‘Drifting’ is Not an Option for Jews

by Stephen H. Hoffman

I can’t remember any time in reading about Jewish history that we weren’t worried about our future and our survival – our physical survival in Israel and our spiritual survival outside of Israel. Worry seems to be in the Jewish genome. Now the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute (JPPPI) has written a report titled “2030: Alternative Futures for the Jewish People.” Whether you are an optimist or a pessimist, there’s plenty to worry about.

The study provides an overview of factors that have affected the rise, thriving and decline of civilizations over the millennia. Among them are religion and identity; education, science and technology; language; creative leadership and political elites; war; internal dissent and national and health disasters. There are many lessons here for Cleveland and America, let alone the Jewish people.

The study posits two axes of factors that could affect the Jewish future – internal and external. The external forces are somewhat obvious: distribution of power (think: China); proliferation of weapons of mass killing; energy; global economy. The internal forces include Jewish demography, identity, hard and soft power, Israel-Diaspora relations, economics and leadership.

Using these factors, the report lays out four scenarios for a future, characterized as Jewish life thriving, drifting, defending or a nightmare. The nightmare is a doomsday picture resulting from external attacks that succeed. The defending sketch portrays an Israel that builds higher walls in an increasingly hostile world, aliyah from the West accelerated due to unrelenting anti-Semitism, and Diaspora Jewish communities clearly recognizing the threats and therefore investing in themselves. In some ways, this option is a welcome one because it sees us acting forcefully to preserve ourselves.

But at the moment, I think our real challenge is working our way through the thriving vs. drifting scenarios. Thriving is the one we seek – all good things. Drifting is the one we fear – slow declines in numbers, education, increased apathy for Jewish identity.

A few key observations on this stand out from the more than 100 pages of the report:

First, we are capable of affecting our futures. We are not merely subject to the great external forces. Those will affect us, certainly; they can hurt us or help us. But if we are organized and committed to thriving, we can overcome almost anything that comes at us.

Second, our most important decision is that our Jewish identities matter and are worth acting on with our time and resources. We need to decide that our Jewish identities bring powerful meaning to our lives in this era of free choices, that they matter to our neighbors and our world as a way to improve our collective quality of life.

Third, in an age that values individualism, we must swim upstream to preserve and promote the collective action that is required to achieve a thriving Jewish future. Hillel’s words reach us across the centuries: If I am not for myself, who will be for me, but if I am only for myself, what am I?

Fourth, it’s all about who! Leadership matters. We must attract high-quality volunteers, professional staff, rabbis, teachers and academicians to our enterprise. Talented volunteer leaders who care must be willing to step up and take the big responsibilities in the community locally, nationally and internationally. For our professional cadre, we must create the environments and compensation ranges that allow them to work for us vs. the private sectors.

Belief, determination, collective action and leadership can halt the drift and move us toward a thriving future.

As for Cleveland, a microcosm of the Jewish world, we too are poised between drifting and thriving futures. Clearly the external economic environment is of great concern. Many Jewish business and civic leaders are working to improve the external pictures at government levels, the universities, the foundations, and with nonprofits at the neighborhood level. At the Federation, we are attempting to intervene as well through the Immigrant Welcome Center concept to promote population growth.

Internally we are blessed with outstanding rabbinic leadership, many excellent professional and educational leaders, and volunteers who are the envy of the Jewish world. We are paying attention to the development and involvement of young leaders. Our fundraising is in the front ranks (visit JewishCleveland.org to learn more about the current Campaign for Jewish Needs) – but not enough yet to push us securely into the thriving scenario. The resources are in this town, though. It’s still a matter of determination to stop the drift. And we are determined.

We’re taking action with PresenTense, providing fellowship opportunities to engage young Jewish social entrepreneurs to help strengthen identity connections. We have overhauled our resource development program to give people more ways to make a difference with their contributions, and we are preparing to make a heavier investment in our ties to Israel by focusing on Israel’s assets to enhance Jewish identity.

In the Talmud, Rabbi Johann said that “Since the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from prophets and given to fools and children.” No one – prophet, fool or child – could accurately have predicted two years ago where we are today. And this report, too, stops short of prophecy and talks about alternatives.

We have the capacity to thrive. We have thrived in Cleveland, and we know what it takes to continue to thrive. As Jewish communities go, we are doing many of the suggestions put forward by JPPPI. But what ultimately plays out in Cleveland is a simple question, one that must be answered by each of us: “What can I do to achieve a thriving Jewish future?” The future is ours. If we’re successful in Cleveland, we can point the way, as we have so often done in the past, for communities across the globe.

Stephen H. Hoffman is president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland and was a participant in the JPPPI brainstorming process that created the report.

This opinion piece originally appeared in Cleveland Jewish News; reprinted with permission.