American Jewry: Time to think big
Since Oct. 7, the organizing principle for American Jewish leadership has been one of “emergency response.” That response has focused on important needs such as supporting the evacuees, the wounded and abducted; fighting the surge of antisemitism on campuses and in the media and public sphere; lobbying to ensure financial and political support for Israel; and campaigning to bring the kidnapped civilians home.
In all these areas, American Jewry has stepped up in remarkable ways. Its established institutions — The Jewish Federations of North American, Friends of the IDF, Jewish National Fund, American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League, Jewish community relations councils and others — are proving their indispensability. Raising nearly one billion dollars, of which hundreds of millions have already been disbursed, is just the headliner of that powerful burst of mobilization.
But no sprint can last forever. We must now transition into an endurance run, understanding that a new normal may take years to set in. The current phase of the Israel-Hamas war — with intense fighting in Gaza and a volatile situation on Israel’s northern border — may last weeks, even months. The next phase, a transition period of intense diplomacy toward a new political paradigm for Gaza, may last months or even years. And this process is set to coincide with bruising election campaigns in Israel and the U.S.
In short: American Jewry will be deeply involved in a protracted resource-draining and attention-consuming period with profound implications. Unprecedented sums of money will need to be raised and disbursed; security needs will mount; the surge of protests against Israel, which are often intertwined with antisemitism, will continue; and the political environment will be toxic and volatile.
This analysis, conservative in its assessment of the challenges to face American Jewry, might lend itself to a mindset of defensive, resource-saving retreat — but such an approach would ignore the opportunity presented by the crisis: to stand tall; consolidate; go long and wide; and go for the moonshot.
Let’s begin with standing tall, the first pillar. As Avraham Infeld, president emeritus of Hillel, has said, the mission of American Jewry (imagined as a unitary entity) is to serve the continued and significant existence of the Jewish People. Right now, when the State of Israel is likely entering an extended period of muddling through, it is American Jews who must shoulder the responsibility for the Jewish future. Such a mindset should trickle down to all institutions, beginning with schools and leadership programs.
The second pillar, consolidating, refers to multiple initiatives to nurture and protect the base of the Jewish community. Beyond safety and security, this rationale may incorporate education about Judaism, Zionism and Israel; intense engagement with existing circles of donors and supporters; and strengthening existing relationships with non-Jewish friends and allies who stood up for our communities. Such strong foundations will be essential for facing the coming challenges.
The third pillar, going long, refers to investing in infrastructure projects that will serve the long-term well being and security of American Jews for the coming decades. These projects could be as diverse as new curricula for schools, stronger JCCs and new leadership training programs.
The fourth pillar, going wide, refers to building new relationships with leaders, institutions and communities across American society. American Jews know a lot about calling out antisemites and delegitimizers. We must be equally sophisticated in embracing those Americans who are neither pro-Israel nor its detractors.
The fifth pillar, the moonshot, calls for a bold ambition for service and contribution. In past decades, American Jewry has taken responsibility for supporting Israel and world Jewry. Moving forward, it should also aspire to make a collective, significant and distinct contribution to America and to humanity. The “superpower” of American Jews — a continental network of institutions, thousands of lay leaders and professionals, financial resources and extraordinary professional talent — can be inspired, mobilized, organized and deployed to move the needle for all Americans.
Each of these pillars deserves its own article, but the overarching message should be clear: Even as American Jewry supports Israel, they should also envision and work to realize their own greatness.
Gidi Grinstein is the founder and president of the Reut Group, a research, strategy and leadership institute, and Tikkun Olam Makers, a global humanitarian venture. Gidi is the author of Flexigidity: the Secret of Jewish Adaptability and (In)Sights: Peacemaking in the Oslo Process Thirty Years and Counting.