The Cow in the Coalmine

Elsie the cow is unemployed.

She is the latest casualty in the evaporating milk industry. Borden Dairy, Elsie’s employer, one of the largest milk producers in the country, filed for bankruptcy last week. Just two months before, Dean Foods, which is the largest producer of dairy in the United States, filed for Chapter 11 protection.

So what is happening in the world of dairy?

Milk consumption is down six percent in the last five years, but that is not enough to the lose the farm. The real issue at hand is the overall number of milk drinkers. For the last 30 years, there have been just about the same number of people drinking milk. That number has stayed static.

What has changed is choice.

In 1990, when you went shopping in the supermarket, you could choose between skim milk, whole milk, and occasionally, buttermilk.

Today, walk into any market and you will have the choice of
• almond milk
• cashew milk
• soymilk
• hemp milk
• oat milk
• rice milk
• lactose free milk
• kefir
• coconut milk
• as well as the more traditional 1 percent, 2 percent, whole, and skim milk.

A fixed at best— and diminishing at worst — number of milk drinkers are presented with more than nine new milk alternatives and options. You need not be an expert in economics or marketing to realize that is a recipe for the industry to go bust.

This challenge is not unique to the dairy industry. Modernity, science, and technology create different behaviors and demand new norms. Ask HBO how it feels about Netflix. Ask Target how it feels about Amazon. It is not only the milk industry that has been effected by modernity, science, and technology. Business models cannot stay stagnant and continue to meet and exceed goals. They have to be dynamic and adjust with the tide, or be ahead of that tide.

As an Ashkenazi Jew who suffers from my fair share of digestive challenges with milk and rarely watches any TV, I am not up at night worrying about the demise of dairy in America, or about Netflix’s growth. What is happening in the world of milk soon will happen in the Jewish world, however, and it is incumbent upon us to learn from the experience.

Allow me to explain.

The number of people who identify as Jewish in America today is not drastically different from the number of people who identified as Jewish a generation or even two generations ago. In 1960, United States Jewry was about 6.5 million people. Today, we are close to 7.3 million. That’s not an enormous jump in 60 years.

The good news is we have beat out most prognostications about our numbers. Still, we are not a larger demographic per capita than what our grandparents lived with in America. But today, unlike 60 years ago, we have countless outlets to express our Judaism that were not accessible or available to us in the past.

In 1960, the primary two outlets for Jewish philanthropy were the United Jewish Appeal — the UJA — and the JNF, with its blue boxes. The synagogue was the central address for Jewish life. Some of that was because Jews were not as welcome in the general society, and some was because we were more insular.

Now, nary a day passes where I am not solicited by phone, in person, or by email for a random Jewish cause that I have never heard of. Some are based in Israel, and some are in the diaspora. Some seem to address pressing issues and others seem to be fringe. But we are inundated with options, and many organizations are competing with one another.

A Jew deep in the weeds might be able to explain the difference in mission between the UJA, the JFNA, the AJC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Most cannot.

Do you want to support a food pantry in Israel? You can choose between Leket, Pantry Packers, Meir Panim, or Carmei Ha’ir, just to list the most well known.

What about special needs Jewish education, you ask? Well, you could support Matan, Ruderman, Shutaf, Sinai, ALEH, Beit Issie Shapiro, Shalva, and Salam.

All of these places are engaged in holy and sacred work and each is worthy. The problem is that our Jewish organizations are splintering, making us the most saturated and engaged Jewish community in the history of our existence. The problem is the pool of supporters and people who plug into our systems is the same as yesteryear.
More demand. Same supply.

Today, there are countless power sources for your Jewish identity. The JCC, the Federation, a local day school, any one Jewish philanthropy can be the place where someone finds community and is Jewishly and spiritually enriched.

Jewish leaders who have been equally engaged in non-Jewish causes exacerbate this dilemma. Jewish donors’ names are decorating the walls in universities, performing arts centers, and hospitals, where once they were verboten. This is a great thing. We cannot want to jettison the strides we have made to be welcomed in these arenas. It does, however, make our task more challenging, since we are working in the same confines as Jews, with the same number of people as we had in 1960, but with an exponential jump in demands and opportunities.

We have more than quadrupled the amount of milks we can drink in the Jewish world, but for the same number of milk drinkers. Something will have to give — and we cannot afford bankruptcy.

I have two radical ideas that can help to start to get us in front of this problem, instead of behind it.

First, we need to consolidate resources. This will require some ego-swallowing and creativity, but Jewish organizations that have redundancies have to merge. Movements that share seven of 10 things in common can join forces, instead of each making its own Shabbos.

In the Conservative movement, it is high time for USY and Camp Ramah to unite. We also do not need many locations and institutions of higher learning in Israel. We can share one campus, one vision, and one set of resources. Our physical differences force us to pull at needed resources, and our minuscule philosophical differences do not require different buildings and staff. Diversity is wonderful, but not at the expense of possibility and success.

Aren’t there other organizations that could say the same?

My second idea is inspired by Yehuda Kurtzer, and what I think was his tongue-in-cheek proposal. What if we were to make a communal dinner night at, say, the Javits Center, for 30 different Jewish organizations? One night of chicken and sushi stations for all of us, and then breakouts to listen to a favorite speaker or two from our top philanthropies? That would allow us to save needed overhead for meals that become excessive and expensive, and would enable us to free up precious time on our overly programmed calendars.

Remember when we consider this, we are not failing. None of this is an indictment of wrong-doing. We are succeeding beyond anyone’s wildest dreams.

In 1970, Life magazine predicted that there would be just 2 million Jews in America by the year 2000. In 2020, we beat that expectation almost fourfold — and Life magazine is out of business. But we need to learn from the cow in the coal mine.

If we do not adjust and pivot properly, we could be joining Elsie. That’s a place none of us wants or deserves to be.

About the Author
David-Seth Kirshner is the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El, a Conservative synagogue in Closter, New Jersey. He is the past President of the NY Board of Rabbis, President of the NJ Board of Rabbis and a Senior Rabbinic Fellow at the Hartman Institute. Rabbi Kirshner was appointed to the New Jersey/Israel commission and is a member of the Chancellor's Rabbinic Cabinet at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
Comments