Now is the time to invest — in Jews of different backgrounds

Yossi Prager identified a critical opportunity for the Jewish community in his opinion piece last week, “Feeding the hunger for Jewish belonging and education” (eJewishPhilanthropy, Jan. 19). He noted that since Oct. 7, “a significant number of [young Jews] also want a greater understanding of what it means to be Jewish,” and argued that we have a narrow window of opportunity to leverage this newfound demand. This should create “a profound sense of urgency,” he wrote. “Jewish funders have the opportunity to act now to robustly support effective Jewish education/identity organizations that are seeing the increased demand.”

I want to offer two additional angles to Prager’s insight about this urgent moment of opportunity: First, funding decisions in this moment are at least as important as COVID-era investments; and second, that there is an overlooked population that is emerging in this moment of renewed demand — and we should not ignore them.

Both crises, but different

The opportunity — and the need —  to invest now is even greater than in the peak of COVID. Four years ago, the Jewish philanthropic community jumped in to make investments in nonprofits that were retooling to respond to the shifts in demand driven by the pandemic. This was epitomized by the Jewish Community Response and Impact Fund (JCRIF). The JCRIF provided emergency loans, but also identified the moment as a chance to make grants that would enable organizations to take advantage of new opportunities “opened” by COVID. 

For instance, many of these investments bet on virtual engagement as a critical mode of the future, from online education to food tours to revamped High Holiday services. Indeed, these were important investments at a time when the future was completely uncertain, and nonprofits needed funders to support their attempts to pivot. While many of these programs ended up being most effective in the moment of lockdown, the 2020 investments fueled the next stage of growth in these nonprofits and allowed them to grow in an environment that otherwise might have seen substantial — and avoidable — contraction.

Today’s crisis is different. While COVID was universal, the post-Oct. 7 moment is limited to the Jewish community. In 2020, unrestricted government support, in the form of the Paycheck Protection Program loan, sent immediate relief to the nonprofit sector; today, no U.S.-government program will step in to help Jewish nonprofits (outside of grants for physical security). In addition, thanks to inflation, the dollar is not as strong as it was four years ago (it takes $1.17 today to purchase what $1 purchased in 2020). All this means that nonprofits are more vulnerable than they were in 2020.

At the same time, the S&P Index is at an all-time high and foundations have more resources than ever. Investments beyond the short-term emergency relief for Israel can have massive payout, because the underlying demand for Jewish engagement is less ephemeral than lockdown-era programs. If ever there was a time to invest in the infrastructure of Jewish education and engagement, it is now.

A wider demand than you realize

It is also critical to recognize that the demand for Jewish engagement in this moment is not limited to people who had little to no Jewish background but are now suddenly curious and open to exploring. To be sure, this is a critical group to engage — but there is also significant demand from young Jews who have had some Jewish education but moved away from the community. This is an oft-overlooked population, and it is one that is critical to the future of the Jewish community and the robustness of the pool of future Jewish leaders. 

Consider the recent college graduate who went to day school through eighth grade and attended Jewish overnight camp, but has not seriously engaged with Jewish community in the past four to five years. Perhaps they did not reject their Jewish background so much as moved away from it; maybe other priorities slowly got in the way. This is still a tragic loss for the Jewish world: someone who was once connected to Jewish life is now no longer connected to Jewish community in any meaningful way. 

In this moment there is an opportunity to welcome this person back to Jewish life, provided that the right program and community is there for them. I have seen this story play out repeatedly in the last few months. For example, Hadar’s decade-old college break learning program saw its greatest demand ever this past month. A number of these college students said the reason they wanted to spend a week of their break immersed in the thick of the Jewish community was because they had asked themselves anew: What are my priorities in life? Where is my community? They realized that spending immersive time with other Jews engaged in deep Jewish learning — something that they hadn’t done in years, if ever — was at the top of their list. Many of these students had some day school background or overnight camp experience, but they hadn’t pressed further in their Jewish journey in a while. Now was the moment they wanted to step back in.

Some might argue that communal resources should be focused only on those with little to no background; after all, people with some day school or camp experience are already “in the fold.” My experience tells me otherwise: that young people with some Jewish education are a critical investment opportunity precisely because we have invested so much in them already; and that in today’s society, unfortunately, no young Jew is guaranteed to be “in the fold” permanently. 

It is a tragedy when young people never experience the power of Jewish learning and engagement. It is also a tragedy when those who have, as children or teens, move away from Jewish community without taking the next step in. 

Today’s environment is forcing Jews to reexamine their priorities and their communities. The moment for deeper investment is ripe, and the population that can benefit from it is broad: from people with no background to those with a deeper background but looking for a pathway back into the community. Let’s not miss any of these opportunities.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is the CEO of the Hadar Institute.