The challenges facing American Jewry

For US Jewish leaders, the major problems are indifference and assimilation, while the solutions are early engagement and education – about Judaism and Israel.

Israeli Americans celebrate at the IAC’s Third Annual Conference in Washington, DC last month (photo credit: IAC)
Israeli Americans celebrate at the IAC’s Third Annual Conference in Washington, DC last month
(photo credit: IAC)
The 2016 presidential race was not an easy experience for American Jewry. Although both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were surrounded with Jewish advisers and even Jewish relatives, and were supportive of Israel, the election itself was deeply divisive for a community already polarized in almost every sphere.
The election campaign exhibited “worrying manifestations of antisemitism on the extremes of both sides,” says Malcolm Hoenlein, now in his 31st year as executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
But Hoenlein and others are much more concerned about what he calls “the negative phenomenon of indifference” within the Jewish community.
They believe the antidote lies in properly educating the younger generation as early as possible about the positive aspects of both Judaism and the Jewish state, and equipping them with the tools to fight antisemitism and anti-Zionism, particularly the BDS movement on college campuses.
“We are going through many changes and have multiple challenges to face, from intermarriage and assimilation to indifference about being Jewish and toward Israel, and the distancing of many young people,” says Hoenlein. “I think Israel is a very important asset when it comes to engaging, educating and strengthening American Jewry.”
 An American Jew wearing a kippa embroidered with the US and Israeli flags attends a Hanukka reception at the White House last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
An American Jew wearing a kippa embroidered with the US and Israeli flags attends a Hanukka reception at the White House last year (photo credit: REUTERS)
On the subject of Israel, he says, “I think Birthright makes an important contribution, but in and of itself, it is not enough. You can’t just send 18-year-olds to Israel for 10 days and then expect them to all of a sudden come back knowledgeable about Judaism and supportive of Israel.”
US Jewry, today estimated to be well over six million people – about 2% of the total population – is the largest Jewish community outside Israel. Although the US Jewish leadership is considered both successful and influential, many members of the community are apathetic and assimilated. Things seem to have gotten even worse since the 2013 Pew Portrait of Jewish Americans which found that while the overwhelming majority were proud to be Jewish, almost six out of 10 were intermarrying and two-thirds didn’t belong to a synagogue.
More than a third identify with the Reform Movement, 18% with Conservative Judaism and 10% with Orthodoxy, while three in 10 said they did not identify with any denomination, according to Pew.
“Among the challenges we face that I am most concerned about,” says Hoenlein, “are the growing BDS campaigns on college campuses that are not just anti-Israel but morph into blatant antisemitism and sometimes even physical violence.
“The problem is that many of our kids are not inoculated and equipped to respond, so they fall victim to the often extremist and anti-Israel culture that exists among faculty members and on campuses. We have to start doing much more, much earlier – not just at elementary and high school, but even at kindergartens.
“We need to be united. That doesn’t mean there can’t be differences, but we have to deal with them in an atmosphere of respect, while we recognize that what unites us far outweighs the differences... We have one faith and one fate, and so what’s happening to one part of us is going to affect all of us.”
The future of American Jewry will be high on the agenda at the Jewish Federations of North America’s General Assembly, the key annual event in the umbrella group’s calendar, in Washington, DC, from November 13 to 15. Its theme is “Jewish journeys start here.”
Cynthia Shapira, the GA’s co-chair from Pittsburgh, sees the American Jewish community today as “vibrant,” but agrees that engaging the younger generation is its biggest challenge.
“Compared to just 10 or 20 years ago, there has been an explosion in new ways to express one’s Jewish identity,” Shapira says. “Yes, we have our problems, but I have confidence in the next generation to keep working on them, just as we did.”
The issue Shapira says she is most passionate about is “the importance of authenticity in engaging young people in Jewish life.”
“Our ‘lightbulb’ moment came when we conceived Onward Israel. We wanted Birthright alumni and other kids who had been to Israel to return to Israel for a more intense, immersive experience. We realized that what students wanted were internships and other resumé-building experiences. So we resolved not to build an Israel travel program around internships, but an internship program that leverages the strengths of Israel.”
