Jewish Identity: Finally, The Right Discussion


The dispute now raging over how American Jewry should fund overseas Jewish needs will have at least one important outcome: it will put a serious discussion about Jewish identity on the front burner of the organized American Jewish community (“Jewish Agency, JDC, Stake Claims In Funding Fight,” May 7). Such a discussion is long overdue.

For many, it is clear that the most important challenge facing the Jewish community today is to ensure a positive, vibrant sense of Jewish identity among the young generation. Where once this happened organically, a result of closely knit communities and of forces like pervasive anti-Semitism that came from the outside, today only a minority of young Jews grow up with a sense that being Jewish is a powerful, meaningful, important part of who they are.

American Jewish leaders have known for decades that Jewish identity is on the wane. The 1990 National Jewish Population Study shocked the community by reporting a 52 percent intermarriage rate. It is reliably (but unofficially) reported that essentially the same result was evident in the 1980 version of the study, but that a strategic decision was taken at the time to downplay this finding.

Regrettably, this did not engender a serious communal discussion about the underlying cause of intermarriage, namely the sharp decline of Jewish identity. Rather, it spawned bickering about the accuracy of the study, and much hand-wringing about intermarriage as the outcome. There was a flurry of interest in projects — mostly small and relatively marginal — said to promote Jewish “continuity.” But there was never a serious, sustained, deep conversation about how to make promoting strong, positive Jewish identity a universal part of the Jewish experience for young people. Nor did the organized community ever seriously consider how to address the crisis of Jewish identity, and how to craft and to fund a serious response.

Building Jewish identity was left to individual programs and projects that responded with energy and creativity, but without the community spotlight, and without the funding that the community as a whole (through the federation system) might have provided. Important but relatively small efforts like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education were created by enterprising leaders, and they made a difference. Some philanthropists formed consortiums and even enlisted the government of Israel as a key funding partner: Birthright and MASA are the prime examples. But the federation world stayed on the sidelines, or at best, joined as a reluctant partner.

The current dispute about overseas funding should change all that. By way of background, as detailed in these pages, the clash is between the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) and the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), regarding the formula by which both are funded by the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), the central umbrella for federations across the United States and Canada. Traditionally, JAFI has been responsible for organizing aliyah of Jews to Israel; JDC has been responsible for providing a safety net for Jews around the world who are not making aliyah. According to an agreement in force since 1952, 75 percent JFNA’s overseas funds go to JAFI; 25 percent go to JDC. Presently, JDC is fighting to increase its share; JAFI is fighting to preserve its portion.

The traditional formula was based on the presumption — grounded in centuries of Jewish history — that Jewish communities around the world were at risk for anti-Semitism, persecution, and extinction, and that in order to avoid that fate, the (relatively safe) Jewish community of America should help bring Jews to Israel. Indeed, JAFI organized effective, and often dramatic, operations to bring to Israel the vast majority of the Jews of many countries. In the early years these included the Jews of Arab nations like Yemen, Morocco, Syria and Iraq; more recently major operations focused on the Jews of the former Soviet Union and of Ethiopia.

Steven Schwager, head of JDC, argues that the work of rescue and large-scale aliyah is substantially completed, and that more funds should now be allocated to providing JDC’s safety net of necessary social services for those Jews — a significant number of Holocaust survivors among them — who (for whatever reason) were left behind.

While conceding that large-scale aliyah is no longer realistic, Natan Sharansky, head of JAFI, proposes re-engineering JAFI to respond to the issue that he contends should now be the Jewish community’s highest priority: building Jewish identity among Jews worldwide (notably including Jews in Israel). Sharansky argues that unless the community acts aggressively to strengthen Jews’ Jewish identity, there won’t be any community left within a generation, and JDC’s safety net will be irrelevant.

The contention that world Jewry’s highest priority needs to shift from rescue and physical safety to strengthening Jewish identity is particularly striking coming from Sharansky, who as a Refusenik hero languishing for years in Soviet prisons was himself the iconic symbol of Jewry’s need to mobilize around rescue.

It is clear that Sharansky is right. Whatever the eventual outcome, he has taken a hugely important step in identifying building of Jewish identity as JAFI’s new central priority, insuring that the crisis of Jewish identity will at long last receive the full airing and discussion that is needs and deserves.

Ramie Arian is a consultant who works with Jewish camps, youth movements and other agencies concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment. He may be contacted at



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