The General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America was held in
Jerusalem this week with a predictable array of pomp and ceremony. There were
appearances by leading Israeli politicians, plenary sessions and panel
discussions with enticing titles as well as the usual assortment of receptions
and gala dinners.
Billed as an event that “inspires and engages current
and emerging Jewish leaders, tackles the most critical issues of the day, and
showcases the best of the Federation movement,” the GA sought to celebrate the
vibrancy of Jewish life while underlining the role played by Jewish federations
in ensuring continuity.
But in light of the recent findings of the Pew
Research Center regarding American Jewry’s frightful descent into assimilation,
the upbeat tone of this GA was entirely out of place and even
Indeed, even more than its predecessors, this GA was
reminiscent of the ill-fated RMS Titanic as it steamed straight for an iceberg
in the northern Atlantic ocean in April 1912, oblivious to the impending
After all, it was more than a month ago that Pew shocked the Jewish
world with some grim data when its October 1 survey revealed that intermarriage
rates among non-Orthodox American Jews have soared to 71 percent and that nearly
one-third of Jews under the age of 32 do not identify themselves as Jewish by
These are the statistics of shared suicide, a glaring sign that
large portions of American Jewry are simply melting away and shedding their
If the Jewish federations were serious about confronting this
crisis, they should have taken the extraordinary step of reformatting the GA’s
schedule in order to focus on the existential emergency at hand.
in an act of pathetic hubris, they had the gall to add a single session on
Monday, with the self-aggrandizing title, “Responding to Pew: How Federations
are Successfully Engaging the Next Generation.”
“Successfully”? Who are
they kidding? BACK IN 1990, after the National Jewish Population Survey revealed
an intermarriage rate of 52% (which was subsequently the subject of much
debate), the Jewish world was stirred into action, vowing to do whatever was
necessary to stem the tide of assimilation.
Here we are, more than two
decades – and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bolstering Jewish
identity – later, and for all intents and purposes the situation has only
worsened as growing numbers of Jews turn their backs on their
Clearly, the Federation system has proven to be a colossal
failure, and it bears much of the blame for this catastrophic situation. It sets
the spending priorities of the Jewish community, allocates funds and oversees
Nonetheless, they have presided over nothing less
than a disaster of epic proportions, even as they celebrate their own failures
at the GA.
This isn’t responsible leadership, it is a reckless
Back in 2010, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history at
the Jewish Theological Seminary, penned an important article, “The High Cost of
Jewish Living,” in Commentary magazine, which pointed out that the costs
involved in living a Jewish life were increasingly beyond the means of many
He also took Jewish federations to task for their apathy
toward this issue as well as their misguided priorities, which tended to
allocate funds to various non-Jewish causes even as critical Jewish needs were
not being met.
In particular, Wertheimer noted, the skyrocketing costs of
Jewish day-schools were threatening to squeeze many Jewish children out of the
system, forcing them to attend public schools and lose out on the opportunity to
receive a well-rounded Jewish education.
“Most federations of Jewish
philanthropy,” he noted, “have neither the resources nor the will to make
affordability a priority, and other types of organizations don’t even pretend to
pay attention. It is not as if they have not been warned about the severity of
the problem: for the past 25 years, studies have periodically catalogued rising
In that regard, little has changed in the intervening three
years, nor is it likely to change any time soon. The Federations will continue
to deceive the public – and themselves – that they are “successfully” reaching
the younger generation, even as much of that very same generation marries out of
Year after year, they will continue to gather at the GA,
applauding themselves and their achievements even as the population they
ostensibly serve continues to wither and shrivel in size.
lies the real tragedy. For unlike the crew of the Titanic, which sought to
reverse course once they struck ice, our own Jewish leadership merrily continues
to sail forward, straight into calamity, ignorant of the ruin they are leaving
in their wake. American Jewry deserves better.
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