The Jewish Vitality Statement: From Reaction to Action

By David Bryfman, Ph.D.

Perhaps surprisingly, as the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I do not believe that we are, as Simon Rawidowicz wrote, an ever-dying people. I actually happen to think that given what we know about the resilience of the Jewish people, we have a pretty good chance of existing for many millennia.

But the number of Jews in this world does concern me. Actually, it’s not so much the overall number of Jews that matters – but the numbers of types of different Jews that are really important – and not just to me. The way I see the world, and the Jewish people within it, the more diverse Jewish people there are, leading lives infused by certain Jewish values and practice – the more the lives of these individual Jews will be greatly enhanced, the communities in which these Jews live will be more vibrant, and the world will be a better place.

Yes, that’s me. A Jewish educator who dedicates his life and works in an agency that is trying to spread Jewish education and engagement en masse, so that more people will realize that being Jewish today has the capacity to bring about this win-win-win scenario. More to the point, I believe that if we can’t demonstrate this win-win-win proposition – that being Jewish is good for one’s self, good for one’s community, and good for the world – then quite frankly the size of the community doesn’t matter one bit.

And yet none of these reasons were truly the motivation behind me signing the Jewish Vitality Statement that seems to have raised about the same amount of accolades as it has critiques.

The reasons that I signed this document was quite simple – albeit that the solution is indeed extremely complex. Three points, seemingly unrelated, all lead to me adding my name to this list of admired colleagues.

  1. The demographic trajectories of the Jewish people in the United States seem clear. The Orthodox Jewish population is increasing in size while simultaneously the number of non Orthodox Jews who are choosing to engage in Jewish life is decreasing at rapid rates.
  2. These trend lines, especially of the number of unengaged Jews, can be altered if the “right” interventions are put in place. We already know some of “what works,” and quite clearly we can learn more and invest in more of this good stuff.
  3. There are ample resources in the Jewish world that could, if used strategically and in a coordinated fashion, actually make a real, positive, and significant difference to the Jewish people – and to repeat from earlier, to the lives of individual Jews, Jewish communities and the world.

A number of possibilities emerge from the Vitality Statement that require vision, collaboration, and communal resources. At least one outcome ought to be an ambitious next phase that establishes an independent Jewish think tank that proactively brings together all of the various stakeholders, the usual and not so usual suspects, to begin implementing a long-term communal agenda and to proactively influence the future of the Jewish people.

You might have issues with some of the details of the Vitality Statement, but surely you can’t reject the need for a time in American Jewish communal life when a collective impact approach to formulate priorities, strategies, and mechanisms that will work towards ensuring a strong, vibrant, and indeed a plentiful, Jewish future.

David Bryfman, Ph.D. is the chief innovation officer at The Jewish Education Project.