Outgoing head of the Orthodox Union (OU) in the US, Allen Fagin, has said that the State of Israel needs to join the fight to bolster Jewish identity in the Diaspora given what he described as the severe diminution in Jewish identity amongst Jewish youth in the US.
Fagin insisted that if the Jewish state views the Diaspora as a strategic asset then it needs to invest far larger resources into Jewish education in the US, saying that far too few young Jews are receiving the requisite education to preserve their identity.
Fagin, who has served as executive vice president and chief professional officer of the OU, gave his views about the challenges facing US Jewry ahead of his retirement this summer after close to seven years in his post.
“The diminution in Jewish identity has been going on for a long time but these trends are accelerating rapidly, and finding ways to increase Jewish identity will be the critical challenge which the Jewish community will face,” Fagin told The Jerusalem Post.
He argued that the “Jewish identity is directly proportionate with Jewish literacy,” in terms of understanding of Jewish texts, history, traditions, values and culture, but said that the “overwhelming number of Jews in the US have not had privilege to become literate Jews and get a Jewish education.”
The seminal Pew Report of US Jewry in 2013 demonstrated that one third of Jewish millennials define themselves as Jewish with no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.
Of those, two-thirds said they were not raising their children Jewish or even partially Jewish.
Intermarriage amongst US Jews is also extremely high, standing at 58 percent of Jews married since the year 2000.
Fagin said in particular that the non-Orthodox Jewish denominations where membership in synagogues and other Jewish organizations is low, especially amongst Reform Jews, are at particular risk from declining Jewish identity.
He said their future was bound up in whether or not there was a “concomitant commitment to Jewish learning and the creation of Jewish identity and a true understanding of what it means to be Jewish.”
Said Fagin, “As long as we allow our programming to be based on Jewish humor or Jewish culinary delights we’re going to have a very shallow Jewishness indeed, it’s not going to be a Jewishness that is sustainable.”
Crucially, he said that the State of Israel needed to get more involved in assisting with the resources for promoting Jewish identity if the challenge is to be met.
“I don’t think that Israel believes that Diaspora communities are something which it needs to put enormous resources into,” Fagin said, although he acknowledged there are Diaspora programs which Israel supports.
“If the government wanted to approach the crisis of Jewish identity in the US then the resources it would devote would be an order of magnitude different.”
He said that programs such as Birthright are important, noting that the OU itself is a big Birthright provider, but added that ultimately this is not enough to replace an actual Jewish education.
“Having young people at age 25 make a trip to Israel is not necessarily going to transform their lives, because they have lost out on the opportunity to develop their Jewish persona for their entire youth,” he said.
“Two weeks isn’t going to do it.”
Fagin acknowledges however the extremely high cost of providing children with a Jewish education in the US, which he says can reach as much as $40,000 a year for one child.
This, he said, was the other great challenge facing US Jewry, particularly in the Orthodox community.
“An Orthodox family with four children is spending an enormous percentage of its disposable income on the education of its children. A Jewish education comes at an enormously high price and enormous sacrifice, and that is a burden that every Jewish family with school-aged children faces,” he said.
Fagin said that the OU, through its political lobbying arm, has managed to secure some $1 billion in state and local aid to Jewish schools over the last six years, but also that this is still not sufficient to reduce the financial burden that Jewish families face.
He added that he had spoken with Israeli government officials of the possibility of funding from the Jewish state for Jewish education in the Diaspora, but that this would require a paradigm shift in the attitude of the state towards Jewish communities outside of it.
“Does the State of Israel view the US Jewish community as a strategic asset and one in which investment should be made not only to strengthen the US Jewish community but also the State of Israel?
“If the answer is yes, then it needs to help deepen the commitment of Diaspora communities to their own Jewish identity.”