Behind the Headlines: is the Jewish Community Changing to Meet the Needs of a Changing Jewry?
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Behind the Headlines: is the Jewish Community Changing to Meet the Needs of a Changing Jewry?

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The Jewish community has undergone dramatic demographic changes over the past several decades — and the organizations that serve it are struggling to catch up.

The new realities are prompting a philosophical debate among Jewish sociologists and organizational leaders about the directions they must take if Jewish institutions are to both serve already-affiliated Jews and reach out to those in the vast penumbra of people with a tenuous connection to the Jewish community.

A manifesto for change, newly published by demographer and sociologist Gary Tobin, and reaction to its dramatic proposals, illustrate the range of perspectives within the debate.

Some say that Jewish organizations already are evolving to meet the new challenges.

Others, including Tobin, say that change is not happening quickly enough. The result, he says, is that the majority of Jews are unaffiliated with the organizations that are supposed to serve their needs.

There is wide agreement among observers that American Jewry today is thoroughly different than the community that existed decades ago when most major American Jewish organizations were founded in response to the needs of those eras.

Recent studies show that the Jewish population today is increasingly disenfranchised from the traditional measures of connection to Jewish identity, such as synagogue membership, federation contributions and levels of observance.

Studies also reveal a Jewish population now creating more than twice as many intermarried couples as in-married ones.

The new realities have begun to impact much of Jewish organizational life — from membership and fund raising to the delivery of Jewish social services and education.

Some Jewish organizations are facing shrink- ing and aging memberships. In addition, synagogues, Jewish schools and membership organizations like B’nai B’rith are dealing with a significant minority of non-Jewish participants, most of whom come to the institutions through intermarriage.

And almost every agency is confronting shrinking funding. Several Jewish groups have been forced to cut staff and others, to consolidate office space.

The American Jewish Committee, for example, slashed its staff by one-third in 1990 in order to cut a $4 million deficit after five years of riding a fiscal roller coaster.

In the process, it re-defined its mandate and now focuses more on issues of pluralism in America and enhancing Jewish identity than it did before.

“The communal agenda is clearly in a period of transition exactly at a time of institutional shrinkage,” said Jerome Chanes, co-director of domestic concerns at the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council.


“It’s a real challenge and we don’t know how it will shake out,” Chanes said.

According to Tobin, Jewish organizations and institutions are currently failing to meet the needs of those they are supposed to serve.

They must radically change or will have to be abandoned in favor of new groups, asserted Tobin in a manifesto for change recently published by the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, which he directs at Brandeis University.

Tobin outlined his blueprint for change in the form of a new booklet titled “Creating New Jewish Organizations and Institutions.”

Tobin wrote that some organizations “may have to be abandoned in order to make way for new” ones, because those which already exist fail to meet the needs of today’s Jewish community.

Jewish organizational leaders “often complain that the Jewish population has moved away from them,” Tobin said in a telephone interview.

“Maybe it is that Jewish organizations have moved away from Jews by standing still,” he said. “They haven’t changed rapidly enough to adjust in the ways that the Jewish community has.”

“Current concern over the issue of ‘Jewish continuity’ masks the real issue facing the American Jewish community: whether or not the existing structure has the capacity to build and nurture the Jewish community of the future,” wrote Tobin in his publication.

“Existing ideological and structural gaps are inhibiting change at the most basic levels,” he argued. “Organizations and programs often suffer from a lack of direction, a lack of will or both.”

In his conceptual re-engineering of the Jewish community, Tobin lists new institutions which he believes should be created o take the place of the old.

They include: an institute for Israel/Diaspora community relations, a national Jewish learning center for adults, Jewish retreat centers and new institutes for rabbinical training.

One organization founded 20 years ago in part to overcome institutional boundaries in Jewish communal life is CLAL — The Center for Learning and Leadership.

According to Irwin Kula, CLAL’s director of education, a “certain paralysis” plagues Jewish life in response to the problem of intermarriage.

“A lot of the protective attitudes we have had as a community, like focusing solely on the Holocaust and using Israel as a vicarious experience” of Jewish life “won’t work anymore,” said Kula.

“We need to think about who we are as Jews,” he said. “We need to open up the whole system” to the input of every segment of the Jewish community.”

Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations, acknowledged that Jewish communal institutions, including federations, have “never been ahead of the curve” when it comes to meeting new challenges presented by historical changes within the Jewish community, like the recent shift in demographics.

“Needs have always far outweighed our ability to meet them,” he said. “It’s part of our history.”

But while federations may not have moved quickly enough, Kraar said, they have moved.

“In every step of the history of the federations, there have been periods of time when we have changed according to the changing times,” he said.

According to Kraar, federations are today meeting new challenges more promptly than before “because we are more reality focused and have the ability to define the issues much sooner with research.”


Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, said that the challenge currently facing Jewish institutions is “to create institutions with doors open very wide but standards which are high and don’t leave out any of the complex spirituality which we represent.”

Shrage said that the barriers to accomplishing this in the organized Jewish world are “imagination and vision, not money.”

While some agree with Tobin and Shrage that dramatic changes must take place, many longtime participants in Jewish organizational life say that Jewish institutions constantly evolve to meet new needs — and are doing so now.

“I don’t agree that there’s inertia leading to ossification,” said NJCRAC’s Chanes.

“When individuals feel that existing groups aren’t responding to their needs, they create a new organization,” he said. “This is not a society with a single voice for any community.”

Steven Bayme, director of Jewish communal affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said, “There is a real challenge going on right now within every Jewish institution to rethink its priorities.

“It requires a great deal of will, but we are not constitutionally incapable of change,” Bayme said.

Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, argued that organizational change “is happening all the time.

“The ADL today is not what it was 20 years ago or 40 years ago,” he said. “There is a continuous evolutionary process” going on.

“The marketplace,” he said, “will determine which institutions will or will not survive, who we are and how we act.”

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