The Federation Movement and the Challenge of Jewish Identity: Interpreting Pew

The Federation movement is at a crossroads. The key will be a commitment to developing a Judaism of meaning, rooted in substance. We must build a community with no barriers to entry, but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai

[This essay is from “Philanthropic Priorities in Light of Pew,” reprinted with permission from Contact, a publication of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.]

by Barry Shrage

In 1965, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel spoke to the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds at the General Assembly (GA) in Montreal:

“There are two words I should like to strike from our vocabulary: “surveys” and “survival.“

Our community is in spiritual distress, and some of our organizations are often too concerned with digits. Our disease is loss of character and commitment, and the cure of our plight cannot be derived from charts and diagrams… undertaking surveys is an evasion of creative action, a splendid illusion.

Survival, mere continuation of being, is a condition man has in common with animals. What is important is attaining certainty of being worthy of survival.

Our young people are disturbed at parents who are spiritually insolvent. They seek direction, affirmation; they reject complacency and empty generosity.

To maintain devotion to Judaism, to succeed in the effort to convey my appreciation to my child, I need a community, as we all do. In this emergency we call upon the Federation: Help us! Let us create an atmosphere of learning, a climate of reverence.

We need a revolution in Jewish life.”

(Adapted from Moral Grandeur and Spiritual Audacity: Essays by Abraham Joshua Heschel, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997)

It’s rare (and wonderful!) to face a crisis in our time and to know with some certainty what one of the great sages of the last century would counsel. Heschel understood the Federation movement and its historic opportunity with prophetic power nearly 50 years ago, and had the courage to speak truth to power in 1965. It’s tragic that so little has changed and that his words are still relevant today. Sadly, he could have given virtually the same speech in response to the Pew survey at the 2013 GA in Jerusalem. It will be a crime against the Jewish future if in 2054 it can be said that the Federation leadership of our time missed another opportunity.

There has been plenty of debate about the Pew results, but perhaps, as Heschel warned, we’re studying the numbers when we should be looking at something far more significant. The important question is not how many Jews there are or will be, but rather what is a “Jewish life” worth living, and how do we build it? It is impossible to build a strategy to respond to the survey until we answer that question.

Our aspirations need to be clearly stated. We want our children to experience the beauty and glory of a connection to a 3,500 year old culture and civilization. We want them to experience the intensity of Jewish spirituality, whether they choose to call it religion or something else. We want them to experience the power of being connected to millions of other Jews and, through that connection, desire to improve the world and share in the joy of Jewish life.

Even at the beginning of the 21st Century, at a time when “umbrella charities” seem to be losing influence, local Federations and our national Federation system still embody the hopes and dreams of many Jews. Our full engagement in the challenge of building a broadly based Jewish renaissance is at the heart of those aspirations. To the extent that we fulfill these dreams, we will attract the best and brightest leadership, raise necessary resources and receive the blessing of future generations. If we don’t, Federations will disappear from history and future generations will curse our failure.

In fact, after a hundred years of assimilation in the world’s most powerful and attractive culture, the alienation of young American Jews from Jewish institutions is not a mystery. When the Federation movement was created during the massive immigration of Eastern European Jews to America at the beginning of the 20th Century, Federations (like most other American Jewish institutions) supported the aspirations of their communities, encouraging assimilation and providing the services needed by a generation moving from immigrant poverty to the middle class and beyond. Jewish education was hardly on the Federation agenda.

After the Six Day War, Israel became the “civil religion” of American Jewry. It was the golden age of the Federation movement. Campaigns flourished and Federations accomplished great goals, from the support for Israel in a time of war to the redemption of Soviet Jewry. But Jewish education remained nearly invisible as a priority for the movement and for all but a few exceptional Federations.

While one can’t fault the Federations for failing to see beyond the cultural imperatives of those times, it is fair to critique the movement for its failure to use the development of an electrifying new ethnic Jewish identity in 1967 to build something deeper and even more powerful. In 1990 the National Jewish Population Survey revealed that levels of assimilation were far worse than any of us could have imagined. It wasn’t an overemphasis on Israel that was driving away a generation of young Jews. It was a lack of decent Jewish education, the absence of authentic spirituality, the lack of a serious encounter with Peoplehood (something more than ethnicity) and a failure of imagination on the part of synagogues and Federations to rethink their respective programs and message. Even the Federations’ emphasis on love of Israel was (and to an alarming extent still is) rooted in fundraising pitches, the “empty generosity” that Heschel warned about in 1965. The result was that by 1990, many young American Jews were connected neither to Jewish life nor to Israel in any serious way.

Now is the time to create a Federation that is focused on change and on a compelling vision of a Jewish future characterized by purpose and spiritual grandeur. It is possible to use the tremendous power of the Federation system as a bully pulpit and as a resource creator to change the zeitgeist of a community and to emphasize the pivotal role Jewish learning must play.

Jewish education of every kind – day schools and afternoon schools, summer camps and pre-schools, formal and informal, for every age – needs to become a higher priority. Synagogues are still the gateway to Jewish life for most young families. They are our natural allies in most of these efforts, and we need to create stronger partnerships if either of us are to succeed.

In Boston we are engaged in a large-scale effort to create a “community of learning” through a massive program of adult Jewish education. Thousands have been attracted to programs aimed at “universal adult Jewish literacy.”

According to Pew, only 28 percent of respondents believe that being part of a Jewish community is essential to being Jewish. We believe that communities filled with learning and caring and a commitment to social justice will attract the next generation of Jews and restore the commitment to community that is central to lives of Jewish meaning.

We also have to ensure quality outreach to everyone. The gateways to Jewish learning must open to those with disabilities if we are to become a truly open and inclusive Jewish community. Federations must also make a serious investment in outreach to interfaith families and gay and lesbian families, engaging them through community programs and welcoming them into a supportive, inclusive community.

Right now our greatest challenge is to leverage the most successful Jewish identity enrichment investment the American Jewish community has ever made: Birthright Israel. Connecting the Birthright generation to Jewish learning, meaning and community is now our greatest opportunity. Right now, the door is open.

The Federation movement is at a crossroads. The key will be a commitment to developing a Judaism of meaning, rooted in substance. We must build a community with no barriers to entry, but with a vision of Jewish life as high as Sinai: filled with the beauty and meaning of Judaism, rooted in tradition but focused on the future.

In Exodus, at the burning bush, Moses asks God’s name and God responds, “I will be what I will be.” Jewish history has always seemed balanced between victory and defeat, celebration and mourning, miracle and catastrophe. But for me, in the background there has always been an unseen hand that guides us to an unknown future but that demands our participation and our individual attention, as if to say, “I will be what I will be … but you will determine the outcome.”

The facts of the Pew study will be what they will be, but we will determine the outcome.

Barry Shrage has served as president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies, Boston’s Jewish Federation, since 1987.