The leaders of Jewish federations are fiercely debating the effectiveness of
their programs for maintaining Jewish engagement, in light of a recent study
detailing a severe decline in communal affiliation.
Last month’s Pew
Research Center report detailing spiraling levels of assimilation and rapidly
declining endogamy among American Jews is one of the primary topics of
discussion at this week’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly
The GA, an annual event that is held in Israel every five
years, brings together professional and lay leaders of community federations
through the United States and Canada to discuss common interests.
cannot ignore the outcome of the Pew and we ultimately have to take action and
not just continually debate process,” JFNA chairman Michael Siegal told The
Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
While the Pew report was issued too close to
the opening of the GA to substantively change the schedule of events, Siegal
stated that it has informed the discussions between federation heads.
top executives of the various federations spent hours brainstorming new programs
that could leverage previous successes and expand programs that have proved
themselves, he said.
Asked about a series of proposals that he and JFNA
President Jerry Silverman had recently unveiled, including free universal
preschool for Jewish children, Siegal replied that his proposals were “more
about ideas” and stimulating debate.
“What we’ve seen is a tremendous
amount of Jewish organizations doing very good things that are essentially not
leading to the outcomes that we would all like,” he said.
added, there are things that the Jewish community is getting right and upon
which the federations should double down.
Increasing attendance at Jewish
camps, he said, is a good example of building upon a successful
“We need to triple the amount of kids in Jewish camps over the
next three years,” Silverman tweeted on Monday.
“We have to figure out
how to leverage things that cost less that can include more people,” he
Steven Cohen, a sociologist specializing in the American
Jewish community who participated in the conference, agreed, telling the Post
that he believes the Jewish community and the federations have the tools the
improve American Judaism and solve the problems enumerated in Pew, but that
further investment is needed to expand upon the programs that have proven their
According to Dr. John Ruskay, the outgoing executive vice
president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish community is
running successful programs, but these programs must be seen against the wider
context of a community that is facing social conditions unknown to previous
“Jews in North America are in an entirely new setting. It
began really in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when the barriers between the Jewish
and non- Jewish community went down and everyone became a Jew by choice,” Ruskay
told the Post on Monday. The Pew study is nothing new, he added, stating that
its finding largely mirror that of the 1990 National Jewish Population
“On the one hand we have more people taking Judaic studies
classes, more people in Jewish summer camps, more people on Israeli
experiences,” he said. However, he hedged, “we are in a new environment and we
are going to have experimentation, we are going to have disappointments, we have
to learn how to do this.”
“Are we where we need to be? No, but have we
have begun a journey and its not going to happen in a year or five years,”
“In my view there is both erosion going on and renewal
However, not everybody agreed with the positive appraisal of
federation activities espoused by Siegal, Cohen and Ruskay.
during a panel on the Pew report, Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s
Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said that “the Pew study says that we are doing
very badly on many things.”
Shrage stated that it is also a time of
“unbelievable opportunities,” and that he believed that with the right
programming young Jews could be induced to increase their Jewish engagement, but
that the federations have not seized this chance.
One constant refrain
from boosters and critics of previous federation efforts alike was that
Birthright, a program that brings young American Jews on free trips to Israel,
must be be followed up with subsequent programs.
This is an area in which
more could have been done, Shrage told conference attendees.
communities offer [Birthright returnees] absolutely nothing to do except raising
money for the Federation,” he accused. “With all due respect, that is a nice
thing to do, but if that is your whole agenda we are in deep trouble. We offer
them nothing after Birthright. Jewish history will not treat us kindly if we
Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los
Angeles, agreed, telling audience members, “We are at a moment that, frankly, if
the Jewish federations don’t seize, there won’t be a community for us to raise
“It’s time for us to recognize that what got us here isn’t
going to get us there. So all the answers that we think we have and all the
programs that are working, clearly are not working enough. The pew study shows
us we have more work to do,” he said.
“Birthright is not the answer, it’s
part of the answer. Preschool is not the answer, it’s part of the answer,”
“We should make sure that our number one job as
federations is building communities. We raise money to do our work; our work is
not to raise money. If there is no Jewish community 50 years from now, then
everything that we did was for naught.”