The recently-released “Call to Action” in response to the Pew Study and the challenges facing American Jewry is serious business – both thanks to its robust platform of suggested educational and philanthropic interventions, and especially in light of the extraordinary and diverse array of 74 Jewish leaders, rare in our polarized community, who are signatory to its vision. If our community is to improve in its present state and pave the way for an even more robust future, it depends on the willingness of individuals to step forth and exercise leadership especially in collaborative frameworks, and this is on display in this effort.
In that spirit, I want to offer two suggestions that I offer as ‘friendly amendments,’ or refinements, that I hope will bolster the hoped-for investment in Jewish education and outreach that are the central goals of this project.
The first is an observation that will seem semantic but betrays a more significant issue that I think the authors are unwittingly fomenting with their statement, in a way that runs counter to their own interest. The authors insist that the narrative of “crisis” is a critical variable in defining the communal agenda, lamenting that in contrast to the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, present-day Jewish leadership is essentially apathetic to what they consider to be the alarming data of the Pew Study (that extends and continues the earlier trends.) “The community is bereft of any sense of crisis,” the authors write, which they then interpret to be a sign of a “self-imposed helplessness.”
The call to action, therefore, represents not merely an attempt to advocate for more effective interventions to improve Jewish life, but to signal an alarm that the authors believe is an essential companion – even perhaps part of the very educational strategy – to improve, or perhaps even save, American Jewish life.
Why is this alarmism necessary or helpful? Why does the absence of alarmism automatically suggest apathy, abandonment, or helplessness? The opposite may be true: Many of the very initiatives that the authors use as beacons of success, and many of the very organizations led by the signatories, originated not as calculated responses to crisis but as ambitious, optimistic, and creative pursuits based on the self-interest of their founders and/or as outcomes of successful and vibrant Jewish educational experiences. Moreover, if the primary emotional legacy of the Pew population study was the palpable sense of crisis that it engendered but – with the exception of a couple of major initiatives – that crisis did not translate into an effective reversing of the trends indicated in the survey, is the absence of a crisis narrative the real problem today?
Crisis language may help garner support for a bold set of initiatives, but I question whether this language is useful to the larger aim of rehabilitating American Jewry. In fact I would suggest that it is actually part of the very problem that these interventions want to correct. American Jewry’s insistence on its own demise is the surest guarantee of translating fears into prophesies.
This is not to say that a mere reframing of the realities will turn their appearance from cloudy to sunny. But I do believe that philanthropy, education and advocacy that originate in an awareness of strengths and a sense of optimism that those strengths can be expanded and fortified are more likely to succeed than a strategy that believes it must shore up its defenses to prevent a collapse. Emergency measures provide short-term fixes but exacerbate long-term issues. The same is true when it comes to educating about Israel, making the case for giving to Federation, and much more.
And indeed, this knowledge is implicit in the Call to Action, as the authors advocate for funding precisely those initiatives in our community that are already working. Extracting that message and making explicit that effectiveness breeds effectiveness would be transformative to a message that is currently savaged by its own fear-based framing.
Rhetoric matters, especially at a strategic inflection point in the life of a community; and we would better narrate our own past, present and future, as the community’s leaders, with a coherence and calm that befits the responsibility we have inherited.
The second concern pertains to the substance of this vision for Jewish life, which is heavily programmatic and insufficiently prescriptive. While I understand that a coalition of leaders this diverse would not be able to agree on the core elements of what constitutes the meaningful Jewish “content” that is meant to animate all of these educational and outreach activities, we find that the cost of pluralism is the loss of any shared coherence as to the texture and nature of the Jewish ‘stuff’ that is at the heart of the work.
But let’s acknowledge this as a loss, and acknowledge in turn that in not speaking about the specific content of the Jewishness that we hope to impart through our educational activities, and that we hope to use to engage others in our outreach, we are leaving out a huge piece of what we think success looks like. The authors are optimistic – I think in part because they lead the institutions that would and should lead the hoped-for renaissance in Jewish life – that strategic investment in their institutions will be sufficient, and that the content and meaning for the Jewish future will emerge in turn. I believe the same to be true about my own institution! Still, I do not believe that as a call to action, the question of content can be put on the backburner, and I do not believe that ideas and ideologies can be considered a separate enterprise from programs, isolated from the activities that attempt to perpetuate them.
In this respect, the document is surprisingly orthopractic, which represents its vulnerability. Jewish life has been carried forth and transformed by its leaders for many generations through their commitment to the set of ideas that needed to define Judaism in each of its epochs. In turn, they established, or rededicated, or invented, or reinvented, the set of programs and institutions that characterized the structural landscape of the community and defined its contours. We now tend to operate in reverse, making the case for the vibrancy of structures and experiences and assuming that the ideas are fully intact.
What will make Jewish life in America successful – actually, what makes many of the institutions led by the signatories successful – is not just going to be in effective methods, organizing and recruitment strategies, or even philanthropy. It will lie in whether our leaders and institutions can offer a compelling vision, a set of powerful ideas about the place of Jewishness in the world, our role and responsibility as particularists in a universalist world, what we owe to our history and what we owe to our future. All of the institutions of Jewish life are today subject to unprecedented market climates, and membership and belonging – to them and to Jewish life more broadly – cannot be taken for granted.
Accordingly, to thrive in America the Jewish people will need to see in their leaders the capability and commitment to provide some answers – or at least some thinking – on how Jewishness can continue to offer at least provisional answers to the big human questions which frame lives of meaning, purpose, commitment and community. Absent a collective commitment to collaborate on that part of the project, a shared commitment to what we consider to be effective frameworks for engagement may mislead us into believing that that it is the vessel, rather than what it contains, that guides the way towards the Jewish future. After all, the content of what we pass down to the next generation has to be at least as significant as how we choose to pass it down. Otherwise, we are simply preparing ourselves for the next bout of anxiety that will inevitably emerge the next time we take stock of our numbers.