A communal conversation

Why should American Jews listen to banker Scott A. Shay on issues of Jewish identity? Because he has shown that he just may have the answers for Hebrew School education.

Scott Shay 298.88 (photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
Scott Shay 298.88
(photo credit: Haviv Rettig)
Scott A. Shay is a successful investment banker from New York who has spent much of his adult life as - in his words - "a volunteer Jew." He is a past chairman of the UJA-Federation of New York's Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, a board member of the Jewish Agency and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, sits on the steering committee of birthright israel and chairs the Fund for Jewish Education. But perhaps more importantly, as Shay tells it proudly, he's the founder, together with his wife Susan, of a unique Hebrew school in New York, the Jewish Youth Connection. His years of activism have resulted in a detailed perspective on what ails American Jewish life today, a view that has driven him, a "worried optimist," to do something about it. His new book, Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry, is an attempt to start a desperately needed "communal conversation" on rethinking the institutions of American Jewish life. Like other experienced managers, Shay talks about rethinking frameworks and paradigms, focusing on specific measurable solutions and maintaining a cautious optimism. The Jerusalem Post met with Shay during his recent visit to Israel to discuss the rights and wrongs of American Jewish institutional life, his new book and some of his proposals for reform. Basically, what is the main problem facing American Jewry today? There's a crisis of identity, a loss of internal purpose. People are unclear as to our mission on this planet. We're not here to be Jews in order to continue to be Jews. There's more to the 3,500-year chain than preserving the chain itself. What is that? First, it's a recognition that we have a mission. It revolves around social justice, ethical behavior and being a light to the nations. We have to figure out that mission. Both Diaspora and American Jews share a core issue which is screaming for focus: Jewish identity. As a community, American Jewry isn't dealing with Jewish identity? Our over-focus on immediate fire alarms - such as the rise of anti-Semitism on the far Left and Islamist radicalism, the recent war with Lebanon - has sapped our ability to deal with [long-term issues]. It's all immediate. I don't suggest there aren't serious and even existential external threats, but they pale in immediacy and potency to the internal threats, which are our main problem. Would you include Israel among the communities facing such an identity crisis? The greatest national security issue facing Israel revolves around strengthening Jewish identity among Israeli Jews. How does the loss of focus get expressed in communal life? There's no doubt that American Jewry has become more atomized. People have become more concerned with their movements. I just read a survey that tried to categorize different kinds of Jews: AIPAC Jews, Reform social action Jews, Conservadox, secular Jews, at least four kinds of Orthodox Jews. It's very troubling to sit in forums at the Jewish Agency, birthright israel, UJA and such and hear that the only thing some groups are interested in are day schools, while other groups only focus on social action. What should the community focus on? There's no one thing we need to do, no silver bullet. We need to focus on multiple levels that reconcile our universalist mission with our particularistic identity. How we go about preserving ourselves tells a lot about how we relate to the world. We could close up in Borough Park. It's a rational, practical solution. But many people wouldn't stay. We'd become a group that's irrelevant to the rest of the world. We'd depart from our historic mission. Your new book Getting Our Groove Back tries to offer a strategic plan for revitalizing the aging - some would say failing - institutions of American Jewish life. How do we do this? I didn't want to write this book. The truth is, I didn't have the time to write this book. But I felt an effective communal conversation is lacking. I read articles with great ideas, but they weren't tethered [to a broader plan]. At the [UJA-Federation of New York's] Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, I read the research [on American Jewish demographics and identity] and tried to put together 10 things we as American Jewry need to focus on. I wrote this book to get a communal conversation going. Right now the conversation isn't effective because it quickly devolves into the communal atomization. Is there any symbolism behind a 10-point plan? Just like in business, we can't do everything right. It's not that other things aren't important, but if we do these right, we can refresh and renew our communities. You have to focus your resources, so I tried to say [in the book] that there are a number of important things that must be done, that not everything is important. What do you bring to the table? Why should American Jews listen to a banker on issues of Jewish identity? I'm a very active lay person, and I thought that nobody was writing a book from this perspective, not as a professional Jew but as a volunteer Jew. I spent three years as head of the UJA-Federation of New York's COJIR, which expends $12 million a year in discretionary dollars. That's no money at all compared to the New York [Jewish community], where tuition to day schools is $1.4 billion [annually], but I got to read tremendous amounts of research. I've been on the boards of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, a past president of the Hillels of New York, and I'm currently the chair of the Fund for Jewish