Crisis and Opportunity: Reflections on the Pew Report

We need to create a Jewish journey for every Jew, a journey that they help to create.

by Jay Sanderson

Full Disclosure

I have been thinking about the results of the Pew report for over decade. I understand that Pew didn’t release the results until last week, but these statistics and trends have been obvious to some in the Jewish community for a very long time. Four years ago, I made a major life change and became the President & CEO of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles because of the revelations in the Pew report. It is what drives me, our Board and our staff every day and it is what has motivated our Federation’s major re-imagination and transformation. It is at the core of our mission and our work.

Over the past week, there has been a great deal of reaction to the study’s findings ranging from defensiveness to rejection with a smattering of thoughtful responses. The truth is that we can no longer afford to look the other way. We must take a communal approach to building a Jewish community that will not just sustain, but will flourish.

I love Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel. I strongly believe that being Jewish adds immeasurable value to me, my family and our world.

But despite what many Jewish leaders are saying, we have a crisis and we cannot afford to ignore it any longer. The numbers and the trending in the Pew report say that loud and clear. Our crisis is not in the Middle East. It is in America. It is a crisis based on our success. We have truly succeeded on becoming American and in assimilating into this great country.

This crisis impacts every Jew and every Jewish institution.

But this crisis offers us an extraordinary opportunity.

What Got Us Here Won’t Get Us There

Marshall Goldsmith, one of America’s preeminent executive coaches, wrote an insightful bestselling book entitled “What Got You Here Won’t Get You There.” The book’s central tenet provides us with a solid piece of Torah.

We, as a people, have built great synagogues and great organizations. We have created enviable Jewish communities across the Diaspora.

It is clear that what we have built did get us here, but it is now equally clear that if we want to ensure a vibrant Jewish future it may not get us there.

I say this with caution. This is not a time for a knee jerk reaction and there are no “innovative” quick fixes. This is a time to take a break from our often preoccupation with our history and take a long, proactive look at the future, the future we want for the next generations. They are the loudest voices in the study. These voices demand to be in our communal conversations.

We Need to Learn from Apple

Apple understood almost from the beginning that once the consumer was introduced to the power of technology that they would be hooked and once they were hooked it was up to Apple to continue to deepen the relationship between the consumer and that technology by listening to the consumer and being ahead of the competition in introducing both new products and new applications.

We need to see Judaism as technology and we need to be more like Apple. We need to create a two-way conversation with our consumers and we need to re-imagine our product line.

This analogy speaks directly to our Millennials and the generations to come.

There is another central change we need to make. We have promoted “episodic” Judaism based on lifecycle milestones and communal events. Our institutions have promoted powerful programs like PJ Library, Taglit Birthright Israel and Jewish pre-schools. Our Federation supports these important, highly successful programs, but what this study says loud and clear is that episodic Judaism is not enough.

We need to create a Jewish journey for every Jew, a journey that they help to create. Think of the iPod. Millions and millions of people using the same device to listen to their music, but with customized play lists. They listen to their iPods alone or they plug them into speakers and play for their friends for a communal experience.

We Need to Embrace Our Young People Not Blame Them

Our young people are redefining their Judaism. We need to be an active part of that redefinition process. It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them.

At the Federation, we are committed to not just engaging our young people, but engaging them in our re-imagination and our transformation. They are not the problem. They are a part of the solution.

Many of our organizations have built models based on philanthropy first. We need to move away from “pay-to-play” Judaism. If young people are meaningfully engaged, they will become philanthropists, but we are pushing too many of them away by expecting them to give before they connect.

The Challenge

Our future demands our attention. We need a strong, communal approach to build a rich, vibrant Jewish future. The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles has made the commitment to this process. Will you join us?

Jay Sanderson, President & CEO, The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

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  1. Shimon Arbel says

    Very thoughtful and valuable op-ed. I don’t know how a federation can address an issue that begins first and foremost in the Jewish home. If parents fail to foster Jewish identity and love of Jewish culture, people, and faith, and if parents are not demonstrating a love and commitment to Jewish life and values, what are the chances for any Jewish institution to succeed? The heart of this issue is the Jewish home, and impacting on that dynamic is what this crisis is really all about.

  2. says

    Thank you for this op-ed which certainly points in the right direction. There is not doubt that there is some serious re-imagining to be done. But I also think that the Pew study have some very positive messages that seem to be disregarded. First, of course, is the fact that so many who do not see Judaism (or any other religion) as their religion, still proudly cherish their Jewish identity. But they do it in new ways, and they raise their children Jewish in new ways too. If we forego ghetto definitions of what is Jewish we can let ourselves see the interesting statistic that 61% of the intermarried raise their children Jewish. The Jewish community is already deep in the game of reinventing itself. The only question for Jewish institutions is whether they are in of out of this game.

