Rebuilding Jewish life in a new ‘town square’

"Most Jewish institutional settings prefer to avoid contentious environments, and as a result they have defaulted to a place where they begin to see Israel as a divisive subject and [it is] avoided."

People hold flags during the Celebrate Israel parade in New York June 3, 2012 (photo credit: REUTERS)
People hold flags during the Celebrate Israel parade in New York June 3, 2012
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Doron Krakow, the CEO of the Jewish Community Center Association of North America, sees a growing disconnect between Jewish Americans and Israel and a sharp decrease in interest in their Jewish communities in the United States and Canada.
“The trajectory of Jewish life in North America is not moving in the right direction in terms of community cohesion and community commitment and in terms of the North American connection to Israel,” Krakow said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post.
As a nondenominational organization, the JCC Association is the largest and most diverse Jewish entity in the world.
Krakow approaches his role as leading the new “Jewish town square” and sees this as an opportunity to move the Jewish community forward, while providing members with chances to learn to love and engage in the communities they are slowly starting to abandon.
He noted the divisive nature of discussing Israel within Jewish life: “In my observations, 95% of the time [in which] we deal with Israel in organized Jewish life, we do so on two issues – geopolitics and the Orthodox/non-Orthodox issues – and both of those issues tend to make people angry.
“To be in the same room as lots of other Jews, somebody’s going to say something that’s going to make someone’s blood boil, and it becomes a contentious environment. Most Jewish institutional settings prefer to avoid contentious environments, and as a result they have defaulted to a place where they begin to see Israel as a divisive subject and [it is] avoided. That’s the opposite of what leadership responsibility is,” Krakow said on the sidelines of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem this week.
A side effect of this shift is that of Diaspora Jews, the North Americans are among the least likely to visit Israel.
Believing that avoidance should be avoided, Krakow sees a different approach, based on breaking down barriers in the hopes of removing the divisiveness when it comes to talking about Israel:
“If you accept that there are 70 faces of Israel and you are looking at only two of them all the time, then it’s incumbent on leadership to begin to showcase the other 68 faces and to give North American Jews reasons to fall in love with Israel, to understand its importance to them and to recognize and appreciate that they are stakeholders in what happens here. Once we have developed a sense of warmth and affection and goodwill and commitment to Israel, it’s much easier to deal with the subjects over which we don’t agree. But if we deal only with issues on which we don’t agree, then we poison the well.”
Pointing out that lack of knowledge is part of the cause for this recent divisiveness, Krakow suggests dealing with this head-on by confronting what has become natural to avoid: “Knowledge and more knowledge about Israel – we need more programs, other than two issues; we need to introduce more culture, science, people- to-people engagement. We need to talk about current events that deal with geopolitics and bring in authors, writers, filmmakers. We need to bring Israel, as broad and diverse as it is, into the town square.”
JCC Association has been an institution in North America since 1917 and was established as a way to foster Jewish continuity among Jewish immigrants to the United States.
Today, there are 159 JCCs in North America and 25 overnight camps in 34 US cities, the District of Colombia and five Canadian provinces, where some 1.5 million people (of which one million are Jewish) per week come to at least one of these centers.
As the head of a nondenominational entity, Krakow emphasizes that these Jews “are the broadest cross section of Jewish life of any constituent platform on the continent: from infancy to old age, from ultra-Orthodox to completely secular, people of all ages, all walks of life, all political leanings. And in the ‘alphabet soup’ of identity politics in the United States and Canada, every iteration is represented in the people who come through our doors. As a result, we have the broadest platform for engagement and interaction for North American Jewry.
In fact, none of the other entities come even close to seeing the breadth of the Jewish community that we see.”
The remaining half-million, Krakow adds, are not Jewish: “Half a million of our friends and neighbors purposely come to a Jewish place every week; which means, in terms of constituency, we are the most significant community platform, and as a result we have the potential to be the most significant actor in the evolution of Jewish life in North America – [more significant] than any organizational platform.”
On a local level, the withering away of involvement in Jewish life is something Krakow is ready to confront: “I heard from a prominent foundation executive that among non-Orthodox Jews married in the last 10 years, eight out of 10 are marrying out. So he said, ‘If that’s the case, those marrying in are the exception.’ And what happens to [Jews who marry out] and their spouses when they walk through the doors of a JCC? Because they are less likely to walk through the doors of a synagogue, we see a tremendous volume of people coming to us.
So what do we do with that? We have to be fantastic in order to move the needle.”
Krakow believes that Jewish community centers could be at the forefront of changing this downturn in Diaspora Jewry and calls for effective leadership to bring about positive change.
Looking outward, Krakow has observed a rise in antisemitism in North America. “The higher profile and degree of antisemitism, and antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism is a cause of concern. There is always latent risk, and it never goes away, and in recent years we are seeing more of it.
“There’s been an uptick (of antisemitism) in the US and Canada; things are not as good as they were 20 years ago; and if we are not mindful, we put ourselves at risk. We have to be outspoken and engage these issues thoughtfully, methodically and intelligently in order for our members to have the comfort and confidence to be proud of who they are.”