Energizing American Jews

by Abigail Pickus

In the four years since Scott Shay made headlines with his controversial book, Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry (Devora Publishing), this New York banker and Jewish activist remains as committed as ever to building a flourishing Jewish future.

With a day job as Chairman of the Board of Signature Bank, his Jewish commitments include chairing the Lapid Israel Advisory Board, sitting on the UJA – Jewish Federation of New York board, of which he was a former chair of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal and serving as a member of the Birthright Israel Steering Committee.

Looking back on the ten “planks” he proposed in his book that run the gamut from calling for mandatory funding for Jewish day schools and boosting the Birthright Israel program to – one that touched a nerve – admonishing Jewish singles to marry and procreate earlier to make a dent in the demographic crisis, Shay acknowledges that he had some hits and some misses.

“I think that the challenge of sustaining day school is even bigger than when I first wrote about it,” said Shay, who called the strains on the day school financial structure “humungous.” Despite this, he remains committed to figuring out ways to make day schools more affordable.

One surprising success has been his idea for a “chai mitzvah,” a bar or bat mitzvah renewal every 18 years. His idea even sparked a nonprofit Chai Mitzvah program based on the East Coast that Shay says is a “grassroots success program” with 200 people completing the program last year and interest being expressed in Israel for similar programs.

One constant that Shay continues to support is the long-term impact of sending young Diaspora Jews to Israel. Taglit-Birthright, for example, is a shining success story, having brought thousands of young Jews from across the world to Israel in just over a decade – with another 22,000 already registered for winter trips. The relative newcomer on the scene is Lapid Israel, a coalition of 20 Israel programs for high schoolers that was founded in 2008.

“Right now in the Jewish [world], in an age when everyone is interpreting their own meaning and their own individualistic way of tradition, Israel is our compass,” said Shay. “Creating experiences where Diaspora Jews spend time in Israel – whether they plan on making aliyah or not – is more than crucial, it is essential, because it gives them that sense of Peoplehood.”

This is not just a feeling, but a fact backed up by research that found that Israel experiences are at least as effective as other significant Jewish identity experiences, including day school, according to Shay.

Shay even went so far as to call the most “successful Diaspora initiatives since end of WWII day schools and Birthright in terms of game changers.”

Lapid, whose members are predominately Reform, Conservative, Zionist and pluralistic, represents a new challenge because it offers a new concept in Israel summer trips.

“With Lapid what is a new is that it is organized in a different way because these summer trips are abstracted away from individual movements. What they are saying is they deserve Peoplehood funding, a commitment by the entire Jewish people regardless of where you sit. I can’t guarantee that it will succeed as there are no guarantees, but at least it is a new initiative,” said Shay.

Another area that concerns Shay is Jewish giving. He has been an outspoken advocate for encouraging more Jews to give to Jewish causes – a formidable task, indeed.

“All the data that I’ve seen indicates that 90% of Jewish giving went to general causes. I do think it is import for American Jews to support greater causes but at the same time, I do think there needs to be somewhat of a recalibration because we would lose our future Jewish givers if we focus on the universal at the expense of the particular,” he said.

While Shay finds it frustrating that more Jews aren’t focused on Jewish philanthropy, he sees evidence to show that there is a slight shift in that direction. What has helped is the broadening of what is considered Jewish causes these days with an explosion in unique organizations like the American Jewish World Service whose “mission is meaningful to those who would otherwise not consider [Jewish] giving,” said Shay.

On the downside, philanthropy for 2012 looks bleak across the board. “It will be a very challenging year philanthropically throughout, more so than 2011 or even 2010,” said Shay referring to the economic crisis that is hitting America in general.

All this is definitely food for thought, which is a good thing for Shay who, while he has yet to “put pen to paper” is mulling over some meaty ideas for his next book.