    The Big Tent Judaism Coalition ( offers many unique resources and programs, built on a quarter-century worthy of experience, for playing this game and shaping its rules.

  3. Joel Schindler says

    Jay, I’m impressed at how clairvoyant you are, knowing the results more than a decade ago. In that case, you’ve had quite some time to develop some answers. So, what are some of them? The Federation system is perhaps the paramount example of putting philanthropy first and symbolizes “pay-to-play” Judaism. Its demise is well documented from 1,000,000 donors in the 70s and 80s to barely 400,000 today – a 60% decline. People have voted with their feet to exit the monolithic central communal organization because it is perceived to be not inclusive enough. But you knew that more than a decade ago. So, in 4+ years at the helm of the LA Federation, what has the Federation actually done to build a rich, vibrant Jewish future other than commit to the process?

  4. Rene H Levy says

    Thank you for this sharp, elegant and moving essay. You indicate that“we have a crisis and we cannot afford to ignore it any longer.”This is also what we concluded in Seattle last July when we issued a community-wide “Call for Conversation” to discuss (i) the roots of the concept of mutual responsibility; (ii) how to teach the younger generation peoplehood allegiance based on an understanding of the purpose of the Jewish people; (iii) how to develop empathy, to self-transform and to impact relationships with family, friends and co-workers. [See more at: ]
    Based on that experience, I believe that“teaching peoplehood”to the younger generation is not about curricula that convey a knowledge base but about “self transformation”whereby we curb baseless hatred in order to make room for other Jews in our hearts. For example, your sentence “ I love Judaism, the Jewish people and the State of Israel” represents a powerful “technology”when it engenders your own “self-transformation journey”. Your own journey is necessary not just because you are a Jewish leader but because it can then become the“ Jewish journey for every Jew”. Our future demands more than “our attention”, it demands nothing less than “ourselves”. It is these new “ourselves,”based on a renewed commitment to mutual responsibility (arevut), that “will get us there”. To your question:“Will you join us?” many in our younger generation will answer “certainly”! I certainly do.

  5. says

    “It is up to the Jewish community to reach out, engage and embrace them.” I couldn’t agree more. If we want people to engage with Judaism, we have to open our doors. At InterfaithFamily, we’ve created our Interfaith Family Shabbat program to welcome  families—whether or not they’re already engaged in Jewish life—to participate in Jewish practice and community.

  6. avram davis says

    This is a short article and it is clear that there are many things on Mr. Sanderson’s mind that he doesn’t get to. With that caution in mind I wanted to mention a few things that I believe are in need of being addressed here.
    The notion of event-driven Judaism, which has dominated much of liberal Judaism for a decade is useful as an attention getter, but useless as a long-term retention strategy for two reasons. The first is that one is competing with modernity and therefor one must come up with better and better ‘events’. The second is that it ultimately falls under the umbrella of entertainment and lacks the depth and grit that is the saving promise of religion.
    What is needed is a tripartite strategy. Firstly, continue creating ‘events’ to help introduce people both young and old to Judaism as something just, well, interesting. Second is to increase support in terms of day school help, Jewish neighborhood creation, cultural events, specifically aimed at the in-married, traditional community. This is primarily orthodox, but not by any means exclusively so. But it is aimed at those who take their Judaism very seriously – both for themselves and their children. Thirdly, Mr. Sanderson’s emphasis on trying and attract young people is a dead horse. Far better to attract people who are drawn ultimately to purpose and inner-value. That is our core group. That is the community, ortho and otherwise, that will ensure survival.
    As a final cautionary note – the orthodox and Haredi world are not without many flaws. But that world, of which I am a part, is justifiably cautious about participating in any ‘big-tent’ sort of scheme. Especially when it entails the risk of contaminating the children with values and mind-set ultimately antithetical to Torah. I have four children. I am very careful about their contact with children who are glued to their smart phones, are dressed in non-modest ways, do not keep kosher and are taught the virtues of fashion and entertainment rather than the values of modesty, struggle, spiritual discipline and a purpose-driven life.
    It is very difficult for a small, semi-tribal people such as the Jews to survive as a particular, separate entity living within an all consuming hegemony such as the United States. It can only be accomplished through selective outreach to the blase, and strengthening the inner core of the already committed.

  7. says

    At this risk of being self-serving, I think you may find the arguments that I make in “Playlist Judaism” which is being released within the month by Alban Press to be consistent with some of the ideas you shared.

  8. Charles Lebow says

    The first thing that we need to do is break out of the defeatist attitude than nothing can be done to stop assimilation. We can, and must increase the number of Jewish marriages (with other Jews). To be succinct this can be done by a combination of increasing motivation (explaining value gained), opportunity (Jews meeting Jews in meaningful settings) and encouragement (matching Jews with other Jews). Enough talk; let’s see action!