Building Stronger Jewish Communities as a Response to Y2K

Rabbi Arthur Waskow

From New Year 5760 to New Year 2000:

Building Stronger Jewish Communities as a Response to Y2K

By Rabbi Arthur Waskow

[This precis is a summary and "overture" to a longer report on Y2K and the Jewish community, available as Shalom Report #7. See the note at the very end of this entry for information on how to receive the full report.]


The Jewish community, like others in America and around the world, faces the possibility that early in the Year 2000, there may be disruptions of some important services as a result of the Y2K computer glitch.

The interwoven pattern of computer-driven systems is so elaborate that sober observers like the US Senate Subcommittee on Y2K and Consumer Reports report: No one can say with certainty either that there will or there won't be serious disruptions. In some areas, quite possibly; in others, probably not.

If there is trouble, the most vulnerable, the old, the poor, the sick, will suffer most. Only communities can protect them, and only by preparing. We can see the time we put into preparation both as buying "insurance," a caring response to uncertainty, and as sharing, out of joyful celebration.

What if we ourselves decide to make this time a joyful celebration of community and sharing, no matter what Y2K does or doesn't do? What if we make an extended Shabbat, take a break, instead of suffering a breakdown?

This is a win-win game. If Y2K makes trouble, we are ready; and if there is no trouble, we have built stronger Jewish congregations and communities. At "worst," we build communities that care about each other more deeply, help each other more effectively, understand Torah more fully, and celebrate together more joyfully.Jews will be gathered in great numbers just three months before 2000, to celebrate Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. In a High Holiday sermon, rabbis can urge their congregations to prepare for four to ten days of simple living and community sharing: "Take a Break" days from Erev Shabbat, December 31, 1999, to January 3 or January 9, 2000.

This High Holy Day sermon would also explain how congregants and neighbors could spend part of their time during the fall preparing to address both the dangers of disruption and the joyful opportunities for community-building that may unfold from Y2K.

Joy from a thorn bush? We could easily see Sukkot, Pesach, and Shabbat as life-deprivations, a flimsy house, a restricted diet, no purchasing. But Jews have learned to see them as joyful life-enhancements, time to celebrate and share.

In this way we choose for a limited rhythmic time to live a simple life-style in community, protecting the vulnerable, without asceticism or permanent deprivation.

Sermons, of course, are only a start. Beginning during Sukkot 1999, congregations bring members and neighbors together to be trained in how to do this.

We suggest the following time-table, from mid-199 to February 1, 2000:

1. As soon as possible, the congregational leadership (rabbinic and administrative) briefs the synagogue board and key members on Y2K and dealing with it; starts the process of the congregation's own self-assessment; and selects some people to act as trainers and facilitators for the Y2K training event that will happen in late September.

2. In early September, synagogues announce that they will set up a special Y2K self-assessment and preparatory training. Many congregations may find it most convenient to do such a program on Sunday September 26, during Sukkot. (Information on such a training is in the full Shalom Report # 7.)

3. For Rosh Hashanah (Saturday, September 11) or for Yom Kippur, the rabbi preaches on the deeper meaning of Y2K. The sermon might invoke three elements:

  • the origins of the Y2K problem in the weakening of face-to-face communities and the success of techno-idolatry and reckless globalism (as in the Tower of Babel story; see below).
  • Jonah's warning to Nineveh as a model for warnings intended to heal the society through stirring action to cancel out the danger that they warn of;
  • and Isaiah's teaching in the Yom Kippur haftarah that by communally protecting the most vulnerable among us, we can achieve the real delights of Shabbat joy and rest.

The Sermon's Goal: To prepare for Y2K not out of fear but out of intention to strengthen and celebrate community. And to begin giving basic information on how to prepare this way. The rabbi could also announce the coming training workshop and strongly urge all to attend.

4. On Sunday, Sept. 26 or soon after, the synagogue holds a training workshop, using Sukkot itself as a symbol and teaching toward a simple-living, community-sharing "festival" at the turning of the year. This training continues through the fall. People form teams for involving neighbors and congregation members in preparedness groups who can turn disruptions or shortages into communal-sharing and simple-living celebration time.

5. From about December 31 to either January 3 or January 9, the synagogue makes itself available as a meeting place; an "indoor sukkah," if that turns out to be necessary for the old or the poor; and a center for prayer and celebration. To do this it prepares back-up food, warmth, and medicine.


6. From January 1 till about February 1, 2000, there are four possibilities:

a. Synagogues do what Shalom Paper #7 recommends, and Y2K in some areas does become a serious problem.

