Back to the American Jewish Future

By Jay Ruderman

As an inclusion rights advocate, I was disappointed to see the October 1st “Statement on Jewish Vitality” in the article “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” and so will many of the American Jews be who care enough to read it.

The “highly diverse group of thought leaders” who signed on to the recommendations comprise a blue-ribbon panel of prominent Jewish leaders and scholars. Such an outdated, top-down approach reflects the prevailing disconnect between the American Jewish elite and the rest of the community.

If the challenge coming out of the 2013 Pew Research Center’s Portrait of Jewish Americans was how to appeal to Jewish Millennials and their successors, then the entire premise of “Jewish Vitality” is fatally flawed. What we know from research and from direct experience, is that young American Jews want to affiliate with a community that looks like America, that looks like their peers, that looks like themselves.

America today is the Inclusion Nation, from immigration rights to marriage equality, to racial justice, to true diversity embracing Americans with disabilities. Few young Americans want to be part of an initiative that ignores the contributions of those with differing abilities and needs. And beyond alienating those young Jews who abhor a community that smacks of exclusionism, this process explicitly shuns our people with actual disabilities who represent fully 20 percent of that target population – with their families, that’s a wide swath of American Jewry.

The failure lies not just in the prescriptions, which are hardly new, but in the closed process within a vertical hierarchy. Like the results of so many inside-the-bubble conversations, the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” represents a laundry list of well-known initiatives, with the exhortation to “do more of that.” What’s missing is an inclusive process to achieve these lofty and somewhat obvious goals. Put simply, what’s missing is… vitality.

More important than the well-worn templates for education, Israel activities and advocacy, is the process by which these ideas are tabulated and ultimately – if played properly – implemented. Young Americans, and Jews no less, expect to be consulted, and not in small focus groups. This crowd-sourcing generation, these digital natives, won’t be impressed by solutions imposed by others. What they’re used to is open discussion; what alienates them is conventional thinking and business-as-usual consultations.

Including young American Jews, and showing them it’s an open and inclusive dialogue, will in itself constitute a sea change in how the organized community is perceived. Other than a chance, randomly generated phone call from Pew, when was the last time most young Jews were asked for their feedback or input? And when was the last time they saw a community that reminded them of themselves?

On so many issues, and clearly on disability inclusion – issues where Judaism literally wrote the book – the American Jewish community continues to lag behind mainstream American society. The signers of this old-new manifesto are legitimately respected, which is why reaching above and outside themselves could have sent a signal stronger than any parsing of survey data and program evaluations.

While some of the leaders on this list may represent future generations, the top-down process has to change. If we want to genuinely enlist the commitment and energy of young Jews in building their own, inclusive Jewish future, then we must include them in the process, hear them out, and allow them to help fashion the solutions. The real answers will be found by the young Jews themselves, or they won’t be found at all.

Jay Ruderman is the president of the Ruderman Family Foundation. He can be reached on Twitter @jayruderman.