Despite the advances of the past 25 years, Jewish continuity is more in danger than ever.
This autumn, some 2,000 British Jewish teenagers began their time at university. They will have been welcomed by a plethora of organisations offering them opportunities for Jewish engagement, but little of it will have resonated. Yet, if we lose them at university it will be difficult, if not impossible, to reconnect with them later. Time on campus has always been important; for many, it may now be the final frontier for Jewish engagement.
Thirty-eight years ago I was also beginning my time on campus – a law degree at the LSE. Over the next three years, my Jewish engagement came alive, along with my political sensibilities. It was the aftermath of the Lebanon War, and Jewish societies were regularly subjected to visits from Jewish anti-Zionists such as Lenni Brenner, Professor Uri Davis and Tony Greenstein. Along with involvement in the Campaign for Soviet Jewry, I emerged from college a very engaged and proud Jew.
It had all been good preparation for a year working at the Union of Jewish Students, the highlight of which involved helping to assemble 1,000 Jewish students at Sunderland Polytechnic to overturn a student union motion banning the Jewish society from meeting. Oh no, we were certainly not going to turn the other cheek.
Fast forward to a few years ago and I’m in a meeting with a major donor to an Israel charity, listening to him relaying a Friday night dinner conversation with one of his children, home from university.
He had asked how the week on campus had been, to which his son had replied it had been ‘Israel Apartheid Week’. When his father had asked what the JSoc had done, he replied: “Oh, we just kept our heads down.”
The father then asked me: “How is it, with so many of our teenagers now in Jewish secondary schools, they arrive so unprepared to explain Israel’s actions on campus?”
A pre-university programme preparing students for the campus political scene has since been introduced but, like a number of such initiatives, it needs more funding.
Another one in need of greater support is the excellent March of the Living, next year celebrating its tenth anniversary in this country. Others, such as the decades-old Israel Summer Tour, probably need a major rethink in the context of our whole approach to Israel education.
The key problem, though, is that all these youth programmes and activities are run by organisations operating in silos. Nothing is joined up. So, while we readily proclaim that our children are the future community, there isn’t actually an integrated plan for achieving this. The result is extraordinary inefficiencies and low impact.
Just look at the campus environment: too many organisations competing for the minority who want a Friday night dinner and spending millions of pounds in the process. It really is time to wake up and smell the chicken soup.
Twenty-five years ago, I worked on the advertising campaign to promote the organisation Jewish Continuity, the bold initiative from the then Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks. The campaign dramatised the claim of the American Pew Institute that the US Jewish community was losing half its future membership to out-marriage.
The future engagement of 2,000 plus Jewish teenagers who have just arrived on campus is very much in doubt.
It also gave impetus to the rapid growth of Jewish secondary schools, regularly trumpeted as a great achievement. Certainly the numbers enrolled are impressive – double what they were a quarter of a century ago, as are the academic achievements highlighted by the recent GCSE and A-level results.
Unfortunately, though, there’s a but.
The future engagement of those 2,000 plus Jewish teenagers who have just arrived on campus, the majority of whom are coming from a Jewish secondary school, is very much in doubt. They’re more likely to want to go to the local pub than seek out a Friday night dinner. After seven years in a Jewish secondary school, it’s perhaps understandable they want to experiment a little. They also seem somewhat less inclined to take up the fight for Jewish rights.
Being a proud young Jew today is not easy. The backdrop I grew up with has gone. No Soviet Jewry Campaign (we don’t even teach our children about it) and Israel the pioneer, the victor in the Six-Day War, the miraculous victor in the Yom Kippur War, the triumphant rescuer at Entebbe… is now largely replaced by a portrait of Israel the oppressor.
While we didn’t have to contend with the tsunami on social media, we have failed our children in adopting an air of resignation that nothing can be done to rebalance the debate. The recent powerful campaign against antisemitism in the Labour Party is a rare and welcome exception.
Our young are, of course, like all young people. They care about different issues from those that we used to get worked up about. They are rightly very concerned about the environment, worrying about the extinction of every species… except perhaps the Jews.
For their parents, the discussion over Friday night dinner revolves around one simple question: will their child find a Jewish partner? Well, the odds are diminishing for a number of reasons, but our community’s approach to
its social engineering programmes is certainly not helping.
The challenge starts at 12 and probably continues to around 32. Although there are a myriad of interventions seeking to help – bar/batmitzvah programmes, youth movements, Israel trips, secondary schools, campus organisations and young adult programmes – there is no comprehensive strategic plan. Some of it certainly involves duplication, so funds are being wasted.
The challenge starts at 12 and probably continues to around 32.
Virtually none of it understands the digital world. Bizarrely, in all other aspects of our lives we are ready to respond to the challenges of the digital revolution, but the Jewish world remains well behind the curve.
Paradoxically, I don’t think this is a challenge that requires more money, but rather a sensible plan to spend the current budget far more wisely. Those with interests to protect will no doubt reject this, but I know the major donors who are relied upon to fund most of this will be pleased. Like all areas of charitable giving today, they want to see impact and so should we.
The future of Jewish charitable funding itself is also dependent on whether we succeed in engaging the next generation. Already the alarm bells are ringing, with a worrying generational breakdown emerging among donor families. Their grandparents gave from the heart – thank goodness some are still around to provide support. Their parents are now guided by their head and are asking the tough questions about impact. And the children? Well, they are increasingly disengaged from our community and therefore disinclined to give to it at all.
Rabbi Lord Sacks was certainly ahead of his time, but despite the advances of the past 25 years Jewish continuity is more in danger than ever. The call to action of the Soviet Jewry campaign that energised my generation was ‘If not now, when?’, which seems particularly apt for the urgency we face here.
That’s why we’ve established an initiative called Achshav, the Hebrew word for ‘now’, and we’d love to hear your thoughts at www.achshav.org