Some Takeaways From The Population Survey


We are living in a time when 20th-century Jewish institutions are being challenged by the forces of the 21st century. A speaker at the recent Jewish Futures conference invoked the metaphor of the “brick hitting the cloud.” Participants were implored to smash idols — 20th-century institutions — in the name of reinventing Jewish community. Of course smashing these idols involves dissolution of the “establishment,” including federations.

Yet the past decade’s successful startups — many of which benefited from UJA-Federation of New York’s vision, financial support and in some cases birthing (including Eden Village, Siach, Makom Hadash, Adamah, Kveller, Six-Point Fellows, Blueprint Fellows, Storahtelling) — have been engaging young Jewish adults to help them find meaningful expressions of Jewish community in new settings and through new means. 

Further, UJA-Federation’s recently released Jewish Community Study of New York reminds us that so much of what the Jewish community built in the 20th century continues to make a big difference even today:

♦ Belonging to synagogues of whatever denomination matters.  It has a qualitative impact on all measures that we tested of Jewish belonging, including frequenting Jewish websites. 

♦ Israel trips (especially second trips) are associated with much higher levels of Jewish engagement.

♦ Attendance at Jewish summer camps or Jewish day schools correlate with higher forms of engagement with the Jewish community.

And here is another rub: all of the 21st-century’s new organizations still count on the old ones (especially federations) to fund them. Launching and growing new organizations will be a lot harder if federations and other key institutions are not around.

Economic and other philanthropic trends may dictate a period of consolidation and downsizing, but as Hayim Herring recently wrote: “Precisely because we have to downsize our institutions, we have to upsize our imaginations.” How can we use the Community Study and its findings to upsize our imaginations? As I understand the study, the future of Jewish life depends on our ability to create multiple settings where the bricks and the clouds can connect and cohabitate in order to spark organic and imaginative hybrids.

Yes, there are young “unaffiliated, unengaged Jews” who care about their Judaism and their connection to Jewish community. But the modes of engagement and perhaps the content that animates them are different from what worked for their parents.

Are our 20th-century institutions up to the challenge? Can synagogues grow and bend like plants reaching for sunlight to help the next generation of Jews find meaning and purpose and a sense of the holy? Even as we recognize the power of Israel trips, summer camps, day schools and more traditional forms of Jewish experiences, how can we take advantage of the growth of online engagement tools? New bridges are needed between virtual communities and more traditional face-to-face relationships; how can we build them?

Even more, how can federations and other Jewish organizations inculcate a sense of responsibility in the next generation of Jews, many of whom have been raised on “free Judaism” (think Birthright)? How can we cultivate a sense of gratitude so that the next generation will support summer camps, Israel trips, Jewish day school education, synagogues, as well as new types of innovative engagement we have not yet even imagined? 

The Community Study also highlights growing poverty in the Jewish community that demands our communal attention. Further, as Jews are living longer, more frail elderly are in need of our care. As traditional human service institutions and JCCs face constrained public and private resources, we must examine how we organize ourselves to deliver care. We need 21st-century operations to better address what people need. How can we successfully call upon our young though voluntarism and other means so that our elderly and poor can experience the warm embrace of the Jewish community?

The reweave of our community presupposes that we feel the obligation to embrace those living in need. How can we upsize our imaginations to harness the wisdom, experience and infrastructure of our 20th-century institutions in the service of the newer organizations to refashion our Jewish community of the future?

In the post-2008 economic world, we know that we cannot simply rely on more funding. We need to be smart about how to leverage the assets of our communal structures. New initiatives certainly will need financial support, but they also can help to reinvigorate 20th-century institutions by infusing new combinations of assets into our synagogues, camps, day schools. Think matrix: Hadar fellows teaching at Hillels; Moishe Houses hosting Birthright reunions; Storahtelling as part of Hebrew school curricula; rabbinic students training and offering spiritual care in our senior centers; Greening fellows, Adamahniks and Teva grads in every synagogue and local Jewish community center; and more…

Help us upsize our imagination. What can we do together to build on our success and reimagine our future? Please read this study at What can we learn from it? We are in this together.

Alisa Rubin Kurshan is senior vice president for strategic planning and organizational resources at UJA-Federation of New York.