“Jewish Continuity” at 25: What Did We Achieve? What Have We Learned?

Jewish star highlightsBy Jonathan Woocher

It isn’t really the 25th anniversary of what came to be called the “Jewish continuity” endeavor in North America. The first Continuity Commission was established in Cleveland before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was mounted; and the first results of the 1990 NJPS – including the alarm-ringing, hand-wringing statistic of a 52% intermarriage rate – didn’t appear until the calendar had turned. But, 1990 is a convenient enough date to mark the beginning of a significant effort that has unfolded over the past two and a half decades aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and engagement among American Jews, many of whom, it was argued then and since (viz. the reactions to the 2013 Pew study) are in danger of or are already being lost to Jewish life as active participants.

I’ve been part of and a witness to these efforts. In addition to heading up JESNA, the federation system’s continental Jewish education agency for much of that time, I staffed the national Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity during the 1990s and the Jewish Renaissance and Renewal Pillar and Alliance for then-UJC in the 2000s. I probably wrote more words and gave more speeches about “Jewish continuity” and “renaissance” – most now happily forgotten – than any other individual. So, asking what we achieved and what we learned from the hundreds of initiatives launched and the millions of dollars spent is of more than academic interest to me. But, the real value in asking these questions lies in how they might affect our actions going forward. Whether or not one believes that Jewish continuity in North America is endangered today (I do not), efforts to make Jewish life more vibrant and to broaden and deepen the connection that Jews feel to it and the fulfillment they derive from it should and will continue. What can the past teach us for the present and the future?

We might start by asking whether the Jewish continuity endeavor actually achieved anything notable. My answer: If we are referring to the sum total of the activity that was in some way stimulated by or aligned with the rhetorical calls for action that followed the 1990 population study, then the endeavor did in fact achieve a great deal. There’s an important qualifier here. With the notable exception of a few communities, the formal, federation-led local and national continuity initiatives that garnered much attention at the time had at best marginal impacts (and I include those in which I was personally involved). But two other phenomena emerged at least in part as a result of the heightened focus on “Jewish continuity” post-1990 that have had a transformative impact, if not on demographic statistics (though their effects may now be being felt there as well), then certainly on the volume, nature, and quality of Jewish activity in North America. These are, first, the emergence of a vigorous innovation sector in American Jewish life, and, second, the rise of foundations, especially so-called mega-funders, as agenda setters, catalysts, and resource providers for a wave of new initiatives, some unprecedentedly massive in their ambition and reach.

There is not space here to tell the stories of both of these developments (at times interconnected) in detail. But, together, they have altered the landscape of North American Jewish life in dramatically positive ways. Birthright Israel and PJ Library alone have engaged hundreds of thousands of Jewish individuals. First day schools and more recently Jewish camps have experienced dramatic growth, powered by philanthropic dollars. Venerable organizations like Hillel and BBYO have been revitalized. Synagogues too made efforts to become more visionary and welcoming. And, a host of new Jewish programs and organizations, often started in the Jewish equivalent of garages, are now reaching adolescence and impacting tens of thousands of individuals and families: Hadar, Moishe House, Hazon, G-dcast, Mayyim Hayyim, Kevah, Reboot, Ikar, LabShul, and dozens more. In a number of instances, federations have aligned themselves with and added their support to these endeavors. So, even if not as initiators or as the architects of “master plans” for Jewish continuity, central communal institutions have had a supporting actor role in the flowering of Jewish life over the past quarter century.

I don’t mean to imply that all of these efforts have been an unqualified success. Many Jews still do not find sufficient value in what they perceive Jewish life has to offer to induce them to partake seriously and consistently. Many legacy institutions are having a difficult time adjusting to new patterns of Jewish self-expression that continuity efforts neither could nor should have channeled into conventional forms of affiliation. But, acute observers like Jonathan Sarna and Steven M. Cohen reminded us early on that only “discontinuity” – radical change in key areas – could ever lead to “continuity,” i.e., ongoing vibrant Jewish life in North America. In fact, there never was really any choice in the matter. Grassroots Jews, and the gentiles who increasingly were joining them as life partners and family members, have been changing the shape of Jewish life in myriad ways. And, while some find these changes threatening to Jewish continuity, I have difficulty sharing their alarm. I read the balance sheet of changes since 1990 as a substantially positive one – there are many more opportunities for Jews to express and enrich their Jewishness through Jewish learning, spiritual life, social activism, philanthropic generosity, connection with Israel, communal fellowship, and Jewish culture than existed 25 years ago, and there are large numbers of Jews doing so (even if not as many as we might like). They’re just not necessarily doing it in the places and ways of the past.

Only a fraction of this activity can be credited directly to the work of Jewish continuity commissions or committees. But, these endeavors and the rhetoric that accompanied them – overly alarmist and self-important as it may have been – helped create an environment in which new ideas could get a hearing, and some funding. And, these, in turn have produced positive change in Jewish life.

