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.
There are over 350,000 alumni of the Birthright Israel experience. We haven’t effectively followed up with most of them. We haven’t sufficiently welcomed them back from their transformative experience in Israel and connected them to further transformative experiences in our community, nor have we given them meaningful opportunities for leadership. It has happened successfully in a few places, but we have barely scratched the surface.
We need to function as a true continental community, because these young people are continental and mobile. We need employ technologies for interaction and connection to keep pace with this mobility. Particularly, we are imploring the gatekeepers to share this vast database of alumni contacts with us so that we have a mechanism to engage them in Jewish life.
Jewish Development Zones
We also have to strategically address those places where we are strong in numbers but weak in connection. Ironically, some of the areas of highest Jewish density in the country also have the lowest proportion of Jewish engagement. We need to think of these areas as “Jewish Development Zones” — areas in which we should invest in programs and experiences that will connect Jews in a communal structure at vital stages of life.
This will mean mobilizing our strongest and most effective funding institutions and philanthropists in order to target five of these areas immediately. In each of these zones, develop the “Jewish Head Start” model, build at least one new Jewish summer camp of excellence, inject support into the existing Jewish youth programs and develop magnetic Jewish engagement programs for unmarried young adults and Birthright alumni.
Clearly, these are not the only pathways to the Jewish future, but they are data-driven, measurable and immediate steps that we as a community can and should take. At the upcoming 2013 Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly in Jerusalem, in the forums, programs and hallways, we will begin unpacking the Pew study, tackling the difficult issues and processing new solutions. We propose these steps for action.
Furthermore, we must rise above institutional parochial agendas and interests. We do not work together as well as we should. The waste of time and resources that results from repetition in programs and services is overwhelmingly frustrating.
All of these initiatives will also require dedicated and long-term resources. Our collective history has proven that when faced with pivotal challenges, we rallied with bold solutions and we prevailed.
We will be steadfast in driving this agenda, changing the direction in which we are heading, and ensuring that we not merely survive, but also thrive and grow as a vibrant and meaningful American Jewish community.
Gerrald (Jerry) Silverman is president and CEO and Michael Siegal is chair of the board of trustees, respectively, of the Jewish Federations of North America.