The challenges we face as a global Jewish community are the kind of bedtime story that keeps me up at night. I am speaking primarily about the dangers in the non-Orthodox community, where the low birthrate, low engagement, infighting, and apathy are leading to the vanishing of the North American Jew.
I am also speaking about an Israel that reminds us through the events in recent days that it is still very much at risk. But, at the same time, it is in some ways disconnecting itself from the secular or non-Orthodox Jewish world – which will be a stumbling block for young Diaspora Jews.
In a world where Israel is becoming more and more isolated, it cannot afford to risk the future involvement of these young people, who rightly are concerned about social justice, climate change, and basic humanity.
I am speaking about how we continue to build our own community by ensuring seamless equality for those with special needs, and a warm welcome for interfaith families, LGBT Jews, and Jews of color. The trajectory of Jewish life can be a rich and rewarding experience, but you have to be able to afford it, you have to want it, and we need to open our tent wider.
Birthright, the free innovative Jewish success of the last 20 years, alone cannot stem this tide. It is a great entry point on the young adult spectrum – and it is extraordinary that half of all Jews under 26 have now been to Israel – but that is still not enough. What is needed now is urgency and movement.
We know the impact of immersive programs is greatest when communities provide for pre-, during, and post-trip involvement.
Programs like Boston’s IACT provide a counselor at the Hillel who focuses on recruitment, goes on the Birthright trip with them, and programs with participants upon their return.
As a result, we have seen a huge increase in Jewish involvement on campus and beyond. We need every community to have some form of IACT so that every Birthright participant has the full experience this gift is meant to provide.
Through our Global Planning Table initiative, JQuest, we will be expanding Israel and overseas immersion experiences for young adults, like Masa, Onward, and Entwine, engaging thousands more.
We need to develop tomorrow’s resources by developing tomorrow’s leaders – that means positively promoting these young people now, with programs like FEREP, Wexner, and our new program Yesod.
Another area of concern is how welcoming our community truly is to people from different walks of life. We have spent a great deal of time and resources – both as the innovator and as the supporter of others’ innovations – on developing many different gateways to Jewish communal involvement. But are we really as inclusive as we think we are? We need to embrace our entire community, from Orthodox to interfaith families, and positively welcome them now. This must not be a supplemental program; this is a survival strategy.
We know that immersive experiences are our greatest guarantors of future involvement – day schools, camps, trips to Israel - at any age along the spectrum, they are our best investments. Future involvement in Jewish life depends on how well we deploy these strategies for everyone.
Then, there is the cost of Jewish life. It has not and will not go away, and it’s threatening our community to the same degree as our external threats.
This is our responsibility, and more so because we know that not every community in our system has the capacity of Chicago, New York, LA, or Cleveland; but every community needs to have the benefits of these innovative and engaging programs at home.
This is where our strength as a collective becomes crucial.
We do have the intellectual and financial potential to effectuate substantive change, but only if we work together.
We are concerned for all our people, so I am also speaking about the challenges of the Orthodox community, which traditionally has larger families but, like others, struggles with the high costs of being Jewish.
They, too, have to make difficult choices about schools, camps – even family size – as they continue to foster love of Judaism and community.
I am particularly grateful to the Wexner Heritage Foundation, which was a pivotal experience for my wife and myself, and truly transformed our family.
The Wexner program was free for us, as Birthright is today. But even free, we had to be willing to engage. We had to take the first step toward Jewish peoplehood.
And everything flowed from that for us – excellent Jewish education, synagogues, camps, youth groups, trips to Israel – it all worked beautifully for me and my family.
Fortunately, we could afford it and, most important, we wanted it and needed it. As a people, we don’t lack for entry points; too many people lack for the proper entry price. And sadly, even when free, too many are hesitant to participate. We cannot let high prices determine the future of the Jewish people.
Federations must lead this charge, and convene the necessary organizations and thought leaders, because, simply, we have the reach that others do not. We have done it before and we will do it again. How? By investing in people and in innovation.
We do great things, but it’s always better when many Jews do them together. We need to recapture the wonder at the things we are able to do as one very large family, grateful for what we have, but still aspiring for greater good and a new day for our people: a day when every Jew, whether by birth or by choice or in marriage, feels not only welcome in our community, but responsible for it.
A day when we respect and value each Jew’s practice of Judaism, from Orthodox to secular, as critical components of our peoplehood.Michael Siegal is chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federations of North America. This article is based on an address he gave this week at the General Assembly.