For Judy Altenberg, the Denver-based chair of JFNA’s National Women’s Philanthropy, the most important issue facing American Jewry is “inclusivity.”
“We cannot simply ignore the fact that at least 70% of non-Orthodox children are simply marrying out of Judaism,” Altenberg says. “We can either put our heads in the sand and pretend that this issue doesn’t exist, or we can find a way to willingly recognize the non-Jewish spouses and include them in our community in some meaningful and halachically acceptable way. This is reality, and if we don’t address intermarriage in a thoughtful and inclusive way, we risk losing 70% of our children, not to mention future generations. All of the things that we care about around Jewish continuity – summer camps, day schools, youth groups, Hillels, etc. – won’t mean anything if we don’t have Jewish children to experience them.” Altenberg also notes “an extremely disturbing trend” among many American Jews who “take Israel’s existence for granted.”
“They may not agree with those in the government, and are not able to separate their feelings about the country from their feelings about the politics of the country,” she says. “We need to continue to encourage more American Jews, especially the young ones, to travel to Israel to experience the country... We in National Women’s Philanthropy run an important women’s mission, Heart to Heart, precisely for this reason.”
Suzanne Barton Grant, the Delaware- based chair of the National King David Society and of the JFNA Investment Committee, says that as a parent of three children in their twenties, she thinks a lot about their future and “how they will carry on our traditions.”
“What role will Jewish values play? Will they care about our Jewish institutions as they exist today: a Jewish community center, a day school, Jewish Family Services, Hillel, as well as our overseas partners such as the Jewish Agency, the Joint Distribution Committee and ORT?” she asks.
“Jewish Federations have created or partnered with others who have exciting programs that build Jewish identity and pride. Programs such as Birthright, MASA and Onward Israel have impacted thousands of young Jewish lives and continue to do so… Whenever we can bring people to Israel, we will always have the best chance at strengthening the relationship between American Jewry and Israel.”
Dede Feinberg, the Washington-based vice chair of United Israel Appeal and immediate past chair of JFNA’s executive committee, feels “a deep concern about the decline in Jewish identity, serious religious divisions, a diminishing identification with Israel and an aging population.”
Dede Feinberg, immediate past chair of JFNA’s Executive Committee, with Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer at last year’s GA (photo credit: JFNA)
Dede Feinberg, immediate past chair of JFNA’s Executive Committee, with Supreme Court Associate Justice Stephen Breyer at last year’s GA (photo credit: JFNA)
“Our Jewish educational system is sorely lacking,” she explains. “Israel is no longer looked upon in the same positive light as it was in past years. There is no longer the scourge of antisemitism, and we live in a global world. Thus, challenges to Jewish identity are great...”
Feinberg argues that the relationship between American Jewry and Israel is “inextricably linked.”
“The internal policies of the government of Israel have a direct impact on attitudes of American Jewry, as exemplified by the issue of religious pluralism, or lack thereof, in Israel. Israel is dependent upon the support and advocacy of American Jewry through the US legislative process and on college campuses in confronting BDS. American Jewry benefits from the fact that Israel is recognized as a military power and start-up nation.
Currently, there are a number of issues challenging the relationship. However, I believe that the idea that we are One People wherever we live is quite true.”
MICHAEL SIEGAL, a top Cleveland businessman who has served as chairman of the JFNA and Israel Bonds, worries about the evolution of American Jewry.
“We are represented politically by George Soros on the Left and Sheldon Adelson on the Right. We split along gender lines with Jewish women voting overwhelmingly Democratic and Jewish men split between Republicans and Democrats,” he says.
“The millennials by and large see themselves as a greater part of humanity without prioritizing their ‘Jewish’ definition. The Orthodox birthrate is growing while the secular community is shrinking rapidly. In approximately 30 years, the entire Jewish population could be under 1% of the population of the United States. That will create challenges in terms of the political, economic and social issues we care about.”
