American Jews Turning Inward? Not So Fast

By Alan H. Gill

Over the past century, American Jews have been deeply involved in the fate of Jewish communities overseas, raising billions of dollars for their aid and helping them survive two World Wars, recover and rebuild after the tragedy of the Holocaust and communist oppression, and build Israel.

So it is with great concern that I read in The Jewish Week last month that Jewish nonprofits lost a collective $1 billion in revenue between 2007 and 2012, and that programs operating in Israel and overseas were among the hardest hit.

This trend in Jewish giving to international causes reflects those of society as a whole: In 2008, Americans sent $21.9 billion in donations overseas, according to Giving USA. In 2012, it had diminished to $19.1 billion, climbing back from a low of $17.6 billion in 2009.

This has happened, it should be noted, at a time when this country was enduring a grueling recession. But the numbers also point to a trend of isolationism within U.S. society. In 2013, for the first time since Pew Research Center started asking (in 1964), more than half of respondents said they thought the U.S. “should mind its own business internationally and let other countries get along the best they can on their own”- an all-time high.

So are American Jews, who tend to be more globally connected than their non-Jewish compatriots because of long-standing ties to Jews overseas, turning inward as well? Have American Jews decided to engage and invest in themselves rather than in Jews thousands of miles way? Can American-based agencies, dedicated to aiding Jewish communities globally, thrive in this environment?

The answer is yes and no.

It is true that we, as an American Jewish community, are grappling with serious funding challenges and competition from philanthropic pursuits outside of Jewish life. Many Jews do not prioritize the Jewish community, be it local or global, as critically important. And many who do care about strengthening Jewish life are giving increasing, if not exclusive, priority to their local Jewish community or might extend their interests nationally.

Understand, of course, that a strong, Jewishly educated and robustly inclusive American Jewish community is vital to the continued well-being of our global people. And investments in that community are needed now more than ever, as the Pew survey on American Jews demonstrated.

But where does that leave Jews in need overseas – those for whom the American Jewish community represents a critical source of aid and solidarity? The overseas landscape today, after all, has changed drastically and it plays a vital role in how the American Jewish community, and our people as a whole, sees its future.

Consider the massive political, social and economic developments we are currently witnessing in Israel and the Middle East, Ukraine, France, Hungary, Cuba and many other parts of the world. For the Jewish communities in these places – whose fortunes rise and fall with the societies they’re an integral part of – such upheaval can have disastrous effects. Poverty, violence, terrorism and anti-Semitism can cause insufferable hardship and lead to emigration, the shedding of Jewish identity, or, as we all know from the recent murders in Paris, far worse.

The Jewish community’s response to the crisis in Ukraine, as well as Israel’s war with Hamas last summer, the violent scourge of anti-Semitism and terrorism in Europe has been laudatory. As has its efforts to aid the post-typhoon Philippines, offer relief to Balkan flood victims, fight Ebola, and aid Syrian war refugees in Jordan.

But more has to be done.

So what can we do to engage and “turn on” our fellow Jews and rally them to our work?

1. Inspire: There is nothing more powerful than meaningful engagement and experiences, education and learning, and seeing first-hand the life of another Jew in a place you may have never visited. Transparent and open dialogue flows from these moments and learning about our business models and impact add real value. For me, this all stems from the Talmudic dictate of arevut, that we are all responsible for our fellow Jews and humankind.

2. Collaborate: Partnering among Jewish organizations, with like-minded goals and aspirations, can lead to greater success and wider-felt results. It also challenges us to do better, see our weakness and improve where we can, eliminate needless duplication, and pool our expertise and resources for maximum effect.

3. Engage the Rising Generation: Young Jews today are not lost, contrary to the prevailing thinking in some circles. They want to be inspired and find meaning in authentic experiences. When young Jews learn more, they want to do more. But they need to know first about what we do and why we do it. And they must be engaged with sincerity and given a real seat at the table.

4. Bring New Faces In: There is no silver bullet to engage new supporters in our Jewish causes. But the best way is word of mouth, grassroots efforts to bring together like-minded people and form a broader tent. Use our networks – online, peer-to-peer, and among organizations – to build cohorts of Jews interested in one or more aspects of your work. Engage them in the work, wrestle with the challenges and remember to focus local, even if our missions are engaged beyond people’s backyards.

Throughout my travels, I often get these questions from concerned, but somewhat disaffected Jews: Why bother any more? Are we really making a difference? Can I really, truly help?

The first step is to answer that question with a resounding “Yes.”

The invitation to join us, to grapple with us, to learn with us, is what should follow. And through that process we can engender a greater sense of ownership in our work and borderless care. Hasn’t the last year taught us that, above all, we are one people no matter where we reside? Our collective strength can defy all odds.

Alan H. Gill is the CEO of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC).