Philanthropist Aiming To Reach Out to Cultural Jews

Published December 05, 2003, issue of December 05, 2003.
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If Felix Posen had his way, American Jewish schools would teach the Bible less as a holy book than as a classic work of literature.

“You teach Judaism as a culture. You start with the Bible, the first piece of literature we Jews created,” the London philanthropist said. “God is not dead; he is a literary hero like Anna Karenina.”

Some may consider that heresy, but Posen maintains it represents the beliefs of the 50% of American Jews who identify as cultural Jews and do not affiliate with any religious denomination.

Posen became the first philanthropist to answer Wall Street wizard Michael Steinhardt’s call for others to match his own $10 million pledge toward a $100 million “Fund for Our Jewish Future” which would focus on Jewish education. On Monday, the Center for Cultural Judaism in New York, backed by the Posen Foundation, which is based in Lucerne, Switzerland, pledged $10 million to Steinhardt’s proposed fund — provided that about half of the total money goes to teaching secular and unaffiliated Jews about Judaism from a cultural, non-religious viewpoint.

Steinhardt said he wanted to study the proposal further before commenting.

Posen and the center, which he supports and which serves as the clearinghouse for the Secular Humanistic Judaism movement, say the money would reverse a decline in Jewish activity by addressing the educational needs of those who consider themselves culturally Jewish.

In making their case, they point to the 2001 American Jewish Identity Survey by the Center for Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. The study, which Posen helped bankroll, found that 49% of Americans born or raised as Jews consider themselves secular to some degree.

In the wake of that study, the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey found that 44% of the 4.3 million Jews with some kind of Jewish connection did not affiliate with a synagogue, Jewish community center or other Jewish institution.

The findings suggest that a majority of American Jews are “currently not served by most of Jewish life,” said Myrna Baron, executive director of the Center for Cultural Judaism.

Steinhardt has long supported Jewish day schools and programs such as college Hillels and birthright Israel — which sends young Jews to Israel on free trips — as ways to strengthen Jewish identity. But while the number of Jewish day schools has skyrocketed in past decades and enrollment is rising, most Jews remain “Jewishly impoverished” and the total U.S. Jewish population continues to dwindle, according to Posen.

“Something isn’t working,” he said.

It’s unclear whether other major funders who might want to contribute to Steinhardt’s proposed fund would agree to Posen’s conditions.

“Right now, 50% of the funds that have come in have been from Posen, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable for him to make demands,” said Mark Charendoff, president of the Jewish Funders Network, which advises Jewish family foundations and other philanthropists outside the federation system.

But, he added, “If the other $80 million comes in large chunks from philanthropists, I’m not sure how they’re going to react to him setting criteria on how their money is going to be spent.”

Posen says big donors often give to causes that are more religious than they are; so, he says, they might well support a more secular orientation.

“Most of the people who are in that league are in fact secular but give their money to the religious, because they feel guilty about not being religious,” Posen said. But, he continued, by doing so “they give their money to” causes that “no longer answer the needs of the majority of the population.”

Jonathan Woocher, president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, which promotes Jewish education in schools and synagogues, said the question of why many Jews don’t belong to Jewish institutions is complicated.

“If what they’re saying is there’s a segment of the Jewish population that does not feel itself entirely comfortable within the synagogue, that’s true,” he said. “If they’re saying there are Jews who self-define as secular, that’s true too. The question is, what is it they’re looking for, and why is it that current options don’t work for them?”

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