Are there lessons in all this for what we do next? I would cite several:

  1. The key to success is understanding what people are seeking, and finding ways to meet their needs and aspirations, not getting them to fulfill ours. Humans are motivated in all aspects of their lives by a few fundamental drivers: a desire for autonomy and agency – to be able to choose our life’s path; a quest for meaning and purpose – to believe that our lives count for something and have direction; a need for connection – relationships and community; and a sense of efficacy – feeling that we are able to progress, to succeed, to make a difference. To the extent that Jewish ideas, practices, experiences and institutions are able to help individuals find these, we will have a good chance to gain their involvement and enthusiasm. If Jewish life fails to provide these, why would we expect anyone to engage deeply with it?
  2. We can’t control the course of events, but we can influence it. There are forces at work affecting Jewish life that we cannot reverse, and there are limits to the extent that any program or institution can alter broad social trends (like intermarriage). But, we can change some things (like the numbers of intermarried families who choose to identify Jewishly), and that’s where we should focus our efforts. We need to be smart, strategic, and modest in our expectations from any single program or institution. We need lots of different things to engage lots of different – and diverse – people. And, we need to stop pitting one intervention against another as if there were one right answer – not day school, not Israel, not summer camp, though each of these is part of the big, multi-dimensional ecosystem we need to create.
  3. We have to be willing to act boldly, take some risks and make some mistakes. And, increasingly, that bold action needs to be taken not at the so-called margins of organizational life (where entrepreneurs have been operating for years), but at the center of what we have thought of as the organized Jewish community. It is not that we cannot survive the decline and perhaps even demise of synagogues, federations, national organizations, and other fixtures on the 20th century Jewish landscape. But, we will be a lot better off if those institutions can renew and revitalize – which almost surely will require radical changes in how they operate. In the meantime, we need to figure out ways to provide sufficient resources to the new institutions that have emerged, none of which are yet ready to take center stage, but which will inevitably be asked to play greater roles going forward.
  4. Top down planning, no. Collective impact, yes. Individual initiative (programmatic and philanthropic), more than communal plans, powered the progress of the past quarter century. Yet, to fully capitalize on what has been built thus far, we need to do a much better job in connecting and coordinating the opportunities that have been created, making them visible, accessible, and mutually reinforcing. This is hard work that must be done from the bottom up and the inside out. But it can, as the work on collective impact has shown, benefit from skilled backbone organizations, and it needs investment in synergy- and system-building, not only in programs and institutions. There are signs that organizations and funders are ready to take this next step. It’s important that they do so.
  5. We need new and better language for the important conversations we will be having. Truthfully, almost no one has talked about “Jewish continuity” in years. Its rhetorical days are over, and rightfully so. Soon, “Jewish identity” may join it as a term so vague and contentless that using it to describe our aspirations for Jewish life does those aspirations an injustice. People don’t seek “continuity” or “identity”; they seek wisdom for their lives, values to guide them, emotional depth, spiritual elevation, friends and family to share their joys and sorrows, triumphs and failures. Jewish tradition and experience have produced language with which to talk about these things that matter, and practices through which to pursue them. We need to be using, and adding to, that language and those practices as we plan our programs and shape our institutions. Authenticity and relevance must be wedded together. At Lippman Kana Foundation for Living Torah, where I now work, we speak about “Jewish sensibilities” – characteristic ways that Jews perceive and respond to life’s events, opportunities, and challenges – as providing a vocabulary for constructing a fulfilling and responsible Jewish and human life. These sensibilities – like “lech lecha,” the readiness to seek out new paths; Shabbat, setting aside time for reflection, renewal, and celebration; “elu v’elu,” seeing truth in multiple places; and “brit,” recognizing our fundamental solidarity as Jews and as humans – can speak to our everyday lives in a distinctively Jewish voice. Ultimately, this is what “Jewish continuity” should have been about: equipping Jews – and others, if they so wish – with the motivation, ability, and opportunity to utilize Jewish teaching and practice to live better lives and shape a better world.

So, 25 years on, was the endeavor worth it? I think so. Not because it created a demographic revolution or saved the Jewish community from disappearing – which it was and is not in danger of doing. But, because by beginning with worries about quantity, it led to initiatives that have greatly improved the quality of American Jewish life. It did not ensure that every Jew would be learned and observant, or even just engaged and active. But, it has encouraged individuals and organizations to develop and support new opportunities and vehicles for Jews and their fellow travelers to encounter Jewish ideas, make Jewish friends, adopt and adapt Jewish practices, and enact Jewish values. That is not a small achievement.

Jonathan Woocher is President of Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, which works to help Jews and others engage with apply Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to live better lives and shape a better world.