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The annual General Assembly of the United Jewish Communities, wrapping up in Nashville today, is, on the one hand, a source of pride and strength. Organized American Jewry has built the second largest charity in America, just behind the United Way. The community is not just a fundraising powerhouse, but is busy putting these funds to good use in a myriad of projects to help less fortunate Jews and non-Jews, in Israel, America and the world.
But this year's GA, as in years past, also exhibits a community torn between two objectives: taking care of an increasingly aging Jewish population while trying to involve and educate a new generation and address growing demographic pressures.
It is difficult not to sympathize with this dilemma. Federations, understandably, must take care of the needy in their communities. There is no real option of abandoning traditional community needs, some of which are growing as populations age. As The Jerusalem Post's Haviv Rettig reports, "The federation system increasingly becomes the caretaker for the often-old Jewish poor, a group estimated at one-fifth of the Jewish community in America."
At the same time, there is also no option of ignoring the next generation, about half of whom can be expected to marry non-Jews, have fewer children, have much less of a connection to Israel and to Jewish giving, and affiliate less with the organized Jewish community.
The truth, luckily, is that there is potentially enough money for both efforts, should the community adapt to ensure that both priorities are being creatively met. Billions of dollars in charitable giving by Jews are not going to Jewish causes. And many mid-career Jews would give more if inspired by initiatives that speak to them, their families and the cause of advancing the Jewish future.
One such possible initiative is subsidizing Jewish pre-schools. The Chicago Jewish federation, for example, plans to provide a $1,000 voucher for Jewish pre-school to one child in each community family, a program for which it has set aside tens of millions of dollars.
"Sending every Jewish child to preschool changes the Jewish behavior for the young parents," Chicago's federation chief Steven Nasatir explains. "By keeping their young children in a Jewish institution, young parents are regularly engaged and activated by communal institutions."
The birthright israel program, which brings young Jews on a free trip to Israel, has proven to be a tremendous catalyst for Jewish identity, including among those with almost no previous connection to the Jewish community. Thanks to an influx of about $30 million per year from billionaire Sheldon Adelson, there should be no more waiting list for this critical program. But not enough is being done to build on the experience back home for tens of thousands of birthright alumni. Local Jewish communities and campus organizations should be picking up this gauntlet.
Birthright works because it combines exposure to Israel with a Jewish "bubble" - an environment where Jews can meet each other and intensively connect with their identity over a short period. But 10 days is too short. There is a great untapped "market" for slightly longer programs - a few months - that can expose college or post-college young people to a more concentrated dose of what Jewish life, learning, peoplehood and community has to offer.
Such programs should be developed in Israel, the US, and elsewhere in the Diaspora. The venerable summer retreats of the Brandeis Collegiate Institute in California are a great model. The flourishing pre-army academy system, in which young Israelis study for an academic year without credit, just "for themselves," is another promising one. Now one of these academies, the Israeli Academy for Leadership (http://www.bogrim.org/en-bogrim.php), has started a graduate-level five month program for post-army Israelis and soon for post-college Diaspora Jews as well.
Diaspora Jewry is flush with resources of all kinds with which to reinvigorate itself. Israel needs to play a greater part, both by internalizing that it has a profound stake in helping the Jewish people grow, rather than shrink, and by setting a better national example of what it means to be a modern Jewish state.
We look forward, therefore, to next year's GA in Jerusalem, in time for Israel's 60th year, and to a continuing Israeli-Diaspora partnership in strengthening not just the Jewish people's survival in, but our contribution to, global life in the modern era.
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