Result: Community does reasonably well in coping, neighbors have gotten to know each other much better over period of preparing, not just January crisis. Neighbors and congregants are very happy they took the trouble to train and prepare. Synagogue has less money in bank (having bought some items for preparedness) but when the neighborhood bounces back after the crisis, people are grateful to it, see their down-to-earth lives bound up in it.

b. Synagogues do what Shalom Paper #7 recommends, and Y2K does not become a serious problem anywhere.

Result: Extra stocks of food, water, etc are gradually used up, or used for soup kitchens, any longer-term equipment purchased is stored away for other possible emergencies like hurricanes, etc. or used in camping trips or an adventurous Sukkot, or sold at a loss to surplus stores; community members get to know each other much better and more deeply (from sharing info about skills, life situation, etc).; some people sneer at synagogue leadership for taking all that trouble; others feel good about the communal connections ; "the day nothing happened and we REALLY made Shabbos" becomes a congregational memory and joke. Synagogue has less money in bank.

c. Synagogues do nothing, and Y2K in some areas does become a serious problem.

Result: Some people who need medicines that are not available get very sick, people flee from hardest-hit metro areas, some old people die from lack of fuel or water. Synagogue stays as (ir)relevant to people's real lives as it has been before but other institutions (Red Cross, Natl Guard, maybe church soup kitchens), become much more important to them. Synagogue has same money in bank that it did but there may have been damage to unprepared building, etc. Some congregants mutter that they wish someone had urged them to prepare.

d. Synagogues do nothing, and Y2K does not become a serious problem anywhere.

Result: Nothing changes.


Four major questions about Y2K, with sources for working out our answers:

1. Is there really still a problem, or has it already been solved??

There could be major problems, and there may not be. Some sober-minded comments follow, one on a specific industry; one, an over-all assessment. There are many others. (See the full Shalom Paper # 7 for more citations.)

From Consumer Reports (Travel Letter, May 1999, p. 14):
"Modern ships rely on scores of embedded computer chips, one in five of which may be Y2K-vulnerable. Failures could affect the ship's navigation, communications, safety and security, control, and electrical systems, say US Coast Guard officials. Y2K snags in port operations (like fueling) or international telex lines . . . could stall maritime traffic, leaving even debugged ships stranded in port indefinitely."
Consider that much of our food, medicines for long-term use, and oil/ gasoline come to us by ship, often from third-world countries where Y2K preparation is abysmal.

From Senators Robert Bennett and Christopher Dodd, co-chairs of US Senate Subcommittee on Y2K, writing in March 1999:
"Those who suggest that this problem will be nothing more than a bump in the road are simply misinformed. Quite simply, Y2K is one of the most serious and potentially devastating events this nation has ever encountered. In some cases, lives could even be at stake."
After the text of this summary, there appears an excerpt from a major Business Page article in the New York Times, 5/27/99. PLESE BE SURE TO READ IT.

2. How did we stumble into this? How prevent another analogous stumble?

Here the key is in Jewish teachings about idolatry: the danger that human beings can turn good and useful aspects of the world into idols. It was "techno-idolatry", far more crucial than the original two-digit glitch, to make the whole world economy computer-dependent with few resilient back-ups. The "Tower of Babel" story in particular lights up what went wrong and points toward what to do. For Babel's "universal tongue," today read "0110010011100," the digital language; for "storming Heaven," read totalizing our dependence on computers. God's solution is to renew local communities and cultures with their own languages.

3. Can we talk calmly about Y2K? Neither in panic nor denial? With prospects so uncertain, might rabbis and other Jewish leaders be embarrassed if the problem is brought under control and no major difficulty follows?

Here the key is the story of Jonah. He prophesied danger, the people responded, and the danger subsided. Jonah was angry. But we who read the story can learn the lesson: Warn, and be clear that we are warning, not making hard-and-fast predictions. Then be joyful if the people heed the warning by acting to change their "city," and thus heal it.

4. What vision of a decent community do we hold before us now?

Here there are two keys: One is the tradition of a life-rhythm that includes the joyful simplicity of Shabbat, Pesach, and Sukkot. The other is Isaiah's choice of Yom Kippur itself to remind us that sharing with the poor is the seed of joy.

These teachings are at the heart of our hope to build life-giving Jewish communities. They are also the seed of a successful response to Y2K. If Y2K brings disruptions, this response will help us meet them with least pain. If Y2K brings little or no disruption, this response will help us meet the future with more confidence, more joy.


N Y Times, May 27, 1999, Thursday , page C1, major story


After months of weighing options, businesses and governments are acknowledging that some disruptions are inevitable when computers encounter dates beyond 1999 and that they now face deadlines for investing in contingency plans. . . . Most are worried less about failures in their own systems than how they will respond to breakdowns in the supplies, transportation or communications links on which they depend.