Education. I also spent eight years as a director of Bank Hapoalim, where I got to develop deep personal friendships with Israeli business people. What are the advantages to the perspective of a volunteer Jew? Some of the problems facing the American Jewish community don't fit comfortably in the current organizational rubric. I've been told it was good this book wasn't written by a rabbi who would have had an agenda. I really don't have an agenda except starting the communal conversation. For example, my first plank [in the book] is fixing Hebrew schools. In a survey of American Jews who said they had a negative experience that turned them away from Judaism, half of them said it was Hebrew school. I personally went to a lousy Hebrew school and if it was about that experience, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you or have any connection to Judaism. They've been talking about fixing them for decades. The UJA-Federation of New York has spent $4 million on the endeavor to work with individual Hebrew schools to reinvent themselves, their curriculum, teaching hours, the number of kids in class, figuring out what we're trying to accomplish. Right now there are 20 schools [involved], and it will expand to 50 schools. We also have to raise the level of the teachers. There are some dedicated good teachers, but by and large they're not qualified. We don't need to fire them, we need to educate them. And we have to give leadership. What do you mean by leadership? My wife and I started a Hebrew school from scratch in 1996 called the Jewish Youth Connection in New York. Congregation Kehillat Jeshurun generously donated space, and it opened its doors in September 1997 with four kids that my wife practically dragged in. We now have 75. The school has grown and it's been by and large a success in terms of trying to keep class sizes small, teaching Hebrew one-on-one with teachers, carrying out a follow-up with the child. Also, we don't test in a formal way. Our educational director will visit with each child and determine orally where the child is. We're trying to say [to the children], "You're lucky that you get to benefit from the gifts given to the Jewish people, such as Shabbat, Israel and the hagim [holidays], and by learning more you get to understand that gift." And this is only one model. What do we fix next, after the Hebrew schools? We need to set a goal of 50 percent of our total children being in day schools. It's an achievable task, but it requires a revolution in tuition. Also, we need to ensure that every Jewish young adult gets to Israel. Isn't that already done with birthright israel? I speak as an enthusiastic supporter of birthright israel, but we need to do more. We have to unify birthright and the summer trips, which have faced challenges because teens want to preserve their birthright eligibility. I want to unify it all into an Israel travel voucher, worth $2,000 toward an approved trip to Israel, a junior year abroad or a free birthright trip. I'd have the voucher expire at 25, because to make something valuable you have to take it away. This would work with this "Me Generation." It will be effective in getting them to get to Israel. I don't think [$2,000] is a crazy number. It's the best investment we can make. It has the benefit of being a unifying force for American Jewry. Let's not let the good ruin the great. Summer trips to Israel are a more powerful experience [than birthright]. One of the most common critiques of American Jewish institutional life is that it doesn't cater to continuing involvement in Jewish learning and communal life, with the engagement of many American Jews ending after their bar mitzvas. You talk about that in your book as well. Jewish education is a lifelong experience. The thought that one Jewish experience will last our whole life is ridiculous. I try to put this into a context of renewal every 18 years after the bar mitzva. In any case, as individuals, we reinvent ourselves every 18 to 20 years. Jewish men delay marriage in the United States to age 35. At 31 [18 years after bar mitzva] most are still not married and it's not a bad time to take a good look at what I'm doing to be part of the Jewish people and part of something larger. I just turned 49, and I can tell you, looking at the texts afresh I discovered new meanings that were unfathomable to me before. I don't think I ever appreciated our patriarchs and matriarchs, their family dynamics, until I had kids. Setting these touchpoints to grapple with texts is a good idea. Everybody has something they have to do. [You ask yourself,] what can I do that will make a difference? This book, in a way, starting a communal conversation, is my way of doing this. You know the numbers on assimilation, identity, intermarriage, how fewer American Jews see Israel as a component of their identity. Are you optimistic? I'm a very worried optimist. Unless we change our trajectory, we risk losing our critical mass. In 1980, there were about 5.9 million Jews in the US. Running on current numbers, there will be 3 million Jews in 2030. That's a loss of 3 million in 50 years. You talk in your book about Jewish commitment using a water analogy, where "solid" Jews are tightly connected, and the connection gradually weakens until they're "gaseous" and disconnected from the community. How would you describe yourself on that spectrum of connectedness and on the other spectra of Jewish life? I'm reluctant to categorize myself. I was raised a Conservative Jew and believe and observe some of the core mitzvot, which are a gift, such as Shabbat, kashrut, tefila [prayer]. I'm a solid Jew who links his fate to the Jewish people. If someone does that, I don't care where they identify in terms of movements. The categories are so powerful that people tend to generalize where you stand by where you sit in shul.