The recently released Pew survey on Jewish life in America has not surprisingly triggered recrimination, perhaps even some panic in the Jewish community. After all, what are we to make of an intermarriage rate that seems to have climbed to 58 percent over the last 10 years? Or that 22 percent of those who identify as Jews report that they are “Jews of no religion,” including a third of millennials?
There has been plenty of debate about the survey results and what they mean, but perhaps we’re studying the numbers when we should be looking at something far more significant. The important question is not how many Jews there are or will be, but rather what kind of Jewish life we want for our children and grandchildren and communities. What is a “Jewish life” worth living and how do we build it? It is impossible to build a strategy to respond to the survey until we answer that question. As my friend the late Michael Hammer used to say quoting Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will get you there!”
If all we want is 7 million Jews who will stand up and say “I am of Jewish heritage and I’m proud to say it,” then the Pew study indicates we are certainly moving in the right direction.
But I think we want much more. We want our children to experience the beauty and glory of a connection to a 3,500 year old culture and civilization. We want them to experience the intensity of Jewish spirituality, whether they choose to call it religion or something else, and we want them to connect to other Jews and to Jewish concepts of social justice. We want them to experience the power of being connected to millions of other Jews and, through that connection, gain a desire to improve the world and share in the joy of Jewish life.
Each year, 35,000 young Jews are returning from Israel energized by the Jewish homeland and interested and excited to learn more about their people and their faith. We have a massive unprecedented opportunity to reach out to exactly that “next generation,” the group that has raised the most concern after a close reading of the Pew survey.
Young adults, however, represent our greatest hope. According to research, Birthright returnees are more connected to Israel and their Jewish heritage after they return, but we must do more to maintain that interest.
Research indicates that, in general, Birthright returnees fail to become involved in local Jewish activities despite their heightened interest after visiting Israel. That’s because so little is being done to engage young adults in most communities.
In Boston, we have an excellent record of engaging nearly 80 percent of local Birthright returnees by offering a wide range of programs and services for young adults, on campus and beyond. We have invested $1.5 million to place full-time Birthright follow-up coordinators on 12 area campuses and have significantly increased the variety of programs available to young adults.
Our experience in Boston shows that dwindling enthusiasm for Israel and Jewish life isn’t inevitable. A massive national effort is required to be sure that the American Jewish community doesn’t fail to leverage the Birthright opportunity. The ability to send hundreds of thousands of young American Jews to Israel represents a potential tipping point, a hinge in Jewish history. Right now, the door is open.
Birthright’s future must be assured. Hillels and campus programs of every kind must be strengthened, improved, initiated and expanded. Young adults must become the highest priority for all our institutions.
Our scope can and should be far wider than Birthright. Jewish education of every kind – and for every age – needs to become a higher priority. In Boston we’re also focusing on children and teens. We are supporting day school excellence and accessibility for day school students with special learning needs through a donor-inspired investment of $5.6 million in 2013-14.
We have fortified our synagogues’ religious schools and have greatly increased the number of children attending Jewish overnight camps through a program in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. More than 30 percent of eligible kids in our partner congregations now go to camp, far higher than the national average.
Most importantly, we are engaged in a large-scale effort to create a “community of learning” through a massive program of adult Jewish education. Thousands have been attracted to programs aimed at “universal adult Jewish literacy.” A generation that has experienced the glory of Jewish learning, that has experienced a Judaism of purpose and meaning, will invest far more in the Jewish education of their children.
We have to ensure quality outreach to everyone in our community. We have made a serious investment in outreach to interfaith families, engaging them through community programs and welcoming them into a supportive, inclusive community. But even the best outreach efforts will fail if our institutions, synagogues, JCCs and Federations don’t offer a community worth joining.
We can do more. The Pew survey is a call to action. It tells us that the overarching priority for the American Jewish community is to reach out with powerful programs, Jewish learning, Jewish culture, social justice, Israel engagement and social and community building programs of every kind, for young people on campus and for those coming back from Birthright.
Our Jewish community is committed to developing this “Judaism of meaning.” And that requires that our outreach and programming be rooted in substance. We are committed to building a community with no barriers to entry but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai; filled with the beauty and meaning of Judaism, rooted in tradition, but focused on the future.
In Exodus, at the burning bush, Moses asks God his name and God responds, “I will be what I will be.” Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, interpreting the words of God, explains God’s point for Moses and the Jewish people: “I will be what I will be, but you will determine the outcome.”
The facts of the Pew study will be what they will be, but we will determine the outcome.