“Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action” – Where Do We Go From Here?

I share the signatories’ alarm about the demographic trends, but I’m aching for a passionate vision for why it should matter.

By Aaron Dorfman

I’ve read and re-read the Call to Action, and feel moved to share some thoughts about how to capitalize on the vision put forward in the document and move the conversation forward. I do so with humility: I hold the signatories in great esteem; I am well aware of the political complexity of drafting a manifesto by committee; and I share the signatories’ deep commitment to the Jewish people and its role in the world. I hope these questions and reflections serve to enrich our collective deliberations at this critical inflection point for our community.

1. Let’s start with what makes the Jewish community worth preserving.

I share the signatories’ alarm about the demographic trends, but I’m aching for a passionate vision for why it should matter. What value does a thriving, vibrant Jewish community offer to the world? If we’re arguing survival for survival’s sake – that the Jewish community should continue to exist because it has existed for a long time – I think the battle is already lost.

The answer is multi-dimensional and complex and profoundly and brilliantly contested. It should include diverse articulations of Judaism’s value: What an amazing assignment for a crowd-sourced vision statement for the Jewish people, from the grassroots to the g’dolei ha-dor! Here’s some of what I’d offer:

  • Judaism offers a powerful and nuanced ethical framework that can guide us in confronting moral dilemmas in our personal lives and inform our pursuit of justice in the broader world.
  • Judaism sets forth an elegant and humane architecture for navigating the inexorable passage of time – from the weekly recalibration of Shabbat to the annual cycle of holidays that reconnect us with our history and the rhythms of the natural world to the way stations that mark the progress and critical inflection points of a human life – birth, adolescence, marriage, and death.
  • Judaism maintains a spiritual vocabulary for confronting the awesome mysteries – ecstatic and tragic and mundane all – of existence.
  • Judaism’s approach to learning – blending deep respect for tradition with a commitment to innovation and creativity – offers a template for grounded, sustainable, and adaptable social evolution. It’s the prototypical model for answering the question, “How do we draw on our history and experience to inform our approaches to the new problems and opportunities that confront us?”

Framing this Call to Action with a positive vision statement – instead of grounding it in fear and anxiety – would go a long way toward animating and inspiring action.

2. What is the marketing, engagement, and organizing strategy that accompanies the Call to Action?

Too often, calls to action emerge from keynote speeches and blue-ribbon panels; echo through the website comment sections, kiddush buffet lines, and conference hallway encounters; and then fade away. As illustrious and expansive as the signatory list is for this Call to Action, in the absence of a marketing, engagement, and organizing strategy, I fear it is destined for the same fate.

What would it look like for the signatories to the Call to Action to commit to convening the communities of which they’re a part – synagogue boards, funders’ round tables, local boards of rabbis, movement task forces, chavurot, independent minyan study sessions, etc. – to discuss the Call to Action, garner feedback, design solutions, and begin to implement them? What backbone entity could serve as the central convening authority for the collective impact effort necessary to work this problem over the long-term, to learn from what is working where, why, and how, and to help draw out lessons that can be adapted in new settings and inspire new solutions? A bold call to action needs to anticipate, plan for, and enable the call to be answered.

3. To what extent are we missing out on the innovative problem-solving approaches that outside expertise could offer?

When I read the Call to Action, I was struck by the fact that the authors/signatories were all Jewish community/establishment insiders and that the proposed solutions – while important and thoughtful – felt pretty vanilla in the face of the challenges we’re confronting.

I was in Iceland this summer and learned that, following Iceland’s epic economic meltdown in 2008, the country’s business leadership got together and commissioned McKinsey to “develop an independent perspective on the current state of the Icelandic economy and its future priorities.” McKinsey responded with a crisp and objective 100-page report entitled “Charting a Growth Path for Iceland,” which is meaningfully informing public and business policy in that country and laying the groundwork for more stable growth over the long term.

There’s no question that the Jewish community has extraordinary internal expertise to draw on, and there’s no question that we know our own business better than anyone, but I fear that we’re failing to tap into remarkable resources, external to the organized Jewish community, that could offer innovative approaches, ask us tough questions we might not be willing to ask ourselves (at least publicly), and provide the kind of objective (or at least alternative) perspective that only outsiders can offer.

And it doesn’t have to be just McKinsey, though I’d love to see McKinsey’s 100-page report entitled “Charting a Growth Path for American Judaism.” It could be IDEO’s human-centered design approach to reimagining a 21st-Century Judaism for our missing millions. Or a positive deviance analysis of what we can learn and apply from the outlier/bright spot Jewish communities that are thriving in the midst of our broader demographic decline. Or a crowd-sourcing platform that solicits innovative solutions from across the Jewish community, like the XQ Super School Project that’s working to re-imagine and re-design high school in America.

None of these approaches will offer a panacea, but we’re confronting enormous challenges, and bringing new and creative voices into the mix can only enrich our understanding and diversify our tool kit. It’s also important to acknowledge that this kind of external consultation is expensive, but the resources represented by the signatories to the Call to Action would be more than sufficient for these kinds of investments. There are so many incredible problem-solving tools and technologies out there, and I fear that, in our occasionally overstated exceptionalism, we’re not taking full advantage. Indeed, many of the lead authors and designers of some of the most powerful innovations of the last decades have been crafted by Jewish hands. What might we learn from those “outsiders” who are also insiders?

4. Have we scoped the problem/solution set too narrowly?

The Call to Action articulates a series of interventions designed to stem the tide of Jewish disaffiliation: How do we get the un-/inter-married, under-reproducing, and under-engaged Jews to in-marry, become more vibrantly engaged, and have and raise vibrantly engaged children? According to Pew, there are 7.8 million “Jews by religion, Jews of no religion and people of Jewish background” in America. The interventions described in the Call to Action are presumably targeted toward some subset of this population. To catalyze a sustainable demographic trajectory for the American Jewish community by focusing exclusively on these 7.8 million people, nearly half of whom are seriously disaffected in some way, we’d have to engineer a nearly perfectly conceived and executed turnaround program for American Judaism.

If, instead, we shifted our focus toward creating a vibrant American Jewish community that was open to anyone who wanted to join and promoted membership in the Jewish people as an attractive and meaningful path for all Americans, we could achieve the same numerical results with a 1% success rate. In other words, what would it look like if we abandoned the Jewish community’s longstanding aversion to proselytization and instead put out the welcome mat and invited non-Jews to join us? Not only would our potential audience increase by a factor of 100, but we’d also have an amazing opportunity to articulate the value of a rich Jewish life in a way that might further inspire existing Jews whose attrition and assimilation we hope so much to forestall.

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I want to thank the framers of the Call to Action for catalyzing my own thinking on these issues, and I hope that my questions and comments further enrich the conversations I hope are taking place in many corners of the Jewish community.

Aaron Dorfman is a lifelong educator and problem-solver committed to making social justice an integral part of American Jewish life and identity. He spent 10+ years helping to lead American Jewish World Service, most recently as its Vice President for National Programs. He is an alumnus of the Wexner Graduate Fellowship and holds an MPP from the Kennedy School and a BA from the University of Wisconsin. Aaron lives in Brooklyn with his partner Talia and his daughters Oren, Sela, and Dami.