Left Behind

[eJP note] Yesterday, in Change of Generation, Bob Goldfarb presented some initial thoughts on the newly released Generation of Change study released by the Avi Chai Foundation. Here is part 2.

The Avi Chai Foundation’s new study, “Generation of Change,” highlights the sizeable support given to an elite group of Jews between the ages of 20 and 40 in recent years. This investment in risk and change has yielded a startling number of new options for expressing and enacting Jewishness: organizations working for social justice and human rights, new religious communities, websites offering access to Jewish resources, cultural programs, groups for recreational activities, and communal living organizations.

Collectively these new entities have dramatically reinvigorated Jewish life – for those who participate in them. But relatively few do. While the largest religious movements count a million adherents, members of independent minyanim number in the tens of thousands nationwide. The emerging social and cultural organizations are decentralized, and they reach many fewer people than Federations or JCCs. They have much smaller staffs, and they serve their publics in more specialized ways.

A hundred years ago Jewish organizational life was similarly fragmented. For reasons of logistics, governance, and fund-raising, many of the individual entities chose to merge, resulting in the united appeals and combined philanthropies that became characteristic of Jewish communal life. That shift reduced overlap and duplication and gave the resulting larger organizations much greater impact.

By the end of the twentieth century, however, the major tasks of rescuing Jews from peril and poverty had largely been achieved. Despite slogans that claimed “We Are One,” the old unity around external threats had largely dissipated and pluralism had become the dominant value. The logic of centralization had become much less persuasive.

Nonetheless there was a rear-guard effort to draw Jews back to traditional institutions, first to persuade people to come back to synagogues, then more generally to “engage the unaffiliated.” Some synagogues have succeeded in reinventing themselves, but most are still languishing. And the efforts geared to the unaffiliated have yet to yield engagement in large numbers or for the long term.

There are two ways of reacting to these trends. One way holds out the hope that a new narrative, like Peoplehood, can restore Jewish unity. The other, more entrepreneurial, approach, favors creating specialized points of access to Jewish life for those who want them. The philanthropic strategy of leadership-training in effect incorporates both, proposing to serve the Jewish community at large through creative responses to a range of contemporary needs.

In practice that strategy embodies a paradox: supporting a small, elite group of social entrepreneurs and creative people in the name of attracting the millions of Jews who are unaffiliated. It assumes that the masses can be reached by proxy: fund the leaders, and the rest will follow. In the same way that venture capitalists invest in startups, foundations have invested in bright, talented, committed, knowledgeable, well-connected young people, hoping that a few of their ideas will revive Jewish life in the way iPhones and Facebook have transformed popular culture.

Yet there is a huge gap between the rhetoric and the reality. The goal is to engage unaffiliated Jews, while the effect is to support an elite. The vision is to breathe new life into the American Jewish community; the result is an array of specialized nonprofits that collectively lack the capacity to serve more than a small minority of the Jewish population.

The unspoken, optimistic assumption is that many Jews will return to the fold if they are offered new ways to connect with Jewish interests and values, and as they do, these innovative organizations will grow to meet the demand. There is an understandable reluctance to confront the other possibility: that the demand will not grow much, because most American Jews no longer want or need to be involved in communal life. We want to believe that they will come back if they are offered experiences they like, but there is no evidence that that will happen in large numbers.

All this points to a future population of affiliated Jews who are smaller in number yet more knowledgeable and more deeply involved – much like the leaders studied in “Generation of Change.” What about the rest of the Jews? A believer in the marketplace might ask: if unaffiliated people are content with their choices, why should the community try to change their minds? A traditionalist might answer that Jews need one another and are responsible for one another, and it would be wrong not to have a place for everyone. A pragmatist might say that everyone is welcome but we have to reckon with the social and economic realities of contemporary Jewish life.

The time has come to face some fundamental questions. Do we really want a much smaller but more committed American Jewish community? Is there a way to scale down while preserving a sense of responsibility for the Jewish collective? Do we have a choice?

Many thanks to Jack Wertheimer for his explanations and thoughtful observations.

Bob Goldfarb, a regular contributor to eJewishPhilanthropy, has conducted research studies for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. He is president of the Center for Jewish Culture and Creativity.