An unusual document was released October 1, reflecting a rare consensus on how to strengthen the Jewish communal future. It was signed by a strikingly diverse assemblage of American Jewish communal figures representing a broad denominational and political spectrum, from right to left and from Orthodox to Reform.
Titled “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” the 1,400-word document amounts to a communitywide manifesto on ways to engage the next generation of young Jews and “improve the quality of Jewish life.” The 75 signatories include rabbis from the three major denominations, some of them nationally prominent: several top social scientists, a few writers and close to a dozen major philanthropic donors and foundation executives.
The document, published on the eJewishphilanthropy.com online journal, opens with a warning about “deeply disturbing population trends” seen as weakening Jewish group cohesion, including intermarriage and low birth rate among the non-Orthodox. If “current trends continue unchecked,” the document says, “the American Jewish community will grow smaller and less vital.” It predicts a Jewish population eventually consisting of dwindling numbers of weakly affiliated non-Orthodox Jews and “partial Jews,” and a growing community of ultra-Orthodox Jews, with no “Jewish Middle” connecting the two.
It recommends a string of measures “that can counteract the alarming trends.” Most are familiar: strengthening underfunded educational and cultural programs aimed at teens and young adults, including increased sleepaway camp capacity; better supplementary schools; more funding for youth groups, and more free Israel trips, including programs for high schoolers. The logic, though not spelled out in the manifesto, is based on extensive research showing that the prime years for reinforcing adult Jewish identity are during high school.
The one shocker on the list is a call for “the Jewish community” to support “tax policies that offset day school tuition.” Traditional Jewish liberals view tax breaks for religious schools as a threat to the constitutional guarantee of church-state separation, which in turn safeguards the religious liberty of minorities, including Jews. And yet here it is, in a document endorsed by dozens of prominent figures in the world of Jewish liberalism.
What’s most surprising about the initiative, though, is the list of signatures at the bottom. The 75 signatories include some key figures who, with luck and determination, could make some of the ideas actually happen. The rabbis include several seminary heads, leaders of some of the country’s biggest synagogues and a few mavericks who lead acclaimed startup congregations. The social scientists include several of the most respected scholars of Jewish history, sociology and educational theory.
Perhaps most telling are the list’s philanthropists and writers. They span the political spectrum, from liberal lions like Barbara Dobkin and Letty Cottin Pogrebin to fierce conservatives like Roger Hertog and Commentary’s Jonathan Tobin. Getting them on the same page, literally, is impressive.
If any group is notably missing, it’s the center and right wings of Orthodoxy. The seven Orthodox signers are all from the left wing of Orthodoxy identified with institutions like Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. That was a decision taken by the original drafters, said Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion sociologist Steven M. Cohen, one of the initiators of the project. The reason is that the premises it presents — rejecting intermarriage, favoring day schools, urging tax credits — are commonly identified with the Orthodox community. Having Orthodox leaders appeal to the liberal and non-Orthodox population with that message wouldn’t have resonated. “When you issue this kind of a statement, you don’t want the usual suspects,” he said. “It wouldn’t have augmented our effectiveness to get more Orthodox support.”
What’s arguably least surprising about the whole enterprise is the criticism it’s spawned, both online and in heated comments to signers from friends and associates. Perhaps that’s inevitable, given the old saying about two Jews and their three opinions. Assembling a group of 75 Jews from across the political and religious spectrum and getting them to agree on a matter of such importance is an open invitation for everyone else to take shots.
The criticism follows two main lines of thought. One line argues that a document discussing intermarriage in such negative terms will be counterproductive in any effort to reach out to a younger generation of Jews of whom fully half are children of intermarriage.
One leading critic, Ed Case of InterfaithFamily.com, in an October 1 post on his organization’s website, endorsed specific recommendations like summer camps and Israel trips, saying that “they are critically important for and successful at strengthening Jewish engagement.”
But Case said, “If Jewish leaders wanted to drive away from Jewish engagement the 71% of non-Orthodox Jews who intermarried since 2000, and the majority of college-age Jews who have one Jewish parent, they couldn’t do so more effectively than by espousing the response to intermarriage expressed in the statement.”
The second critique, and the one that has sparked the most positive response, was posted on eJewishphilanthrophy on October 12 by the Ohio-based Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. The foundation, a liberal outfit that didn’t co-sign the statement, argues that by focusing on mechanical tools for reaching young Jews, the statement misses the more important question: What is the message being transmitted?
“The question that preoccupies us,” the foundation states, “is: How can Jewish ideas, values, experiences, and institutions help people live better lives and shape a better world? This is the question we believe many Jews (and some who are not Jewish) are asking today.”
“We need more than day schools, synagogues, youth groups, and Israel trips,” the foundation wrote in its unsigned post. “We also need the institutions and programs, many of them begun outside the mainstream, that are engaging Jews through their passion for social justice and a sustainable world, their love of the arts, their desire to create new forms of ritual, and their yearning for welcoming communities that support their personal growth with inspiration and resources and without judgmentalism.”
One prominent liberal who did sign the statement, Rabbi Jeremy Kalmanofsky of New York’s Congregation Ansche Chesed, said he’d heard similar arguments from friends critical of the statement, but wasn’t concerned. “Not every document has to address every issue,” he said.
He was guardedly optimistic about the oft-questioned vitality of the Jewish people in America: “It’s perfectly reasonable to say we’ve got experience with what works. And with the limited resources that any community has, it’s reasonable to say we should focus on those things that can successfully build a Jewish community, which is a countercultural proposition.”
Contact J.J. Goldberg at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).