NEW YORK – Jewish communal life is changing in the United States in dramatic
ways. Jewish identity, sociologists like Professor Samuel Heilman of Queens
College have noted, has become something of a “symbolic ethnicity” and no longer
necessarily implies any Jewish weltanschauung or affiliation. With increasing
intermarriage and assimilation and a rising ultra-Orthodox birthrate, the
American-Jewish landscape will be significantly different in 20 years. These
massive demographic changes have had an impact on the world of organized Jewry,
especially the federation system that represents communities across North
David M. Mallach is the director of the UJA-Federation of New
York’s Commission on the Jewish People (COJP). Mallach spoke with The Jerusalem
Post in his upper East Side office in Manhattan last week about how changes in
American Jewry have impacted the federation system and how it is evolving to
meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Among the other initiatives that
are being taken, he told the Post, was the introduction of a course on Israel at
Columbia University aimed at students returning from Birthright trips, in order
to capitalize on the connection that students are said to be making to their
Jewish identity on such jaunts.
In that vein, Mallach said he is very
supportive of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s efforts to redirect his
organization away from aliya and toward the preservation of Jewish identity,
which he believes is being manifested in new and different ways than in previous
Just as Sharansky is making a push to send out more
community “shlichim,” or emissaries, focused on identity over emigration,
Mallach noted that the UJA-Federation of New York has it’s own “initiative”
sending out emissaries in Brooklyn.
How has charitable giving in the
Jewish world changed and how has that affected the UJA? First, the pie is
getting bigger [but] our share is not. The quantity of Jewish charity that goes
to non-Jewish [causes] is increasing.
The second [trend] is, and this is
partially a reflection of the acceptance of Jews by American
society... is the whole communal-individual trend.
America is much
more individualistic, much less communal, so philanthropic giving becomes much
For us this is a very much a challenge because we
believe that communal responsibility and communal planning and communal
participation are what make it a Jewish community as opposed to a bunch of
individual Jews running around.
The idea of a federation provides an
overarching identity that’s not purely sectarian? Right. It’s the total
community and we very much try to engage people from across the spectrum of
The third thing is the economic downturn in 2008/9, although
we are steadily moving back up [in terms of funding], and there again there was
a phenomenon of big New York financial entities no longer existing, and they
were very generous, philanthropically- minded entities.
So if a guy who
used to work at a place like Lehman Brothers, which had a culture of
philanthropy, now works for a [corporation] that doesn’t have that culture, even
though he or she may be making the same amount, the cultural environment of
philanthropic participation is not there and that has also been a shift that we
have seen in the past five years.
Will the changing fiscal landscape
change the way in which the Jewish Federations see themselves and the role that
they play in the community? What is your forecast for short-, medium- and
long-term for how communal life is going to evolve in the United States? I think
it was [Lawrence Peter ] ‘Yogi’ Berra who said, ‘It’s hard to make predictions,
especially about the future,’ or more Talmudically, since the destruction of the
Temple only fools are prophets, but I think the federation system is emerging in
a different way. First of all, this year we estimate our annual campaign, which
doesn’t include endowments, will be more than $140 million. That’s a lot of
money. How does that stack up to previous years? It was going nicely until 2008
and then it came down. 2007, I think, we were at $154m., roughly. We were over
150, it came down to the 130s and now we are going back up. Would I prefer we
made 160? Of course, but I think we are seeing a growth.
Back in the
1940s the agencies that were part of the federation got their money from the
federation. Today we aren’t as much a funder as a coordinator, planner, a
generator, a helper, a facilitator.
I will give you an example. We just
did something on the Upper West Side for Yom Ha’atzmaut. We had a whole communal
participation for Yom Ha’atzmaut which involved programs from a dozen different
entities which were sponsored by over 22 different entities, the whole
Now it was coordinated by the JCC of Manhattan but funded and
very much in collaboration with federation, and the federation could play both
the financial role but also bringing together. In any system, like synagogues,
there is a lot of competition.
Our role, in part, was to be the framework
that made everyone comfortable coming together in a single day of celebrating
Israel on the Upper West Side.
This comes down to providing what you
termed an overarching address for Jewish matters? For planning and also for
Money is not unimportant but the JCC of Manhattan budget is, I
would guess, $8m.
[to] $9m., of which from [the] federation they get a
small 10 percent or less.
It’s not that they are dependent but the
connection [of the] federation to that JCC is very important because it connects
them in to the community and helps the whole community function more effectively
Sharansky in Israel has been changing JAFI’s focus with a new
mission oriented toward strengthening and maintaining Jewish identity in the
Diaspora, especially in keeping people engaged Jewishly in North America. Has
the rise of intermarriage, assimilation and disengagement from Jewish communal
life affected the federation system and are you running any programs to bring
people back to Jewish identification? We as an institution are very supportive
of the Sharansky redirection of the Jewish Agency. We were supportive of getting
out of the aliya business in North America. If you look at North America, you
are talking about 2,000 olim who aren’t returning Israelis, between
Numerically, it’s not significant, and the other thing, and
this is very important, [is that] no one makes aliya anymore because of an aliya
shaliach [emissary]. You make aliya because you spent a year studying in Israel,
you have whatever connections. So the aliya office becomes essentially
We felt very positive about this whole change in
the Jewish Agency and the role they are taking and we believe basically they are
Putting aside a few Jews in Iran, there is no other Jew in the
world today who if he or she wanted to make aliya tomorrow...
down to their local [shaliach], buy a ticket and go to Israel, and that includes
Turkey, Venezuela, Cuba, all of these places. They choose, for whatever reason,
What are you doing toward this goal that you are supportive of?
We are next year going to be having a major shlichut initiative in Brownstone,
We are going to have a shlicha [female emissary] in the
community, living there and involved and we have a consortium of seven local
agencies in the neighborhood that are part of this process.
We also have,
in Brooklyn, from a different part of UJA-Federation, a whole initiative to
engage young families and it’s not built around joining a synagogue but getting
them involved, engaging and participating in Jewish life.
I think that’s
where we see a massive change over the last years. Not engagement; it’s
Formal affiliation is much less than it once was.
Engagement, it’s much less clear.
For example, there are in New York City
now five different Jewish film festivals and they all do phenomenally well.
There is a consumption of Jewish culture that’s something we’re seeing that’s
different. There are all sorts of non-formal organizational networks.