Facts, Meaning and Leadership

Facts never speak for themselves. Information is easy; meaning and interpretation are hard, as we are reminded every time the results of a new survey are released. Now that we have the summary findings of the Avi Chai Foundation’s study of young Jewish leaders, the real work begins as we figure out the implications of the data for communal policy.

Let’s start with the report that two-thirds of these leaders attended Jewish summer camp. That sounds like a ringing endorsement of Jewish camp as a means of strengthening ties to the community. But then, what about the finding that these leaders want to be inclusive of non-Jews in their programming? To the extent that’s true they would presumably want to include non-Jews in summer camp. That would be a sea change, and would produce consequences that we can only guess at.

In general there’s a tension between the findings about the benefits of homogeneously Jewish experiences – days schools and study programs in Israel, as well as camp – and the growing interest in expressing Jewish identity in more universal contexts like environmentalism and social justice. It would be fascinating to know if these young leaders expect to send their own children to Jewish day schools and summer camps, or if they believe their children will be more fulfilled in a context that is more “rich, diverse, and inclusive,” to quote the standard trope.

There’s also the larger question of how much the preferences of young Jews and their leaders ought to determine policy. According to the Avi Chai study, they “are critical of federations, traditional synagogues and agencies that engage in protective activities,” and they specifically do not feel threatened by anti-Semitism. This might suggest that communal institutions ought to de-emphasize programs intended to counter anti-Semitism.

But perception is not the same as reality. To take a very different example, many gay men do not feel threatened by HIV/AIDS and accordingly engage in unprotected sex, resulting in the transmission of the virus. The fact that they do not feel threatened by the disease, and see no need for protection, does not mean the threat doesn’t exist.

It is easy to say that we should simply find out what younger Jews want and offer it to them. That’s the way the marketplace works: the winner is whoever satisfies the most customers. But a marketplace takes no responsibility for communal welfare in the long run. The marketplace delivers the food people want, and as a result one in every three American adults is obese. Investors like to follow the maxim “the trend is your friend” because that’s how you make money, not because it makes the world a better place.

It is easier to take an opinion poll than to make difficult decisions, but it is not enough to know what people do and think and like. The real task is to meld their wishes into shared purposes and design an effective plan for achieving those purposes. It takes leadership, including the willingness to make decisions for the long term that may be unpopular in the short term. That’s our biggest challenge.

Bob Goldfarb, the president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity, is a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy. He also writes the “At Home Abroad” blog for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal. He lives in Jerusalem.