Jewish leaders spar over assimilation at GA meeting in Jerusalem

Pew findings shocked community seeking to cope with declining endogamy.

Barry Shrage at the GA 370 (photo credit: Sam Sokol)
Barry Shrage at the GA 370
(photo credit: Sam Sokol)
The leaders of Jewish federations are fiercely debating the effectiveness of their programs for maintaining Jewish engagement, in light of a recent study detailing a severe decline in communal affiliation.
Last month’s Pew Research Center report detailing spiraling levels of assimilation and rapidly declining endogamy among American Jews is one of the primary topics of discussion at this week’s Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly in Jerusalem.
The GA, an annual event that is held in Israel every five years, brings together professional and lay leaders of community federations through the United States and Canada to discuss common interests.
“We cannot ignore the outcome of the Pew and we ultimately have to take action and not just continually debate process,” JFNA chairman Michael Siegal told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.
While the Pew report was issued too close to the opening of the GA to substantively change the schedule of events, Siegal stated that it has informed the discussions between federation heads.
The top executives of the various federations spent hours brainstorming new programs that could leverage previous successes and expand programs that have proved themselves, he said.
Asked about a series of proposals that he and JFNA President Jerry Silverman had recently unveiled, including free universal preschool for Jewish children, Siegal replied that his proposals were “more about ideas” and stimulating debate.
“What we’ve seen is a tremendous amount of Jewish organizations doing very good things that are essentially not leading to the outcomes that we would all like,” he said.
However, he added, there are things that the Jewish community is getting right and upon which the federations should double down.
Increasing attendance at Jewish camps, he said, is a good example of building upon a successful program.
“We need to triple the amount of kids in Jewish camps over the next three years,” Silverman tweeted on Monday.
“We have to figure out how to leverage things that cost less that can include more people,” he explained.
Steven Cohen, a sociologist specializing in the American Jewish community who participated in the conference, agreed, telling the Post that he believes the Jewish community and the federations have the tools the improve American Judaism and solve the problems enumerated in Pew, but that further investment is needed to expand upon the programs that have proven their worth.
According to Dr. John Ruskay, the outgoing executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, the Jewish community is running successful programs, but these programs must be seen against the wider context of a community that is facing social conditions unknown to previous generations.
“Jews in North America are in an entirely new setting. It began really in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, when the barriers between the Jewish and non- Jewish community went down and everyone became a Jew by choice,” Ruskay told the Post on Monday. The Pew study is nothing new, he added, stating that its finding largely mirror that of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study.
“On the one hand we have more people taking Judaic studies classes, more people in Jewish summer camps, more people on Israeli experiences,” he said. However, he hedged, “we are in a new environment and we are going to have experimentation, we are going to have disappointments, we have to learn how to do this.”
“Are we where we need to be? No, but have we have begun a journey and its not going to happen in a year or five years,” Ruskay explained.
“In my view there is both erosion going on and renewal going on.”
However, not everybody agreed with the positive appraisal of federation activities espoused by Siegal, Cohen and Ruskay.
Speaking during a panel on the Pew report, Barry Shrage, the president of Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies, said that “the Pew study says that we are doing very badly on many things.”
Shrage stated that it is also a time of “unbelievable opportunities,” and that he believed that with the right programming young Jews could be induced to increase their Jewish engagement, but that the federations have not seized this chance.
One constant refrain from boosters and critics of previous federation efforts alike was that Birthright, a program that brings young American Jews on free trips to Israel, must be be followed up with subsequent programs.
This is an area in which more could have been done, Shrage told conference attendees.
“Most communities offer [Birthright returnees] absolutely nothing to do except raising money for the Federation,” he accused. “With all due respect, that is a nice thing to do, but if that is your whole agenda we are in deep trouble. We offer them nothing after Birthright. Jewish history will not treat us kindly if we fail.”
Jay Sanderson, president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, agreed, telling audience members, “We are at a moment that, frankly, if the Jewish federations don’t seize, there won’t be a community for us to raise money in.”
“It’s time for us to recognize that what got us here isn’t going to get us there. So all the answers that we think we have and all the programs that are working, clearly are not working enough. The pew study shows us we have more work to do,” he said.
“Birthright is not the answer, it’s part of the answer. Preschool is not the answer, it’s part of the answer,” Sanderson averred.
“We should make sure that our number one job as federations is building communities. We raise money to do our work; our work is not to raise money. If there is no Jewish community 50 years from now, then everything that we did was for naught.”