This past Monday, Michael Siegal, Chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, addressed the 3,000 attendees at the General Assembly in Jerusalem in a dramatic and heartfelt speech. In it, he referenced the recent Pew Study, which noted the rapid trend of assimilation and intermarriage amongst the American Jewish community, and declared that only a radical and audacious plan could hope to stem this tide. He then announced his intention to raise $1 billion dollars over the next 10 years to provide free Jewish preschool for families across America, a “Jewish Head Start”. He also turned to the audience with a challenge: “You got any better ideas?”
The answer to Michael’s question is unequivocally: Yes. The reality is that less affiliated Jews who cannot otherwise afford to send their kids to Jewish preschool will not suddenly find the money for further Jewish education because their 3-year-old had a positive experience in preschool, their 4-year-old learned some Jewish songs, or their 5-year-old brought challah and grape juice home each week. They’re unlikely to join a synagogue because they met other Jewish parents at drop-off and pickup. The momentum of Jewish practice and engagement will be hard-pressed to continue once their young child is no longer ‘doing Jewish’ every day.
Here’s my better idea: PASSION
The decision to become more Jewishly connected is purely one based on passion. What motivates a person to move from being mildly engaged to being really Jewishly connected? For a pre-teen, it might be the friends-for-life she meets and bonds with at her Jewish summer camp, then spends all year on Facebook with them yearning for next summer. For a college kid, it might be the first time he attends a Carlebach minyan and gets the same high from singing out the prayers and jumping around that he does from a rock concert. For the 20-somethings who go on Birthright, it might be the romances that develop and the discovery that Israel is not “them” but “us”, a scrappy, pioneering place that wants and needs them far more than their American communities do.
In a study conducted by the Jewish Agency’s Jewish People Policy Institute, authors Sylvia Fishman and Shlomo Fischer found that “The combination of youth group, camp, and Israel trips…is correlated with an 80 percent in-marriage rate. This is especially the case in the school-aged years.” They also found that age counts, with lasting impact from Jewish programs increasing with age: “In terms of predicting adult Jewish connections, statistical studies show that every year past the bar mitzvah year “counts” more than the year before. Receiving formal Jewish education from age 16 to 17 more accurately predicts adult Jewish connectedness than receiving formal Jewish education from age 15 to 16.” In other words, the years that Siegal is investing in are far less critical than the years to come.
Siegal is correct that something huge and out-of-the-box needs to be done right now to tip those less-committed Jewish teens and 20-somethings towards marrying and engaging Jewishly.
It’s a simple formula that has worked for our people for millennia: get the teens and 20-somethings in Jewish contexts and give them something to fall in love with. Provide those formative experiences when first love blossoms at summer camp without their parents around. Send our young adults on their first trip to Israel and let them see it through the eyes of both their American and Israeli peers. Tap into their passion for environmentalism by subsidizing programs like Adamah and the Jewish Farm School. Offer free admission to Jewlicious music festivals, several-day Limmud Fests, AIPAC conventions – anything cool and Jewish where they’re apt to connect – passionately connect – with people their age.
Sadly, the Jews who are leaving the fold usually have no idea what they’re giving up. They haven’t been exposed to the good stuff. A massive investment needs to be made to get our teens and 20-somethings access to a Judaism that can speak to them, and access to each other in inspiring Jewish contexts, while they are still actively making decisions regarding how, and with whom, they want to live their lives.
In these leaner years, raising $1 billion for a paradigm-shifting plan for the future of American Jewry is audacious. Let’s make those dollars count.