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.