There is no question that United Jewish Communities has the ability to be nimble. The national body of local Jewish federations raised hundreds of millions of dollars in aid when war broke out last summer between Israel and Hezbollah, and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina it ably directed communal resources to meet crucial needs. In both cases, it proved itself relevant and indispensable to the Jewish community.
Knowing how quickly UJC can move when it comes to fundraising for emergency aid, however, makes it all the more frustrating to watch how slow the federation can be at times in addressing the crucial issues of Jewish identity, peoplehood and education.
The UJC made these issues part of its mission with the advent of the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar in 2000. But while some important headway has been made, these issues have remained the neglected stepchildren to those issues of survival that tug most at our hearts. As demographer Gary Tobin told me awhile back, “It’s easy to raise money for threats; it’s tougher for Jewish education.”
The fact is, initiatives that might spark great changes in Jewish education seem to move at a much slower pace. It’s clear that in the organizational hierarchy, the agenda of the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar is not at the top of list.
Now, UJC is reportedly being retooled in an effort to create a more focused body to the meet the needs of Jews in the United States, Israel and elsewhere around the world. To what degree already neglected areas of Jewish life will be kept on the organizational agenda remains to be seen.
The risk is that in the attempt to focus on issues to which more American Jews can easily relate, the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar will become even more of a stepchild. Were that to be the case, it would be detrimental not only to American Jewry but also to the federations themselves.
For decades, the catalysts for involvement with federations were the Holocaust and building up the State of Israel. But the generation that felt threatened is passing on.
Most young American Jews are secure, and for them the Holocaust was not a first- or even second-hand experience. They do not feel that there is a real major threat to the Jewish people and Israel. Antisemitism has subsided in America. Jews are able to achieve their dreams; you can even run for president and observe Shabbat.
Living with unprecedented freedom, personal security and financial success, young American Jews do not have the same communal anxieties that their parents had. The majority of today’s young Jews are comfortable and content.
To reach them, we need to build on the positive, not the negative. It’s clear that the old principles that molded Jewish identity are not working with the new generation.
Look at any recent communal Holocaust Memorial Day observance: As the older generation passes on, younger Jews are not replacing their numbers. This generation does not see the relevance of these tragedies in the same way.
You can’t reach them by simply saying, “You know they really hated the Jews and tried to kill all of us.” Not only does it not inspire them, it might also cause more than a few to bolt from the community, figuring that being Jewish isn’t worth the price. Just look at the high intermarriage rate among children of survivors.
They way to engage the next generation is by educating them about the depth and beauty of Jewish tradition. Jews will be loyal to the Jewish people when they see that Judaism speaks to their souls and enriches their lives. And when they feel connected to their heritage, to their people and to their legacy, they will give to the community.
As UJC reorganizes itself, it would do well to bring the agenda of the Renaissance and Renewal Pillar from the sidelines to the center. In order to retain its relevance, UJC must make Jewish learning, Torah education and personal engagement with Jewish tradition relevant to modern Jews — while at the same time, of course, pursuing its crucial mission of helping Jews around the world.
The federation movement has proved, time and again, that it can accomplish remarkable things for the benefit of the Jewish people. It now needs to put Jewish intellectual and spiritual engagement higher on its agenda. Doing so, UJC leaders may be pleasantly surprised to find out, will bring a renewed vigor and commitment to the federation system.
Rabbi David Eliezrie, Chabad’s national liaison to United Jewish Communities, is the Chabad shaliach in Yorba Linda, Calif.