Celebrating failure at the GA

If the Jewish federations were serious about confronting the intermarriage crisis, they should have taken the extraordinary step of reformatting the GA’s schedule in order to focus on the existential emergency at hand.

The General Assembly (GA) of the Jewish Federations of North America was held in Jerusalem this week with a predictable array of pomp and ceremony. There were appearances by leading Israeli politicians, plenary sessions and panel discussions with enticing titles as well as the usual assortment of receptions and gala dinners.
Billed as an event that “inspires and engages current and emerging Jewish leaders, tackles the most critical issues of the day, and showcases the best of the Federation movement,” the GA sought to celebrate the vibrancy of Jewish life while underlining the role played by Jewish federations in ensuring continuity.
But in light of the recent findings of the Pew Research Center regarding American Jewry’s frightful descent into assimilation, the upbeat tone of this GA was entirely out of place and even inappropriate.
Indeed, even more than its predecessors, this GA was reminiscent of the ill-fated RMS Titanic as it steamed straight for an iceberg in the northern Atlantic ocean in April 1912, oblivious to the impending doom.
After all, it was more than a month ago that Pew shocked the Jewish world with some grim data when its October 1 survey revealed that intermarriage rates among non-Orthodox American Jews have soared to 71 percent and that nearly one-third of Jews under the age of 32 do not identify themselves as Jewish by religion.
These are the statistics of shared suicide, a glaring sign that large portions of American Jewry are simply melting away and shedding their identity.
If the Jewish federations were serious about confronting this crisis, they should have taken the extraordinary step of reformatting the GA’s schedule in order to focus on the existential emergency at hand.
Instead, in an act of pathetic hubris, they had the gall to add a single session on Monday, with the self-aggrandizing title, “Responding to Pew: How Federations are Successfully Engaging the Next Generation.”
“Successfully”? Who are they kidding? BACK IN 1990, after the National Jewish Population Survey revealed an intermarriage rate of 52% (which was subsequently the subject of much debate), the Jewish world was stirred into action, vowing to do whatever was necessary to stem the tide of assimilation.
Here we are, more than two decades – and hundreds of millions of dollars spent on bolstering Jewish identity – later, and for all intents and purposes the situation has only worsened as growing numbers of Jews turn their backs on their heritage.
Clearly, the Federation system has proven to be a colossal failure, and it bears much of the blame for this catastrophic situation. It sets the spending priorities of the Jewish community, allocates funds and oversees various initiatives.
Nonetheless, they have presided over nothing less than a disaster of epic proportions, even as they celebrate their own failures at the GA.
This isn’t responsible leadership, it is a reckless letdown.
Back in 2010, Jack Wertheimer, a professor of Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary, penned an important article, “The High Cost of Jewish Living,” in Commentary magazine, which pointed out that the costs involved in living a Jewish life were increasingly beyond the means of many American Jews.
He also took Jewish federations to task for their apathy toward this issue as well as their misguided priorities, which tended to allocate funds to various non-Jewish causes even as critical Jewish needs were not being met.
In particular, Wertheimer noted, the skyrocketing costs of Jewish day-schools were threatening to squeeze many Jewish children out of the system, forcing them to attend public schools and lose out on the opportunity to receive a well-rounded Jewish education.
“Most federations of Jewish philanthropy,” he noted, “have neither the resources nor the will to make affordability a priority, and other types of organizations don’t even pretend to pay attention. It is not as if they have not been warned about the severity of the problem: for the past 25 years, studies have periodically catalogued rising prices.”
In that regard, little has changed in the intervening three years, nor is it likely to change any time soon. The Federations will continue to deceive the public – and themselves – that they are “successfully” reaching the younger generation, even as much of that very same generation marries out of the fold.
Year after year, they will continue to gather at the GA, applauding themselves and their achievements even as the population they ostensibly serve continues to wither and shrivel in size.
And therein lies the real tragedy. For unlike the crew of the Titanic, which sought to reverse course once they struck ice, our own Jewish leadership merrily continues to sail forward, straight into calamity, ignorant of the ruin they are leaving in their wake. American Jewry deserves better.