Op-Ed: Engaging Jews means more than better marketing


CHICAGO (JTA) — For four days in January, Jewish leaders under 40 from the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, Australia, Holland, South Africa and Israel assembled in London at the Kolenu conference. Representing large city campaigns in their respective countries, they sought to enlighten and learn from each other as they explored issues of mutual concern.

These young volunteers expressed anxiety over the fact that many of their peers are not “buying” what Jewish community campaigns are “selling.” Attendees acknowledged that in each of their cities, Israel-centric fundraising and support for centralized campaigns have lost traction. To be sure, demographic research has affirmed this for a decade.

These self-proclaimed Israel advocates and builders of Jewish community gathered to rebut the trends by contemplating meaningful solutions and proposing alternative strategies.

Their deliberations were thoughtful and impassioned. As individuals, they remain undaunted. As leaders, however, they may be on their way to making the same mistakes as those who preceded them.

Though the facts are incontrovertible — many young Jews have lost interest in coordinated Israel fundraising drives — the solutions considered were strikingly disconnected from the essential problem. Not unlike discussions at assemblies of veteran Jewish leaders, a prevailing theme at Kolenu suggested that organizations could best encourage young Jews to support Israel by enticing them to attend events where they will hear why they should support Israel.

In this circular construct, the problem and the solution are reduced to improved marketing and public relations. For example, participants agreed that developing more sophisticated social media tools can increase the Gen Y and Gen X donor base, since this demographic is connected to Facebook and Twitter. Similarly, they suggested “cooler” speakers and performers would swell the ranks of supporters.

Unfortunately, even with engaging tweets and trendy presenters, this strategy fails to meet its goals.

Employing “technical” solutions (e.g. improved programming, updated technology, expanded marketing) to fix an “adaptive” challenge rarely succeeds. As H.L. Mencken once cautioned, “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong.”

While tenacity is admirable, those who love Jewish community would do well to heed the late Peter Drucker, widely regarded as the dean of American management studies, who said, “If at first you don’t succeed, try once more. Then do something else.”

As their parents before them, many at the conference appeared to equate being Jewish with financial support for Israel. Strategies seeking to bring young Jews closer to the Jewish state that do not also consider how to make Judaism, in Abraham Heschel’s words, a matter of “ultimate personal significance,” are flawed approaches to outreach and engagement.

The historical record is clear: Caring about Israel is a natural outgrowth of, not a substitute for, Jewish knowledge and commitment. Making giving a goal in and of itself rarely engenders a meaningful Jewish identity, while the inverse is often the case.

Millennia of Jewish history confirm that allegiance to the Land of Israel comes from strong Diaspora communities made up of individuals who care about Jewish life writ large. Deracinating charitable contributions from a broader Jewish consciousness assumes, mistakenly, that sustained loyalty to Israel is possible without an appreciation of Jewish life, values, history, ethics and culture.

Love of Israel and support for Jewish community are not intuitive for many of today’s young people. For them, being Jewish is one of several identities, often relegated to an episodic role. That doesn’t make them unenlightened or “bad Jews.” It does obligate those who treasure the core principles of Judaism, including support for Eretz Yisrael, to rethink the Jewish communal agenda.

To make the case for involvement in organized Jewish life, including fundraising, Jewish communities must invest in high-quality Jewish learning for post-collegiate young adults. Providing sophisticated and compelling opportunities to explore the Jewish experience will go a long way toward creating a much-needed context for Jewish behaviors, including involvement, tzedakah and support for Israel.

A famous discussion in the Talmud (Kiddusin 40b) debates the relative merits of “study” versus “action.” Though convincing arguments are mounted on both sides, the matter is resolved by Rabbi Akiva, who concludes that “Study is greater than action because it leads to action.”

Peter Drucker was right. We have tried and tried again. Now it is time to try something better.

Contemporary Jews first must begin to understand the Jewish experience, and make enough of that experience their own, before support for Israel makes sense. If a portion of the energy, creativity and resources devoted to enhancing our campaigns for Israel were expended on providing meaningful Jewish learning for adults, our campaigns and our communities would benefit immeasurably.

(Dr. Hal M. Lewis is the president and CEO of the Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies in Chicago, and the author of several books on Jewish leadership. A former Jewish federation CEO, he attended the Kolenu conference as a guest speaker.)

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