Study Points The Way Toward More Avenues To Jewish Life


Since the release of the Pew Research Center survey on American Jews, the question I’ve been asked most often is what surprises me about it.

What surprises me most is that anybody is surprised.

The Pew report points to a series of phenomena that are well known in the world today: identity fragmentation, radical free choice, embracement of diversity, and the breakdown of organizational and ideological loyalties. For many of these phenomena we are the canary in the coal mine, the early adopters and the over-adapters.

The report is not good news or bad news. It shows us a reality we can’t ignore anymore. It is up to us to see the opportunities hidden in this new reality. There are a few things we should be thinking about here.

One, inclusiveness is no longer optional. In a highly diversified community like ours, inclusiveness — of mixed marriages, of people with disabilities, of different sexual orientations, of different ideologies and levels of observance — is a must. No longer can we even think in terms of a majority welcoming a minority into the fold; in our highly diverse world, everybody is in one way or the other or another part of a minority.

Two, we need more avenues to Jewish identity. Those of us who grew up in communities where the main expressions of identity were secular (Zionism, Hebrew, arts and culture) are not surprised to learn that more than 30 percent of young American Jews do not identify as religious in any way. But it would be foolish for us to think that they have a weaker potential to identify themselves meaningfully as Jews.

If we don’t want to lose 30 percent of our people, we need to work much harder at developing alternative avenues for Jewish engagement. We significantly underinvest in Jewish culture as a way to foster Jewish identity.

The report makes self-evident the fact that one of the main tasks of Jewish leadership needs to be opening as many gateways as possible to Jewish life without being judgmental about which ones are more authentic. The more doors we open, the more people will come in. As the Talmud says, the Torah is a heart with many rooms. In a context of extreme uncertainty, we can’t foresee which ones will be successful in offering a good avenue for engagement.

Three, nothing is either/or. The Pew report shows that American Jews don’t see their identity in either/or terms. However, those of us in leadership positions usually do. In a world of fragmented, plural identities, we need to break loose from old definitions that condition our thinking and action. The concepts of religion, culture, nation and people as self-contained entities are 19th-century ideas created to respond to the specific reality of European Christianity. They are not adequate (and never were) to describe the Jewish experience.

Things shouldn’t be either/or in terms of communal funding. We shouldn’t invest in culture at the expense of investments in education or synagogue life. Rather we should look at the synergies that will materialize if we stop looking at those areas as unconnected silos.

Skeptics will say that hard choices must be made because resources are scarce. But excluding any part of Jewish expression will only shrink the pie further. Exclusion is a vicious circle. We should not look at funding as a zero-sum game because new initiatives and matching grants can bring new philanthropic resources to the Jewish community.

Four, organizational paradigms are inadequate. Legacy Jewish organizations in many cases are stuck in paradigms inherited from the Industrial Revolution. They are pyramidal, centralized, top-down structures that rely heavily on the loyalty of their constituents and donors.

Yet Jews don’t think in terms of organizational loyalty anymore. Pew and other reports like Connected to Give and NextGen Donors show that Jews don’t give to organizations but to causes. Organizations need to see themselves as tools for donors and users rather than vice versa.

This is not merely semantics. It implies seeing the relation between missions and users, donors or members in a completely different light. Organizations need “network weavers” rather than fundraisers, facilitators rather than directors, and catalysts instead of organizers.

The Pew report and others show that this is a time of bubbling creativity in the Jewish community. Rather than announcing doom, the report could spur us to create mechanisms that capture and catalyze that energy.

Five, we need new ideological leaders. The report shows that Jews haven’t ceased searching for values and meaning. But the ideological movements of the past 200 years — Reform, Conservative, Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy — are all modern phenomena created as different responses to the encounter between Judaism and the realities of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are historical, and we’d be ill advised to see them as timeless. They may not be fully adequate to respond to the different set of challenges facing Jews in the 21st century.

So maybe instead of lamenting the lack of connection to “modern” Jewish ideologies, we should be working on creating postmodern ideologies. This is not a purely philosophical issue. It’s about the critical question of what Judaism as a culture, religion and civilization has to offer to those of us who yearn for meaning in an uncertain world.

Answering the question of why be Jewish is just as important as how to be Jewish.

Andres Spokoiny is the CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.