Our Stories

The future we don’t want to imagine

Photo by Andrii Yalanskyi | Licensed through Shutterstock

By Dana Sheanin, Jewish LearningWorks’ CEO. Published originally through eJP.

I once believed that I was fortunate to live in one of the most well-organized, vibrant and innovative ecosystems in the nonprofit world. When the Bay Area’s 350,000 Jews and their families seek opportunities for learning, support or belonging, they are met with a sophisticated web of synagogues, community centers, social service agencies, camps and day schools. Should they desire an alternative to these traditional ways of engagement, they can access an array of newer organizations: urban farms, startup accelerators, art and maker spaces, and meditation centers.

Sadly, in conversations over the past six months with colleagues who lead these organizations one resounding theme has surfaced: We are on the verge of collapse — and during a time when adults, teens and children need us to find a way forward more than ever.

Before Oct. 7, Jewish organizations had just about weathered the COVID pandemic, emerging with smaller staffs, fewer participants able to afford membership or participation fees, and depleted professionals across every setting. Before Oct. 7, we faced a clergy hiring crisis, a teacher hiring crisis and C-suite burnout, with once-committed professionals acknowledging that the high cost of urban living relative to stagnant nonprofit salaries too often makes Jewish leadership roles unsustainable. Those of us who stayed the course through the pandemic spent much of 2022–2023 doggedly working to re-engage our constituents while raising the funds needed to keep our organizations afloat.

Then, of course, everything changed on Oct. 7, and we now face three new, interrelated challenges:

  1. The communities we serve are as polarized as they have ever been and connected, respectful conversation has become immensely difficult.
  2. The adults, children and teens who engage in Jewish communal life are increasingly motivated by anger and fear.
  3. The local and national philanthropies we rely on have redirected their considerable financial resources to support Israel, leaving community-based organizations scrambling to avoid staff reductions, program alterations and the exodus of both new and veteran leaders.

I regularly hear influential community stakeholders, worried about the adolescent mental health crisis, express gratitude for the Jewish social service and educational programs that prioritize building teen resilience. For more than a year I have participated in an ongoing national funder conversation about how to better support early childhood education as a critical on-ramp for Jewish toddlers and their parents. Since Oct. 7, I have heard philanthropists calling attention to organizations that burn out professionals with insufficient salaries and fail to recognize how thin our talent pipeline is.

And yet, as the leader of a 125-year-old Jewish educational organization addressing all of these areas, there seems to be nowhere to turn for financial support or critical partnership. There are startlingly few philanthropies supporting local organizations to enable us to weather the greatest crisis in a generation. Perhaps almost as painfully, I have not participated in any funder-led conversation about how to keep the doors of local organizations open nor how to keep the dedicated professionals still there from leaving.

The situation in Israel is devastating. At the same time, when I try to imagine our community after the war, I can’t help but wonder how many synagogues will have merged with others, how many day schools will have closed, how many start-ups will have shut down, how many JCCs and camps will face staffing shortages that require them to turn children and families away. I wonder whether the way we are speaking (or not speaking) to each other will destroy the fabric of our community.

The Talmud teaches that the true guardians of a community are its teachers. Ensuring that we continue to have teachers and leaders for the future will require our philanthropic partners to act with urgency to fund local organizations, even if it requires temporarily rethinking their policies and priorities. Local leaders need those with influence to convene a conversation about how to shore up both our organizations and their people. Finally, we need our individual donors to deepen their giving, just as they did so generously during the pandemic.

My conversations with colleagues keep me up at night. I fear that without action, when we reach the other side of the crisis that began on Oct. 7, seeking to come together, to heal and to explore how to rebuild, the organizations we’ve relied on for generations to serve as a vehicle for these things will no longer be available.

The local crisis is real. It is getting worse every day. And it is breaking my heart.