As the plans are developed, millions of workers who previously had little exposure to Y2K, as the Year 2000 problem is known, are getting their first good look at how seriously their employers are taking it.

It is not a subject that executives and their project leaders like discussing in any detail. Unlike most repair work, contingency plans have to take into account not just the computer user's own systems, but all the outside forces the user cannot control, like public power, telephones, water and the readiness of both suppliers and major customers. The planners fear offending partners, inviting lawsuits and, in some cases, alarming customers or the public.

. . . Major computer users like Paine Webber are booking hotel rooms for New Year's Eve in back-office sites like Weehawken, N.J., to make sure technicians are near their data processing centers.

It is also clear that growing confidence that major disruptions are unlikely, at least in the United States, is putting pressure on managers not to propose costly investments.

Still, the effort is opening a new window on how seriously the world is taking the Year 2000 challenge.

Most Year 2000 contingency planning by big computer users is aimed at coping with local disruptions similar to those society often experiences from equipment failures, bad weather and earthquakes. But big enterprises are also considering how to respond to a global blitzkrieg of disruptions.

''The danger of Y2K is a wide variety of things hitting simultaneously,'' said Charles Snyder, head of the Year 2000 project at Levi Strauss & Company in San Francisco. Levi has scrutinized how it might shift or delay production of its jeans and other products factory by factory. Mr. Snyder advocates ignoring the nature of specific Year 2000 problems and simply looking at whether the interruption at a factory would be a matter of hours, days or longer. ''You'd go insane if you try to handle it without some kind of streamlined game plan,'' he said.

Intel has begun installing extra power generators at factories in Asian countries and Latin American countries with shaky power grids. And its purchasers and technicians have been visiting companies it does not buy from today to see if they could step in if a supplier faltered.

Business leaders hope contingency planning will reinforce the prevailing cautious optimism that the Year 2000 challenge is being met. ''It shouldn't signal a sense of alarm,'' said Dana Bennett, who has overseen the Year 2000 project at Aetna, the insurance giant based in Hartford.

Jay Golter, co-founder of the Northern Virginia Year 2000 Community Action Group, disagrees. ''It's just human nature that planning for disruptions will make people who haven't been paying attention more nervous,'' he said. But if nervousness raises consciousness, he said, the public will benefit.

Last month, many utilities drilled field employees who will be stationed at power plants and distribution sites over the New Year holiday on how to use radio and other backup communication systems to deliver vital data that normally flow electronically to command centers.

The State of Washington's National Guard plans to mobilize 3,000 soldiers, about half its ground forces, in December to be available to help deal with loss of utilities, water or other essential services or to quell potential civil disorder. The plan is virtually cost free because the same soldiers would otherwise have been reporting for routine training a few weeks later.

Lubbock, Tex., is buying materials for 1,200 stop signs in one order this fall instead of spacing them out through the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2000, and is suspending its normal replacement program.

Experts say Year 2000 contingency planning becomes complicated because the possibilities are more varied than in typical disruptions. Humana's standard 20-page disaster recovery plan for its regional service centers swelled to 66 pages when adapted for Year 2000 problems.

Training, staffing and equipment decision deadlines are also looming for some. Auto makers say they need to settle contingency plans in the next month to take advantage of summer production shutdowns for training. Union contracts require Kaiser Health Plans to make up its mind, and negotiate next month, for extra hourly employees it wants on duty for the New Year holiday, according to Deborah Reinhold, director of Kaiser's Year 2000 project.

Companies also need to worry about what happens if too many others are thinking about the same backups they expect to use. Take all the companies planning to rent generators.

''There's no way in the world our industry could supply the demand that is in the planning stages,'' said Mark Conrad, United States marketing director for Aggrecko, the

Consultants say a few shortcomings show up repeatedly in plans they see. Many companies, for example, are not ready to confirm and evaluate disruptions quickly.

Louis Marcoccio, head of Gartner Group's Year 2000 research program, says another failing is assuming that contingency plans are needed only for the first week of the new year. Gartner estimates that fewer than 10 percent of software failures will show up that quickly.


* Copyright (c) 1999 by Arthur Waskow. This precis summarizes a 22-page report on Jewish responses to Y2K. Its author, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, is director of The Shalom Center and author of Down-to-Earth Judaism, Seasons of Our Joy, and Godwrestling, Round 2.

The author especially thanks Phyllis Berman, Laurie Schwartz, David Waskow, and David Gershon for their suggestions on this approach, and the Nathan Cummings Foundation and Elat Chayyim Center for Healing and Renewal for their support.