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A once-in-a-generation chance to transform Judaism, from the top down

Nationwide, leaders are moving on; it's clear that different kinds of people should take their places
Illustrative: Vice President Joe Biden, with Richard Stone, Chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, 2012. (Joshua Roberts)
Illustrative: Vice President Joe Biden, with Richard Stone, Chairman, and Malcolm Hoenlein, Executive Vice Chairman, of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, 2012. (Joshua Roberts)

In American society, all eyes are focused, and rightfully so, on the “changing of the guard” at the United States Supreme Court. The new justice nominated to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy will leave his mark on American law, culture, and society for decades.

We could say the same thing is happening at the top of America’s major Jewish organizations. On the national and local level, we are experiencing a once-in-a-generation leadership shift. After 32 years, Malcolm Hoenlein is stepping down from the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. Jerry Silverman is departing after almost a decade as CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America. Steve Wernick , leader of the Conservative Movement, is moving on in his career as well. The cities of Boston and Chicago are also witnessing changes at the top of their Federations.

Of course, we appreciate the hard work of these individuals who have served so long and so well. But who is going to replace them? This is a unique moment in modern Jewish history to make choices that reflect the broad diversity that exists within the American Jewish community. Our community traditionally has looked to its wealthiest members to decide who will be our communal leadership. These individuals, however talented, experienced, and knowledgeable they may be, typically come from the same background. More often than not, they are white males of European-Jewish or Ashkenazi backgrounds.

And yet.

The American Jewish community is more diverse today in its makeup, political leanings and relationship to Judaism than at any point in its history. Jews from around the world have made the United States their home, by choice or because of uprisings and upheavals in their native lands. A generation of young Jews is finding its voice while at the same time trying to determine how important being Jewish really is, as part of the constellation of identities by which they define themselves.

LGBT Jews seek to define their role and find acceptance in the greater Jewish community. Jews with disabilities are seeking inclusion in a community that overlooks them daily.

When the dust settles, and all of these organizations have their new leaders installed, how wonderful it would be if some of them don’t fit the traditional definition of Jewish leadership. Restricting leadership to that narrow band of members of our community is a luxury we can no longer afford.

In today’s world, the Jewish community is under quiet siege. We send our children to college, where they are inundated with anti-Israel propaganda, both from the faculty and from their fellow students. In our socially liberal society, there are few, if any, barriers to assimilation and intermarriage. As the last of our Greatest Generation — survivors of the Nazi Holocaust — pass from the scene, fewer and fewer Jews define themselves by the rallying cry of “Never again!”

Sure, young Jews are happy to receive the freebies that the organized Jewish world has created for them, like free trips to Israel. They accept those gifts, enjoy the trips, and then go on to live lives with increasingly little Jewish content, cultural or religious. They ought to hang a sign in the office of every leader of every major Jewish organization that says, ‘What are you doing about assimilation today?’

Quite frankly, we aren’t minding the store. Sure, our leadership is out there working hard on behalf of the Jewish people, meeting with Congress and the president, and making appropriate public statements and public appearances. But meanwhile, assimilation, a far greater threat to Judaism than terrorism and the alt-right combined, increases daily with no sign of abating.

The only way to combat that rising tide is by having leadership within the Jewish community that actively reflects who our community really contains, and understands the needs and desires of our entire community … from the ground up. Will women be considered for these roles? Jews born outside of the United States, Israeli-Americans or Russian-Americans? Young Jews? LGBT Jews? Jews with disabilities? Jews of color? Sephardim?

I hope so.  My fear is that we’re just going to see more of the same. If assimilation weren’t such a pressing issue, and such an easy choice, it wouldn’t matter who led these institutions. Jews may not face the specter of a Nazi Party or Soviet regime, but make no mistake — Judaism is under siege, and we are losing adherents daily, simply because they’re given no reason to continue to identify Jewishly.

We have a rare, unique, generational opportunity to bring in leaders from diverse backgrounds who can understand, identify, and work to solve these problems. But if we wake up a year from now and find nothing but the “usual suspects” in those positions of power and influence, we’re going to miss this opportunity.  That’s not something the Jewish community can afford to do.

About the Author
Jay Ruderman is president of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which supports innovative programs that foster the inclusion of people with disabilities in the Jewish community and Israel.
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