Still, Siegal is upbeat about the future.
“Better education leads to better outcomes in every way,” he says. “We must continue to widen our tent, be welcoming to all streams of Jewish involvement and family structure, and support preschools, day schools and summer camps in a more meaningful way.
“I believe Israel has a part to play by acknowledging Judaism in all means of expression and not just Halacha. Words are not enough. Action must be taken so that our homeland accepts Judaism as well as it does Christianity and Islam in their practices. If not, young Jewish support for the country will be lessened by a frightening degree.”
Adam Milstein, the Los Angeles-based president of the powerful Israeli-American Council, has witnessed what he calls “a disconnect” among American Jews, even among the more than 10% estimated to be “Israeli Americans” that his organization represents.
“We have seen worrying signs that American Jews are increasingly disconnected from their Jewish pride, Jewish heritage and from the State of Israel, particularly in the next generation,” Milstein says.
In the recent presidential campaign, he argues, “the alt-right has coordinated attacks against Jews on social media and generated antisemitic memes, while on the left, the BDS movement has grown exponentially in recent years, especially on American campuses. BDS seeks to eradicate the State of Israel.”
Over the past year, more than 30 student bodies across America have passed or considered passing resolutions calling for boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel, with nearly 40 BDS events on campuses around the country every week, Milstein says.
“We should unite and go on the offensive,” he says. “We need to fight fire with fire. This fight against antisemitism extends to how we educate our next generation and how we instill pride into them.
If our young generations are not proud Jews and are not connected to their heritage, how can we expect them to fight back when faced with antisemitism?” RABBI ABRAHAM Cooper, associate dean of the Los Angeles-based Simon Wiesenthal Center, believes that American Jewry is “in a transition period.”
“Yes, BDS and antisemitism are worrying,” Cooper says, “even frightening, but we should never let our enemies dictate our narrative.”
He warns of continuing assimilation and the loosening of bonds with Israel.
“The bonds will remain strong only if our mutual values are celebrated and nurtured.
This could mean that Israel must expend more effort to bolster us, even as we support it. That is an equation for areivut [mutual reliance] and mutual respect.
If we fail to act, the American Jewish community will weaken very rapidly.”
Jay Ruderman, president of the Boston- based Ruderman Family Foundation, also sees Israel as the key to the future of American Jewry. “While American Jews are motivated by a variety of issues in American society, I believe that the connection American Jews have with the State of Israel is the most important for the future of the American Jewish community,” Ruderman says.
“I believe it is imperative for Israelis to better understand the complexities and differences between Israeli Jewish society and the American Jewish community,” he says.
Malcolm Hoenlein meets US President Barack Obama (photo credit: CONFERENCE OF PRESIDENTS)
Malcolm Hoenlein meets US President Barack Obama (photo credit: CONFERENCE OF PRESIDENTS)
ON THE relationship between US Jewry and Israel, philanthropist Lynn Schusterman, founder and co-chair of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, says the question of “Who is a Jew?” must be addressed by both sides – and she provides her answer.
“To me, these connections [between American Jewry and Israel] are at the heart of the US-Israel relationship and are what Judaism is all about: being part of a family, a community, a global klal [whole]...
“We must be careful not to exclude and turn away those who wish to be part of our community, especially younger Jews. Addressing this challenge will require broad acceptance both in the US and in Israel that there is no singular way to be or define Jewish.”
Schusterman thinks the community has the potential to get stronger if its leaders are thoughtful and handle changes well.
“The American Jewish community is in the midst of a transformation defined primarily by growing diversity, a rising generation of global citizens and declining religious observance,” she says.
“Despite the challenges, we are seeing an increasing number of Jews by birth, marriage and choice draw on Jewish thought and values to shape how they live, love and engage with the world, which is strengthening our community in innumerable ways.
“I believe that if we are able to build on the positive trends we see today, we will have a stronger, more vibrant and sustainable Jewish community in the future, one that remains deeply connected with Israel and is committed to making the world a better place.”
