The Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of Jewish Americans” has triggered much debate in the Jewish community. Its key findings — that younger Jews are not only less connected to, but are also less interested in, Jewish life — puts in sharp relief the challenge before us. If we go by numbers alone, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community is facing an existential crisis. The study clearly demonstrates that we stand at an urgent crossroads for American Jewry, and presents us with a major opportunity. Our communal leadership must seize upon it with renewed vigor and focus.
It is time to intensify — and make affordable — the most effective vehicles for engaging people in Jewish life. Our vast communal system has the capacity to address these issues by leveraging proven, effective programs that create Jewish community, and devising new models that sustain Jewish American life. We recognize the awesome task this presents, and we are ready to meet this challenge, but we must do this together. Inclusion of the broad diversity of Jews in America — Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Russians and Israelis, lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, et cetera — is essential to our success.
With an abundance of expertise and resources in several areas, we could certainly continue to debate where to focus our energies and dollars in the short term. However, we must act now, and we need to start where we have already seen extraordinarily powerful results for the widest profile of Jews. Here are four examples of where we can begin:
Free Early Childhood Programs
Many communities have demonstrated the power of engaging families through superb Jewish preschool and day care programs and the innovative PJ Library program, which delivers 100,000 Jewish children’s books to families across the country. We must go farther. We must commit to offering free Jewish preschool to every Jewish family, a “Jewish Head Start.” This will dramatically widen the pipeline of families entering Jewish life through this critical early gateway. And it will place many more people on a path to further Jewish connection and Jewish education — day school, religious school and informal and alternative Jewish education.
Do we really need another study saying overnight camp is one of the most successful ways to connect young Jews? Camp not only engages the child; it engages the entire family. Research shows that most non-Orthodox, engaged participants in Jewish community were inspired by one of three things: Jewish camp, day school or youth trips to Israel. Let’s address one of them right away.
We need to quickly and decisively increase the percentage of children attending Jewish camps from 10% to 30%. We need more camps of excellence with greater capacity. The best Jewish camps today are turning away Jewish families.