The Cost of a Feel Good Manifesto

FEEL GOODBy David Elcott, Ph.D.,
and Stuart Himmelfarb

The feel good manifesto Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action signed by seventy-four devoted Jewish leaders, admired friends and colleagues, hurtles with great drama headlong into the … 1980’s. Every issue raised and solution offered in this document could be found on the agenda of the Jewish community ever since we panicked over thirty years ago that we are losing our children to indifference and intermarriage, not to speak of a low birthrate that has been around for more than a few generations. But, regrettably, the proposals offered are neither strategic nor evidence based. Rather, they are a tactical wish list that essentially asks, “Why are all those so-called Jews out there not just like me (or the me I wish I would be if I were Jewish like that)?” The nostalgic “me” of Bubbes in the kitchen baking challah and Zayde davening mincha, of Jewish neighborhoods and Shabbat morning Junior Congregations.

We know this might sound harsh, but what this Manifesto really expresses is a failure to grapple with the realities of the 21st century of choice and autonomy and the contemporary disinterest in long-term singular identity commitments. There is a small circle of non-Haredi friends (and we and our families are among them) who live an immersive Jewish life of identity, behaviors and commitment. But what the seventy-four signed was a set of solutions that echo well the Hebrew hope hadesh yameynu kekedem – renew our days as of old. And therein lies our problem – such strategic thinking is anachronistic and ignores the evidence before our eyes. What’s more, it is largely uninterested in the life choices made daily by those very people it is intended to reach.

The Pew study cited, along with numerous other studies, in fact tells us that non-Orthodox Jews marry late, have children later and produce three generations in 100 years rather than five. The average age of American Jews, if you do not include Haredi Orthodox, is well into their fifties; the average age of Hispanics in America is twenty-eight. And intermarriage is most definitely occurring across the country. Other national studies reveal that many of the trends – loss of identity, salience and affiliation – that the Jewish community faces are evident in other religious and ethnic groups along with a general “rise of the nones” as the largest religious growth cohort.

As important, when we survey Jews across generational cohorts, younger Jews seem less interested, less engaged in Jewish life and less attached to a robust Jewish identity when compared to older generations. In fact, in our research, we found this to be true even of young connected Jews.  To compound the concern of those who signed the document, our research shows that this is not solely the domain of young people; to varying extents, we are seeing shifts in Jewish fidelity and allegiance across all generational cohorts. We share these concerns with all those who signed the Manifesto. But the evidence leads us to very different conclusions.

Decades ago, the fine Jewish social scientist Gary Tobin quipped that we all believe that if only the rest of the Jews knew us, knew all that we have to offer, then they would join. But, he explained, they do know us – an overwhelming percentage of Jews do join something Jewish at some point in their lives. And then they leave. The irony is that having known us – they walked out.  Do we really believe that the reason Jews choose Camp Wildwood over Camp Jewish or Trinity Day School over the Torah Academy is because of cost? Or that they would jump at an offer to have their kids attend the JCC preschool over Kirk of the Woods out of their own Jewish passion? And do we really believe that synagogues have not placed great emphasis on our children remaining in supplementary schools, that they push them out the door along with the Bat Mitzvah certificate? When it comes to the values we hold dear, even many Orthodox parents celebrate their child’s entry to Princeton over Yeshiva University.

Money alone clearly is not the solution. Ask our State Department how effectively throwing money at people to gain their allegiance has served us. So the first strategic weakness is that somehow, with reduced fees, Jews will flock to Jewish institutions. Nothing in the data we have examined support that money is the only or even central barrier to Jewish engagement, especially considering the relative affluence of a significant share of the Jewish population.

There is, then, a larger shortcoming in this Manifesto. Every recommendation is about young people, as if the problems outlined will be solved by getting young Jews engaged.  But that is not our problem at all. Our problem, magnified in this feel-good set of recommendations, is that we have created a Jewish world for children who, when they become adults, have only been prepared to have their children engage in children’s Judaism – in this way, we are perpetuating the myth that Judaism is for kids, teens and maybe, young adults.

The late Rabbi Harold Schulweis, a Kaplanian innovator of Jewish life, taught a wonderful Torah.  He said that when your child asks to play with you, tell her that you cannot right now because you are reading a fine Jewish book or need to leave for a valuable Jewish program or perhaps you are volunteering in an exciting Jewish endeavor. He added that the kids should fall asleep at the Seder table or Shabbat dinner listening to adults singing and talking about something of meaning. This Manifesto seems to teach that Judaism is something for children to eventually transmit to their children, like playing T-Ball in kindergarten or piano lessons.

Instead, we need to teach that being Jewish is a very adult thing to do and be. But not one single recommendation talked about adult Judaism – except how grandparents can get down on their hands and knees and play Jewish Lego. In fact, in our research, Jewish organizational and communal leaders repeatedly told us that they intend to practice triage, to forget about Baby Boomers and continue our focus on children and “Next-Gen Jews” under 35 while expanding geriatric social services. Yet Boomers represent about fifty percent of the active adult Jewish population. This is not strategic focus and evidence-based decision-making.

