings that offer insights that can be applied to the COVID-19 pandemic, racism, voter suppression, and other important issues today.  


The RAC’s "Wisdom for a World Transformed: New Mediums, New Audiences" will create and expand access to social justice materials based on Jewish text and interpretations, with a particular eye toward curating content for use by teenagers and social justice advocates, on the issues of: civic engagement; racial equality, diversity, and inclusion (REDI); mental health for youth; and living in the reconfigured reality created by COVID-19.  

A More Perfect Union Grants
The following, recently funded projects apply Jewish wisdom to strengthen American democratic norms and institutions.

Universal Human Question

How might we cultivate powerful ideas that inform and deepen our understanding about civics and democracy and their relationships to national and ethnic identities? 

Jewish Wisdom Applied

SHI NA engages in applied Jewish thought and disseminates that thought directly to Jewish leaders and to public audiences. The organization works with scholars who draw ideas from the breadth of the tradition (Bible, rabbinic literature, history, philosophy), using a pluralistic lens, and apply that wisdom to the contemporary questions we face. The resulting content combines specific texts with interpretations of those texts in new frameworks of Jewish thought. 


SHI NA began focusing on questions about the interrelationship between Jewish thought and American democracy in 2017 in response to the rise of American partisanship and polarization, and with growing concern for the diminishment of the American civic project. The first phase of the project made Jewish values and American democracy a priority area for the Institute. In this next phase, SHI NA will expand its research on these topics and disseminate its teachings across North America.

What Our Partners Are Up To

Sefaria for Democracy

Sefaria has released a prototype of Sefaria for Democracy, a proof of concept for bringing Sefaria’s approach to interlinking Jewish texts to the great texts of American democracy. It presents the texts of our democratic tradition in dialogue with each other, highlighting how our explorations of freedom and liberty are part of a robust, intergenerational conversation going back centuries. 

Opening Your Virtual Gates: Making Online High Holiday Celebrations Accessible to All

In preparation for virtual High Holiday services this year, we are honored to share RespectAbility's incredibly helpful Opening Your Virtual Gates: Making Online High Holiday Celebrations Accessible guide. As we enter 5781, let us open the accessible gates for as many as possible.


The In[HEIR]itance Project has launched its virtual theater project, CYCLES, a series of flexible artistic assignments that will lead to a collaborative reflection of the world forming around us during this liminal time. If you'd like to participate, please join them on their website.

Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice

We're excited to announce that the Jewish Theological Seminary is now offering a Certificate in Jewish Ethics and Social Justice, which will enable people from a range of backgrounds to address issues of ethics and justice by learning wisdom of ancient and contemporary Jewish texts and communities. Students in any graduate program at JTS can pursue this certificate.

Online Offerings

SVARA is now offering an increasing number of learning opportunities online. You can begin exploring them by checking out the daily Mishnah Collective.



HevrutaAmerica is a new full-time Jewish study and volunteer program run by the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America. Combining elements of Jewish study, volunteering, and the creating of a unique Jewish community committed to pluralism, the program will offer an alternative opportunity to college-aged students who have elected to take time away from school. If you would like to learn more, you can find more information here.
What We're Up To

Recommended Reading/Listening/Watching

  • This piece, by Tyler Dratch and Shira M. Zemel, explains how the RAC is using text study to inform its social justice work.
  • Our Connecting the Dots: American Jews and Civic Engagement report was recently cited in an article by Steven Windmueller about the 2020 election, as well as another article about the climate crisis, by Mirele Goldsmith.
  • The Foundation's staff has been engaging in weekly learning about anti-racism by sharing and discussing articles, including this 2017 piece from The Atlantic, as well as this article by Heather Caruso about behavioral approaches to anti-racism work.
  • The Jewish Week released its annual “36 Under 36,” and Mordy Walfish, Chief Operating Officer at our partner Leading Edge, made the list. Congrats, Mordy!
  • We thoroughly enjoyed the lectures, discussions, and seminars we attended as part of Shalom Hartman Institute's month-long online-learning program All Together Now, a celebration of Jewish ideas with over 60 scholars from Israel and North America addressing questions about citizenship, moral responsibilities, and spiritual sustenance in a time of darkness and loss. Videos of the sessions are available here.
  • Andrés Spokoiny wrote a thought-provoking article arguing that the Talmud’s approach to pluralism could serve as a blueprint for dealing with strong differences of opinion today
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