Jewish Identity in The 21st Century

The Journal of Jewish Communal Service has a long, distinguished history. Among their many goals is to be “the journal of record and authority for Jewish communal leaders” that “documents the development of new trends and methodologies…”. They do this extraordinarily well.

The upcoming issue is titled, Strengthening the Jewish Community: The Role of Federation. A Case Study in New York (1999-2009) and celebrates the 10th anniversary of UJAFederation New York’s executive vice president and CEO, John Ruskay with the organization. Here is one of the articles.

by Jonathan Woocher

Strengthening Jewish identity has been part of the agenda of federations since their inception more than a century ago.

In the early years, when helping recent immigrants “adjust” to their new surroundings was an overriding concern, the aim was to help them develop a strong American Jewish identity. As federations evolved, so too did their interest in promoting positive Jewish identification among Jews.

During the dark years of the Great Depression and the even darker years of the Holocaust in Europe, even as direct financial support for Jewish education waned, federations made a decisive ideological shift – slowly but surely shedding their assimilationist roots and making “Jewish survival” their core raison d’etre.

It took several more decades for this shift to lead to a wholesale embrace of Jewish identity development as a federation priority. But, beginning in the 1960s, a growing chorus of voices urged federations to recognize that the future vitality of American Jewish life demanded a more serious effort on their part to strengthen Jewish education and identity. Federations were now publicly committed to making Jewish identity a prime concern alongside their traditional emphasis on human needs and support for Israel and Jews overseas.

The evolution was completed with the shock treatment administered by the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and what were interpreted as its alarming statistics about intermarriage and assimilation. It was in this context that the UJA-Federation of New York initiated its ground-breaking work to build “inspired and inspiring Jewish communities” through what is now the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. Under the leadership of John Ruskay and a cadre of outstanding volunteer and professional leaders, UJA-Federation has emerged as one of a handful of federations that have not only prioritized Jewish identity development but also pioneered innovative approaches to this work that have become models for the entire continent.

In his agenda-setting speech a decade ago, when he assumed the executive leadership of UJA-Federation, John Ruskay articulated what was then (and still remains) a bold and visionary strategy for strengthening Jewish identity: create communities that are tangible exemplars of vibrant, passionate, purposeful Jewish living, and individuals will be inspired to embrace it. Even today, the radical nature of this prescription is not fully appreciated.

What Ruskay recognized (and much research confirms) is that individuals are shaped by their social environments and that experience is by far the most powerful teacher. Hence, if we expose more individuals to rich Jewish environments – in synagogues, JCCs, summer camps, Hillels, day schools, and Israel – where they can see and feel what it means to be part of a community of serious Jewish learning and living, they will gravitate to these communities in their own searches for meaning and connectedness. This philosophy has guided the enormous investment that UJA-Federation has made in Jewish institutions over the past decade, as well as the thinking of a host of others who have embraced this strategy for strengthening Jewish identity. The two prongs of this strategy – increasing access to and use of these institutions and enhancing their quality – have been the pillars of UJA-Federation’s work.

It is not easy to assess the impact of identity development initiatives, especially on a community-wide scale. But, there is good reason to believe that UJA-Federation’s investments in synagogues and synagogue education, in Hillels, in sending larger numbers of young people to Israel through Birthright Israel and other programs, and in a variety of other initiatives have made a difference. They have established a new lens, a new vocabulary, and a new set of expectations for these institutions. What has been most admirable in UJA-Federation’s efforts is its willingness to stick with this investment and indeed to up the ante, recognizing that change takes time and that hit-and-run programs, even if lavishly funded, are unlikely to produce the kinds of fundamental changes that it has set as its goal.

At the same time, the world has changed since 1999, and it is to UJA-Federation’s credit that it has not stood pat. Not only has it been open to rethinking its strategies but it has also helped precipitate such rethinking broadly. Perhaps the most profound change that has taken place over the past decade is in how we understand Jewish identity itself and the ways in which it is expressed in the American context today.

What we have learned is that the century-long struggle between Jewish identity and assimilation is largely over – and both won! For many, perhaps most, younger American Jews, Jewishness is an inalienable dimension of who they are; we do not need to fear that they will “stop” being Jewish. However, the Jewishness they feel is often indistinct and highly personalized, existing alongside and intermingled with other identities. They are Jewish, but how and where they will express their identities is not a given. Traditional institutions often feel uncomfortable to them, and they do not recognize a priori claims on their loyalty from a “community” or a “people.” The challenge from a community perspective is how to encourage these individuals to “activate” their Jewishness.

The identity-development strategy of invigorating core institutions is, therefore, necessary but insufficient today. We have seen an explosion of Jewish activity in other settings and modes that are clearly important elements of the landscape of Jewish life for Jews who are not (or not yet) connecting with these core institutions. Again, it is notable that UJA-Federation has been among the leaders, not just among federations but among philanthropists generally, in supporting new ventures in Jewish learning, spirituality, social activism and service, and arts and culture that provide foci for both expressing and nurturing the kind of personally relevant, nonexclusive Jewish identity that many younger Jews feel.

We must strive to maintain a balance, even a healthy tension, between investing in what we know “works” and experimenting with new forms and new modalities of Jewish engagement and expressiveness, some of which may become the “core” experiences and settings of the next generation.

What lessons can we draw from the decade of UJA-Federation immersion in the work of strengthening Jewish identity?

First, federation leadership on these issues does not detract from, but rather complements and adds to its other historic roles. The overall impact and philanthropic credibility of UJA-Federation are greater than they otherwise would be because it has made critical investments.

Second, funding is only a small piece of what federations can contribute. UJA-Federation has been much more than a bankroller for identity initiatives. It has led through research, through convening, through catalyzing action, through partnering, and through evaluating.

Third, we have come to understand that in the work of strengthening Jewish identity we must pursue multiple paths.

When John Ruskay became executive vice president and CEO of the UJA-Federation of New York, he articulated a vision for a renewed Jewish community and challenged UJA-Federation to become the steward of that vision. The decade since has demonstrated the prescience and power of that vision and the capacity of a venerable institution to rise to that challenge.

Jonathan Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer at JESNA and Director of its Lippman Kanfer Institute, an action-oriented think tank for innovation in Jewish learning and engagement.

This article appears in The Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Vol. 85, No.1, Strengthening the Jewish Community: The Role of Federation. A Case Study in New York (1999-2009). Reprinted with permission.

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