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Almost 4,000 Jewish leaders are attending the General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities (UJC) in Toronto this week, one of the biggest such gatherings ever. The organized Jewish communities of North America raise $850 million annually, not counting special campaigns, such as $160 million being raised for Jews in distress and $24 million raised for US hurricane victims.
Yet with all these impressive accomplishments, some still wonder why there is a GA at all. Even proponents of the annual meeting admit that the days when it set the agenda for American Jewry seem to have passed, and one of the main reasons to continue it is to avoid sending a signal of diminished organizational power.
What explains this confluence of achievement and malaise?
Perhaps a clue can be found in the description of a session called "Does Klal Yisrael Extend to the Next Generation?" that is scheduled for today, the day of the conference's closing plenary:
"From Moscow to Milwaukee, Tel Aviv to Toronto, what is connecting young Jews beyond sharing memories of mom's brisket and eating matza one week each spring? Do they extend to a sense of shared values, principles and even spiritual beliefs? And if young Jews are bonding only over childhood memories and not religious belief, what does that mean for Jewish continuity and Jewish peoplehood?"
Other sessions and programs, such as the UJC's "Jewish Renaissance and Renewal Pillar," touch on the issues of continuity and the Jewish future. But the thrust of the conference seems to be continuity in a different sense, of assuming that there is no need for a wholesale reexamination of priorities and for changing directions.
According to a study released at the inaugural conference of the Steinhardt Social Research Institute of Brandeis University on November 3, about 4.5 million Americans identify themselves as Jewish by religion. At the same conference, Hebrew University demographer Sergio DellaPergola argued that the greatest factor in the future size of the Jewish population would be birth rates, and made projections based on rates of 1.9, 1.5 and 1.1 per woman. Based on those rates, DellaPergola estimated that the American Jewish population would be 5 million, 4.3 million, or 3.6 million in 2051.
Even DellaPergola's most optimistic scenario did not envision Jewish American birthrates reaching 2.1 per woman, which is replacement level. In 2004, according to the Population Reference Bureau, fertility rates in the US and Israel were 2.0 and 2.9, respectively.
These figures, of course, do not answer the question of what will happen to the millions of American Jews with very tenuous Jewish identities, as alluded to in the GA session description above. After decades of ringing alarm bells warning of a continuity crisis, the organized Jewish community seems to have pushed the "snooze" button. The alarms have been muted, but the crisis is still there.
Perhaps, if there is a feeling of irrelevancy to the GA, it is born of the sense that the organized Jewish community - though it is composed of the most active, committed and affiliated Jews - does not know how to change gears from reaching out to Jews in distress and meeting pressing immediate needs to ensuring the Jewish future.
Changing priorities is hardly a simple matter. There are still Jews in distress, and the current and future needs of an aging Jewish population are not trivial. But essential needs cannot be allowed to crowd out existential ones. The first priority for Diaspora Jewry should be to transform current trends so that the community is growing, not shrinking.
Nor should Israel stand on the sidelines, pretending that the Jewish future is just a Diaspora problem, or that our only interest is in increasing aliya and bolstering ties to the Jewish state. We, ironically, have our own Jewish identity problems here that need to be addressed, and there is much that Israel can do to become a catalyst for efforts to foster Jewish identity in the Diaspora.
If there are doubts as to the GA's relevancy, they will be dispelled when organized Jewry decides to address head on the challenges of increasing Jewish numbers. This will not be easy to do in communities that are tired of hearing "Chicken Little" demographic data. Yet the success of Jewish day schools, camps and Israel programs show that there is plenty that can be done once the Jewish world sets its mind to it.