Foster Relationships, Build Bridges

keep-calm-and-build-bridges-4I believe in clal yisrael – a sense of shared community among all Jews – and I believe that individual Jews (and the Jewish collective) benefit from participating in tightly-knit communities.

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

by Sarah Bunin Benor

Since the Pew Research Center released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” in early October, I have read and participated in many discussions about the findings. Several scholars and communal leaders have reacted with alarm, but the responses that have resonated most with me and some of my colleagues have been more optimistic. My take is that the study finds an increasingly diverse Jewish population and points to several opportunities for organizations and funders to foster relationships and build bridges among diverse sectors of the community.

On the one hand, the study finds growth in the percentage of Jews who report little or no connection with Jewish organizations. On the other hand, it finds an increasingly committed and numerous Orthodox population (27 percent of Jewish children live in Orthodox households). Funders should continue to concentrate on programs that will educate Jews and encourage them to “do Jewish with other Jews” (to quote Hillel International’s former mission statement), and they should also strive to build bridges between non-Orthodox and Orthodox Jews.

Individuals’ reactions to the Pew results are necessarily influenced by their values. I personally believe that Jews should marry the people they love, and I believe that our current intermarriage numbers indicate a positive trend: increasing acceptance within American society. Many Jews, especially in the older generation and within Orthodox and immigrant populations, hold a strongly opposing view that intermarriage is bad. I would argue that expressing that value is counterproductive. When young Jews – many of whom are inter-married – get wind of Jewish leaders treating intermarriage as a disease, they may feel rejected and turned off from participation in Jewish communal organizations. When they read about scholars and others calling the results of the Pew study “devastating” and saying that “the sky is falling,” they may feel that their personal decisions are on trial.

In fact, instead of complaining that the intermarriage rate is so high, we should be marveling that it is so low. In this era of cross-cultural relationships, especially in metropolitan areas where Jews tend to live, wouldn’t we expect a higher percentage of Jews to marry non-Jews? Why are only 44 percent of Jews married to non-Jews? I think the most important answer to this is that communal organizations – synagogues, schools, youth groups, Hillels and other Jewish organizations – are creating opportunities for Jews to get to know other Jews.

Our Jewish organizations are currently reaching a large percentage of Jews. Sixty-seven percent of Jewish respondents in the Pew study participated in some kind of formal Jewish education. And 58 percent report that they attend Jewish religious services at a synagogue or other place of worship at least a few times a year. But we can’t expect a majority of Jews to participate beyond their bar/bat mitzvah or to attend services more than a few times a year unless they get hooked. How do we encourage Jews to get hooked? As Ron Wolfson argues convincingly in his book Relational Judaism (Jewish Lights, 2013), people participate in communal life not because of the quality programs or the impressive buildings but because of their relationships (social, not romantic).

What does the Pew study say about the current state of Jewish relationships? Seventy-nine percent of Jews have at least some close friends who are Jewish, and even among “Jews of no religion,” this statistic is quite high: two-thirds. Clearly there is some informal Jewish network infrastructure in place, and communal professionals and volunteers can tap into it to build more relationships and foster even more dense networks.

Funders can play a central role in this by investing in a Chief Community Builder within every Jewish institution. The CCB would lead a team of relationship builders to foster Jewish social networks. Members of this team would develop strong personal relationships with Jews who have participated in an event and with others they find through the friend-of-friend approach. They would invite individuals for coffee or dinner and find out what they’re passionate about. Then they would connect them with other Jews who have similar interests and encourage them to participate in activities and create communities that are meaningful to them – at synagogues and other organizations, in public spaces and, perhaps most importantly, in private homes.

This kind of social engineering is already happening in several organizations, including Hillel, Chabad and the Kavana Cooperative in Seattle. And other organizations are building strong Jewish networks. This is especially true among groups that offer intensive experiences away from an individual’s regular life (like summer camps, summer Yiddish programs, farming collectives, service learning trips and year-long cooperatives) and groups that meet regularly (like Torah study groups, artists’ collectives, minyanim, social-justice fellowships and giving circles). Funders are in a unique position to incentivize participation in these instances of intensive and sustained Jewish communal engagement – and not just among young adults.

Funders are also in a unique position to build bridges, in the interest of Jewish unity, between Jews who would not normally interact with one another. Organizations like CLAL, the Wexner Foundation, Boards of Rabbis and Boards of Jewish Education have long been convening Jews of diverse denominational orientations, and new groups like Encounter, the Jewish Dialogue Group and Resetting the Table are building bridges among Jews with diverse views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Funders can encourage bridging activities like these as well as others that bring together Jews ranging from secular to Haredi (including diverse Hasidic and Yeshivish groups, not only Chabad).

Just as any philanthropist makes funding decisions based on his or her values, I offer these suggestions for funding priorities based on what is important to me. I believe in clal yisrael – a sense of shared community among all Jews – and I believe that individual Jews (and the Jewish collective) benefit from participating in tightly-knit communities. The Pew report offers an opportunity to put our values into action. I believe we should seize the moment and work together to create stronger Jewish communities.

Sarah Bunin Benor, Ph.D., is Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Studies at Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion (Los Angeles campus). She teaches and writes about American Jewish language, identity and community, and she served on the advisory panel for the Pew study.