Jewish America’s New Crisis

By Karolyn Benger

Jewish American organizations are facing drastically new and radical problems never seen previously. In non-Orthodox communities there is a decline in synagogue membership and attendance. Throughout the country Federations are struggling and younger, less established Federations specifically, are under strain. Longstanding, traditional Jewish organizations are facing an absence of new members, particularly among the younger generation. These problems speak to fundamental crises within American Jewry.

This environment is the result of shifts in the Jewish American dynamic. Until these issues are addressed, or radically alternative solutions are presented, the non-Orthodox Jewish American community will continue to grow in a disparate trajectory from preceding generations. These shifts are:

  • A Different Relationship Between American Jews to the State of Israel
  • A Disconnection of Jews to Religious Observances
  • The Inability of Jewish Institutions to Relate to Multiple Generations

There has been a change within American Jewry’s relationship with Israel. This became visibly apparent following the 2017 Israeli government’s decision to support a bill ensuring the Chief Rabbinate maintains control of conversions in Israel and Prime Minister Netanyahu’s backpedaling on a deal to provide better space for egalitarian prayer at the Western Wall. Affiliated Jews in America are predominantly Conservative and Reform, whose religious practices are not fully embraced and accepted by the Israeli government which, for domestic political reasons, aligns itself with Ultra-Orthodox political parties. This creates an internal tension for American Jews: standing up for a country they’ve been taught to support for cultural, historical, and religious reasons, yet does not tolerate their religious practices. Further, while our religious education teaches students to support Israel it does not articulate the history and nuanced issues surrounding the creation of the state and its current conflict with the Palestinians. This gap in knowledge enables others to misinform and manipulate facts presented to our youth. Armed with one-sided, propaganda like factoids Jewish students enter college and are ripe for the recruitment of organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voices for Peace, etc. As a result, younger generations have a different perspective toward the state of Israel and want a different relationship with her.

Additionally, there is an institutional and generational gap in understandings of Israel itself. Israel is a strong state with a vibrant society and a robust economy. Its healthcare system is vastly superior to our own in preventative care and administrative infrastructure. It’s the undisputed “start up nation” with technological advances in the high tech industry and advances in environmental sustainability. Yet, Jewish American agencies actively fundraise for Israel. Many younger Jews question this; the Israel they toured on Birthright didn’t need their money. How our institutions relate to Israel, and the actions we take toward her, is critically important to whether they are able to relate to a younger audience.

Israel may not need American funds but it needs a strong American Jewry. Jews who are connected to their Judaism, its history, culture, and most importantly, religious ritual observances are more likely to support the state and ensure a vibrant Jewish American community. Jews who are connected to Judaism strengthen the communities and networks within which they live by being active and engaged in their religious and cultural institutions. As the growth of unaffiliated Jews in recent years has shown, it is not enough to teach a cultural history of Judaism and connection with the land of Israel without also including the religious observances. Jewish leaders and educators need to connect our people with the practice of our faith, ritual observances have withstood the test of time and ensured the communal survival of our people. It’s a virtuous circle: promoting religious observances while teaching about Jewish history, strengthens our youth’s connection with our people and ultimately promotes a strong Jewish community.

The final challenge we are facing is the inability of our institutions to relate to multiple generations simultaneously. Dr. Rehfeld noted in “Who Are Federation’s Customers? (Hint: They Are Not Our Donors)” (eJewish Philanthropy May 24, 2018) we are confusing our donors with the customer. This assessment, while accurate, extends beyond the Federation. Further, it is not the problem but a symptom of the problem of organizations’ inability to connect to multiple generations simultaneously.

Jewish organizations must be more representative of the communities they serve. Boards should be inclusive, representing diverse generations within a community and not only those with the financial means of supporting them. Technology can be utilized to facilitate meetings during the day so younger members working full time can participate from their office during a lunch break. Jewish professionals should seek out new lay leaders to avoid the “musical chairs” phenomenon that is characteristic of so many Jewish boards and results in groupthink and organizational atrophy. Organizations that create boards which are more accessible and representative of the community will be more receptive to their community members’ needs and, as a result, more effective in meeting them.

These problems are interconnected and build off each other. Organizations and activities whose purpose is to support a model of Israel, as understood from the past, only attracts and maintains an older generation. This does not appeal to younger members who fail to see the relevance of those agencies or activities and do not see their peers at meetings. The result is a recycling of the same people, the same missions, and organizational atrophy ensues.

It is time to have a community introspection and multigenerational conversations about the needs and interests of our more diverse Jewish communities and these discourses need to occur at the local level. The old organizational structures of top down leadership are not capable of addressing the changing generational and regional nuances. Each community must create its own model that is reflective of its needs, values, and culture rather than rely on one structure applied across the nation. This new model may prove to be more adaptive and responsive to future crises than top down models.

Karolyn Benger is the owner of KB Enterprise, a nonprofit consulting firm, and was the founding Executive Director of the newly created Jewish Community Relations Council in Phoenix and previously she served as the Executive Director of the Jewish Interest Free Loan of Atlanta. She is a graduate of Emory University and has taught at Emory University, Georgia Tech, and Emerson College.