Jewish World: The changing American Jew

Director of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People, talks about the evolving federation world.

AMERICANS IN New York celebrate c 150 (photo credit: Celebrate Israel/Courtesy)
AMERICANS IN New York celebrate c 150
(photo credit: Celebrate Israel/Courtesy)
NEW YORK – Jewish communal life is changing in the United States in dramatic ways. Jewish identity, sociologists like Professor Samuel Heilman of Queens College have noted, has become something of a “symbolic ethnicity” and no longer necessarily implies any Jewish weltanschauung or affiliation. With increasing intermarriage and assimilation and a rising ultra-Orthodox birthrate, the American-Jewish landscape will be significantly different in 20 years. These massive demographic changes have had an impact on the world of organized Jewry, especially the federation system that represents communities across North America.
David M. Mallach is the director of the UJA-Federation of New York’s Commission on the Jewish People (COJP). Mallach spoke with The Jerusalem Post in his upper East Side office in Manhattan last week about how changes in American Jewry have impacted the federation system and how it is evolving to meet the challenges of the 21st century.
Among the other initiatives that are being taken, he told the Post, was the introduction of a course on Israel at Columbia University aimed at students returning from Birthright trips, in order to capitalize on the connection that students are said to be making to their Jewish identity on such jaunts.
In that vein, Mallach said he is very supportive of Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky’s efforts to redirect his organization away from aliya and toward the preservation of Jewish identity, which he believes is being manifested in new and different ways than in previous generations.
Just as Sharansky is making a push to send out more community “shlichim,” or emissaries, focused on identity over emigration, Mallach noted that the UJA-Federation of New York has it’s own “initiative” sending out emissaries in Brooklyn.
How has charitable giving in the Jewish world changed and how has that affected the UJA? First, the pie is getting bigger [but] our share is not. The quantity of Jewish charity that goes to non-Jewish [causes] is increasing.
The second [trend] is, and this is partially a reflection of the acceptance of Jews by American society... is the whole communal-individual trend.
America is much more individualistic, much less communal, so philanthropic giving becomes much more [individual].
For us this is a very much a challenge because we believe that communal responsibility and communal planning and communal participation are what make it a Jewish community as opposed to a bunch of individual Jews running around.
The idea of a federation provides an overarching identity that’s not purely sectarian? Right. It’s the total community and we very much try to engage people from across the spectrum of Jewish life.
The third thing is the economic downturn in 2008/9, although we are steadily moving back up [in terms of funding], and there again there was a phenomenon of big New York financial entities no longer existing, and they were very generous, philanthropically- minded entities.
So if a guy who used to work at a place like Lehman Brothers, which had a culture of philanthropy, now works for a [corporation] that doesn’t have that culture, even though he or she may be making the same amount, the cultural environment of philanthropic participation is not there and that has also been a shift that we have seen in the past five years.
Will the changing fiscal landscape change the way in which the Jewish Federations see themselves and the role that they play in the community? What is your forecast for short-, medium- and long-term for how communal life is going to evolve in the United States? I think it was [Lawrence Peter ] ‘Yogi’ Berra who said, ‘It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future,’ or more Talmudically, since the destruction of the Temple only fools are prophets, but I think the federation system is emerging in a different way. First of all, this year we estimate our annual campaign, which doesn’t include endowments, will be more than $140 million. That’s a lot of money. How does that stack up to previous years? It was going nicely until 2008 and then it came down. 2007, I think, we were at $154m., roughly. We were over 150, it came down to the 130s and now we are going back up. Would I prefer we made 160? Of course, but I think we are seeing a growth.
Back in the 1940s the agencies that were part of the federation got their money from the federation. Today we aren’t as much a funder as a coordinator, planner, a generator, a helper, a facilitator.
I will give you an example. We just did something on the Upper West Side for Yom Ha’atzmaut. We had a whole communal participation for Yom Ha’atzmaut which involved programs from a dozen different entities which were sponsored by over 22 different entities, the whole community.
Now it was coordinated by the JCC of Manhattan but funded and very much in collaboration with federation, and the federation could play both the financial role but also bringing together. In any system, like synagogues, there is a lot of competition.
Our role, in part, was to be the framework that made everyone comfortable coming together in a single day of celebrating Israel on the Upper West Side.
This comes down to providing what you termed an overarching address for Jewish matters? For planning and also for funding.
Money is not unimportant but the JCC of Manhattan budget is, I would guess, $8m.
[to] $9m., of which from [the] federation they get a small 10 percent or less.
It’s not that they are dependent but the connection [of the] federation to that JCC is very important because it connects them in to the community and helps the whole community function more effectively together.
Sharansky in Israel has been changing JAFI’s focus with a new mission oriented toward strengthening and maintaining Jewish identity in the Diaspora, especially in keeping people engaged Jewishly in North America. Has the rise of intermarriage, assimilation and disengagement from Jewish communal life affected the federation system and are you running any programs to bring people back to Jewish identification? We as an institution are very supportive of the Sharansky redirection of the Jewish Agency. We were supportive of getting out of the aliya business in North America. If you look at North America, you are talking about 2,000 olim who aren’t returning Israelis, between 2,000-2,500.
Numerically, it’s not significant, and the other thing, and this is very important, [is that] no one makes aliya anymore because of an aliya shaliach [emissary]. You make aliya because you spent a year studying in Israel, you have whatever connections. So the aliya office becomes essentially administrative services.
We felt very positive about this whole change in the Jewish Agency and the role they are taking and we believe basically they are right.
Putting aside a few Jews in Iran, there is no other Jew in the world today who if he or she wanted to make aliya tomorrow...
couldn’t go down to their local [shaliach], buy a ticket and go to Israel, and that includes Turkey, Venezuela, Cuba, all of these places. They choose, for whatever reason, not to.
What are you doing toward this goal that you are supportive of? We are next year going to be having a major shlichut initiative in Brownstone, Brooklyn.
We are going to have a shlicha [female emissary] in the community, living there and involved and we have a consortium of seven local agencies in the neighborhood that are part of this process.
We also have, in Brooklyn, from a different part of UJA-Federation, a whole initiative to engage young families and it’s not built around joining a synagogue but getting them involved, engaging and participating in Jewish life.
I think that’s where we see a massive change over the last years. Not engagement; it’s affiliation.
Formal affiliation is much less than it once was. Engagement, it’s much less clear.
For example, there are in New York City now five different Jewish film festivals and they all do phenomenally well. There is a consumption of Jewish culture that’s something we’re seeing that’s different. There are all sorts of non-formal organizational networks.