Leaders of Jewish Federations to focus on demographics during Jerusalem confab

Implications of Pew Report on American Jewry to take center stage.

PRESIDENT OF the Jewish Federation of North America 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
PRESIDENT OF the Jewish Federation of North America 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
As leaders of Jewish Federations from across the United States gather in Jerusalem for its annual General Assembly, the agenda is set to focus on a study that found a steep decline in endogamy and religious identification in general.
The Pew Research Center study on American Jewry was a “wake up call” for organized Jewry, Jerry Silverman, the president of the Jewish Federation of North America, told The Jerusalem Post on Tuesday.
“We’ve been studying the report in depth,” he said and stated that while nothing in the report was truly shocking, it has “shaken up the GA.”
Silverman said it has impelled him and JFNA CEO Michael Siegal to revise “significant amounts of agenda” and to focus the annual gathering squarely on holding a “deep discussion” on the issues raised therein.
Speaking with the Post at the David’s Citadel hotel in Jerusalem, Silverman reiterated a four point agenda that he formulated with Siegal, published as an op-ed in The Jewish Daily Forward almost immediately after the Pew report was released.
In that op-ed, Silverman and Siegal stated that American Judaism is at a crossroads and that non-Orthodox Jews are “facing an existential crisis.”
According to the Pew Center, Orthodoxy is the only segment of American Judaism that is growing.
In the op-ed, and in numerous discussions with the press, Silverman stated that he believes that the American Jewish establishment must invest in free Jewish preschools, increasing participation in Jewish camps, follow up with programs to capitalize on the interest in Judaism and Israel exhibited by Birthright alumni and form what he termed “Jewish development zones.” These four points, he told the Post, “can move the needle in significant ways. We’ll use the GA for dialogue, debate [and] understanding [on these issues] and when we return, we will concretize the feedback into action.”
Despite the rising costs of tuition in Jewish schools, Silverman asserted that he does not see fiscal concerns as potential roadblocks in the rollout of a nationwide free pre-school program.
“Coming from the private sector and the public sector what I have found is that it starts with ideas, then a pilot, then execution and results that drive momentum,” he said.
“I’ve never found that money is the inhibitor, never.”
Silverman agreed with Shas MK Nissim Ze’ev’s statement, made at a recent Knesset committee meeting dealing with the implications of the Pew report, that American Jewish education is a “catastrophe.”
“I would agree with his statement that there are pieces of Jewish education in the United States that we know aren’t working and have been watching it not work for many years,” Silverman admitted. “the concept of after-school or Sunday religious school hasn’t been working for 30 years but yet we have not taken the time to really say that there’s an alternative or to create some kind of new paradigm around it and so that part of it isn’t working.
“Day school education, youth groups, camps are all working,” he added.
However, he said, while it may not be possible to significantly raise the number of pupils enrolled in day schools, “we have real opportunities in Jewish camp attendance [where] right now we are only penetrating 10 percent of the marketplace.”
Expansion of the camp system, he said, can occur “without significant capital costs.”
Aside from pre-school and camping, both of which place the focus on Jewish engagement efforts on the very young, Silverman also asserted that programs must be raised to engage Birthright attendees following their return from Israel.
One of the more novel approaches that Silverman raised in his op-ed and in subsequent interviews has been the development of what he calls “Jewish Development Zones.”
Such zones, he said, are locations “where we have a concentration of Jews who are not connected at all” and where Jewish organizations should increase their activities to reach underserved demographics.
The Federations, Silverman stated, should be “encouraging varying programs or portals of entry into Jewish life” in such areas.
“If we intensify in a certain area it can hit a critical mass and be able to engage them,” he added.
In response to the rising rate of intermarriage cited by the Pew report, lawmakers called on the government to pay increased attention to Diaspora Jewry, holding a meeting of the Knesset Committee for Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs earlier this month in which the JFNA was invited to testify.
Following up on this new impetus for collaboration, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency will be holding a strategic dialogue “aimed at formulating a joint plan to strengthen the younger generation’s Jewish identity and deepen the connection between world Jewry and Israel” on Wednesday and Thursday as part of the run up to the GA.
A meeting of senior European Jewish leaders from 22 countries with their Israeli and American counterparts and organized by the Israel Jewish Congress is also being held as part of the GA.
Several meetings between MKs and European Jewish leaders have also been scheduled.
Concurrent with the gathering will be a Global Jewish Peoplehood Roundtable run by the UJA-Federation of New York.
“We are ready to set up a structure to work very closely with the agency, with the government of Israel to really help address some of these issues that have come up in the Pew Report,” Silverman said.