More painful, in this context, is the failure to address the real question, not how do we get more Jews but why be Jewish, what difference does it make after all, what meaning does being Jewish add to one’s life? Could you imagine Christian missionaries trying to convert people simply to keep the church’s numbers up or produce Christian children? They would ask you to let Jesus into your life, to experience God’s love and compassion.

Back to the Pew study which the Manifesto cited as the motivator to act. When Jews were asked what is most essential to being Jewish, their first answer was the Holocaust – which should concern us since that focus is not exactly life-affirming or forward looking. And the next three most significant values expressed by those who identify as Jews were living an ethical and moral life, working for justice and equality and intellectual curiosity. Being part of a Jewish community barely gained a quarter of adherents, coming in after having a good sense of humor. And what is the Call to Action answer to the Pew study: Build Jewish social networks, convey Jewish content and target peer groups, all focused on young people. Nowhere in the entire document is an interest expressed in providing a reason to be Jewish, to walk in God’s path to do what is good and just, to follow Isaiah and lift up the downtrodden and free the captive, to care for the stranger, to perfect the world—and to do all this as part of a re-invigorated, relevant Jewish community.

The Peace Corps, AmeriCorps, Encore, and AARP all are appealing to adults, Boomers and seniors with inspiring messages (and flexible program offerings) on how they can repair the world and find meaning and fulfillment. Buddhists and yoga teachers offer meditative spiritual paths. Even the entertainment industry listens to where people today are and offers exciting entertainment at our fingertips with hundreds of options at any moment. Where in our thinking is a response to what Jews say they value – a sense of life purpose, of meaning, a reason to be a Jew that is more than producing another generation of Jews? I, David, can trace my family back fifteen generations as Pfiehaendler – cattle middlemen. Is that any compelling reason for me to follow in their footsteps? Both a recent Repair the World study of young people and our studies of Boomers showed that less than fifteen percent of the Jews surveyed experience their volunteer service, a highly-cherished value, as a Jewish act. Meanwhile, the Jewish community is actually reducing volunteer service learning options for young and old alike. Being Jewish should feel radical, an assault on all the complacencies in the world, not an antidote to zero population growth.

Corporations, with big bucks to advertise, dollars we do not have, use focused research and algorithms to locate with pinpoint precision the market segments they seek to reach. They know their audiences. It is true that toy companies focus on parents to buy toys or market to teenagers to play video games. But they know their clientele and realize that the child or teen will grow out of what they have to offer. So other marketers step in with focused appeals to young parents, to Boomers, to seniors, to retirees and to workaholics, to single women and married men, all promoting their products. Yet the best strategic vision we can offer is lower the costs of Jewish schools and camps, send teenagers to Israel cost-free and offer better quality prayer services for young adults, none of which are needs expressed by other than those who already send their children to Jewish schools and camps and attend services.

Whoever is whispering into our ears, “If you build it they will come” is not a very competent social scientist of today’s complex, shifting and exciting landscape. Wish lists and heartfelt dreams that ignore overwhelming evidence are not strategic, do not provide successful policy decisions and will not build the Jewish community and provide the deep Jewish identity and engagement of the future.

So, perhaps, our choices are not so stark. The future is not so dire. Jews are not fading away. More Jews are studying Torah now than ever in history, they are participating in an amazing array of Jewish activities, they read Jewish books and attend Jewish film festivals. Type in “Pesach Seder” on Google and you will find a cornucopia of vibrant ideas. There is more happening, more offered, more seeds flowering in Jewish start-ups than we can count. They just do not look like our retro-fantasy of what Jewish is supposed to be.

Yet there is, in fact, a crisis and we are at a crossroads. But not the one proclaimed in Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action. Instead of continuing a thirty year tactic of throwing money at entitlements to seduce young people (and yes, happily, successful for many of those who take advantage of what they have to offer), could we not try something new, something more 21st century that reflects the real world of autonomy, personalization, choice, re-invention and complex identities? Let’s try something novel and look at the vast market of all adult Jews and see them as vital individuals open to new experiences who will live very long Jewish lives – if we actually invest emotionally and pragmatically in them, and if we see adult Jewish human beings as other than financial providers for a next generation. How about investing five percent of what we invest in those thirty-five and under to inspire other adults, focusing on providing them a wide array of platforms to live a meaningful and passion-filled life?

Jewish traditions remind us that we all stood at Sinai, from the richest prince to the water-carrier, men and women, children and even those who were peripherally connected to the Israelites who left Egypt. All were worthy to hear God’s word and witness revelation. Nowhere in any record do we read that God spoke only to those thirty-five and under, that the Torah is valuable just to children. We need to put all Jews on the radar screen. Now that would be a strategic and revolutionary call to action, a 2020 direction for renewed Jewish life in North America.

David Elcott, Ph.D., The Taub Professor of Practice in Public Service and Leadership, and Stuart Himmelfarb, Senior Fellow, Faith-Based Civic Engagement, at NYU’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service, are the founders of B-3/The Jewish Boomer Platform.