Eli Ovits, the chief executive of Limmud, an educational NGO, sees the fact that a large proportion of American Jews are unaffiliated as a positive challenge.
“There are thousands of people across the country who could still experience a Jewish event and get more involved in the country,” he says. “Our response at Limmud is to build inclusive, intergenerational communities of learning. People are seeing ways to be involved. They are curious. We need to provide diverse, engaging points of entry into Jewish life.”
FOR HIS part, Hoenlein calls on the American Jewish community to close ranks and bolster itself – for its own sake and for Israel’s.
“We have to prepare not only to be defensive but also to go on the offensive, and most of all to build positive coalitions as well as build support across the board and within our community, involving as many people as possible. Every Jew is a treasure to the community and we should not write anybody off,” he says. “I do believe that, if God forbid, Israel was in danger, the American Jewish community would overwhelmingly rally to its side, as we do when Jews are in danger anywhere and when a UNESCO resolution comes up that is so blatantly discriminatory.”
The many dire predictions by doomsayers over the past 50 years about the imminent demise of American Jewry have turned out to be false, Hoenlein says.
“Look magazine in 1964 had a cover story on ‘The Vanishing American Jew.’ Today the Jews are still very much here and Look magazine is gone. They were wrong then, and they’re wrong today,’ he adds.
“We, like Israel, are here to stay.”
'Opt in'
Philadelphia-based Amy Holtz, CEO of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry’s Israel-Diaspora Initiative in the US, Mosaic United, sees
Jewish unity as being paramount .
How do you characterize the situation of American Jewry today?
I am encouraged and concerned.
We have a brilliant, powerful, Jewish community that has tremendous influence in business, politics, philanthropy, medicine, culture and more. There is a lot of amazing work being done throughout the world and impressive people doing it. Everyone I meet finds the work they do on behalf of the Jewish people meaningful and fulfilling. Our young people are incredible.
They are idealists, seeking to make global change, participate in humanitarian efforts, and use their voices to raise awareness for the issues that really matter.
I am very proud, yet at the same time, I am very worried.
As was first highlighted in the Pew Report, we have a great deal of work to do to inspire the next generation to find meaning in their Judaism and their support for Israel.
From your perspective, what is the most important issue on the American Jewish agenda?
The primary issue on the American Jewish agenda is Jewish unity. How do we create opportunities for people to “opt in” rather than “opt out”? In the Jewish world, how do we create programs that are authentic and where people feel welcome and curious? As Jews, we always had something that united us and allowed us to find commonality, despite our disagreements: The founding of the State of Israel, Soviet Jewry, Ethiopian Jewry, etc. Now it’s time for us to come together to create a community based on our diversity, our shared history and our collective future.
How do you see the future of American Jewry?
It is in our hands. I recently took an executive course at Harvard and they said that the only way to solve a complex social problem is by harnessing the collective impact of government, philanthropists and NGOs. Through Mosaic United, the Government of Israel is giving us a huge opportunity to make a collective impact and to fuel, scale and connect our most impactful innovators and programs. I applaud the leaders of Hillel, Chabad and Olami and those on Mosaic United’s diverse steering committee who were able to put aside their differences and come together to build a stronger Jewish future.
How is Mosaic United dealing with the issues faced by US Jewry?
Our work at Mosaic United focuses on bridging gaps. There are many programs and projects that are working effectively. The great news is that we know what works when it comes to Jewish identity. We have projects with proved success records: Jewish camping, travel to Israel, engagement on college campuses, programs for young adults and global service learning (tikkun olam).
At Mosaic United, we do two things: Scale the most effective programs in the Jewish world and create a continual journey for young Jewish people that traverses programs and experiences from ages 12 to 35. We believe that layering repeated, transformational experiences for young people will create the cohesion and community that the Jewish people needs. Furthermore, the global nature of Mosaic United will bring people together with Jews from around the world so that they develop a deep sense of connection to the Jewish global family.
This article is the third in a series on Jewish communities around the world written in conjunction with the Diaspora Affairs Ministry.