Scenario Planning for a Post-Pandemic Jewish Future

The Covid-19 pandemic is producing major upheaval, and we don’t yet know where all the chips are going to fall. We do know, however, that the world will be transformed, and the Jewish community will confront momentous changes.

That’s why we recently convened a group of 15 funders and other leaders to help us embark on a scenarios design process that imagines how the United States and the world will look in the next two years. We can’t predict, but we can imagine alternative futures that will affect the Jewish community in different ways — which we can then use to help prepare.

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Using scenarios, organizations can make sense of their context and identify trends and factors that might affect them in the future. That allows them to “wind-tunnel” their strategies by asking themselves how they’ll fare in each of the alternative futures they may face. What threats and opportunities may present themselves in each scenario? What do we need to do today to prepare? How do we survive, thrive, and be resilient, knowing that the future is uncertain?

Scenarios don’t try to predict the future, and they are not good or bad. In fact, all scenarios can present opportunities and threats. They are alternative stories of the future, built by imagining how different variables will evolve over time and assigning different outcomes to trends and events that are uncertain. Will the economic recovery be fast or slow? Will there be social unrest? Will families strengthen or weaken? Will social distancing continue? Will education be mostly virtual? Will civil rights be curtailed? The different answers we imagine for each of these questions – and many more – form the building blocks of our alternative scenarios.

For our scenario process we had help from some of the leading experts in the world, Professor Rafael Ramirez from Oxford University and his team, whose technique has been used by major companies, governments and international organizations. We convened a group of 15 funders and leaders, representing a cross-section of the Jewish community and developed the scenarios over the course of several Zoom meetings.

We started by listing and analyzing the uncertainties that we face. Then, we selected two key variables along which to structure our scenarios: the strength of economic indicators and the level of cohesion and equality in society.  We then imagined how these variables can evolve in the next two years, and the combinations led to four alternative scenarios.

  • In one, the economy has recovered and improved, and society has higher cohesion and less inequality. The world is experiencing a new version of the Roaring ‘20s – we called this scenario “A New Renaissance.”
  • In another, the economy has bounced back, but the recovery has accentuated existing inequalities and created even more fragmentation and social tension. This is a world of gated communities for the rich and civil unrest for the poor – we called this scenario “Haves and Have-Nots.”
  • In the third scenario, the economy doesn’t recover. We are in a long depression and, simultaneously, the society is fragmented, even violent. Inequality rises. The economic crisis fuels extremist movements and society approaches the breaking point – we called this scenario “Back to the 1930s.”
  • In the last scenario, the economy doesn’t recover, but the “smaller pie” is distributed more equitably. The society has learned to exercise solidarity and a new spirit of cohesion has emerged from the pandemic. We are poorer but seem to be happier – we called this scenario “A Smaller but Tastier Pie.”

Each scenario has “early warning signs” (EWS). For example, an early successful vaccine is an indication that “A New Renaissance” has become possible; mass protests and violence in American cities are an EWS of “Back to the 1930s” or “Haves and Have-Nots”; the adoption of Universal Health Care could be a harbinger of “A Smaller but Tastier Pie.”

After designing the scenarios, we asked what their implications are for the Jewish community. How are different sectors of the community affected in each of these alternative futures? What are the challenges and opportunities presented in each alternative future? Which of our basic assumptions become obsolete? How do we need to re-imagine the organizational architecture of the Jewish community to better respond to the new context in each scenario?

For example, how will human service agencies cope with the double whammy of increased needs and decreased funding in the scenarios in which the economy doesn’t recover? How can we do Israel engagement in a world in which travel remains impossible or infrequent?

How can we benefit from a possible renaissance in arts and culture? How can we keep the community safe in the scenarios in which antisemitism increase? How can we work with college students when, in most scenarios, there’s a decrease of young people going to campus? In what scenarios do young Jews become politically radicalized? In a scenario in which more Jews move to suburbs, what happens to communal real estate assets in cities?

Most importantly, we asked ourselves, how do we prepare to be resilient and thrive in each scenario? What are the steps that we need to take today to confront the future? What new skills will we need? What new organizational architectures? What new coalitions?

Each of us would love to see the world evolving towards a preferred scenario, but we resisted the temptation of a “good” or “bad” judgement on any, as each scenario presents us with challenges, threats, and opportunities.

What’s next? Scenario design is an iterative process. Thus, the process we did at JFN is by no means the end of the road. We envision the following next steps:

  • JFN has working groups focusing on different funding areas of the community: Human Services, Arts and Culture, Haredim, Young Adults, etc. Each of these working groups will identity implications, opportunities and threats – and potential action plans – for their respective sector.
  • JFN will assist funders that seek to deepen these scenarios and apply them to their own work.
  • These scenarios can serve as the basis for a broad communal conversation about the post-Covid world. JFN will work with its partners towards convening such a forum.
  • These scenarios, together with a description of the process, are available for Jewish organizations, umbrella bodies or national agencies, to use as they craft their strategies for the future. Each organization should ask itself: Am I ready to face any of these scenarios? If not, what do I need to do?

Thinking of future scenarios requires open-mindedness and humility, because it demands that we admit that there are many things about the future that we can’t control. We realize that, ultimately, we cannot stop the tsunami of the future, but we also discover that, with the creativity and vision, we can learn how to surf it.