The “Statement on Jewish Vitality”: One Foundation’s Response

Lippman KanferA statement from the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah:

If nothing else, the initiators and signers of the “Statement on Jewish Vitality” have achieved one of their objectives: re-opening a robust discussion about the condition of American Jewish life today and what strategic responses that condition calls for on the part of policy-makers and philanthropists, the primary audience the statement seeks to address.

As one of those funders, we at Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah certainly want to give this statement on strategic directions the thoughtful consideration it seeks and deserves. A number of its signatories are leaders of organizations we support. Many of the areas it identifies as meriting greater investment – day school education, teen programs, summer camp, synagogues, new approaches to engaging young adults – are areas where we have made substantial grants. So, it is not necessarily that we find the specific recommendations problematic (though we might not endorse them all), Rather, the narrowness of the vision that animates the statement and the overall tone trouble us. We believe it is important for those who circulated this statement to understand why we demur from endorsing it, even as we are pleased to acknowledge that in a number of places our approach does overlap fruitfully with the statement’s recommendations.

Fundamentally, we disagree with the premise that American Jewry is in crisis and that the key issue facing the community is the “shrinking ‘Middle.’” Rather, we see American Jewish life today as diverse and dynamic, with cross-cutting trends and a richness and complexity that survey statistics simply cannot capture. Even in the statistics there are bright spots that the statement ignores: the 94% who affirm a pride in being Jewish; the large numbers of religious “nones” who continue to identify as Jews culturally; the growing percentage of children in intermarried families being raised as Jews. What the numbers and our experience on the ground tell us is that there is a reservoir of Jews who are positively disposed toward their Jewishness, but who have not found a way to actualize this feeling. This is an indication of promise and potential not being filled by traditional modalities today.

So, we see a challenge/opportunity that goes well beyond and much deeper than mere patterns of affiliation. The question that preoccupies us is: How can Jewish ideas, values, experiences, and institutions help people live better lives and shape a better world? This is the question we believe many Jews (and some who are not Jewish) are asking today. In so doing they are indeed posing a challenge to existing institutions, a challenge that is not always being met successfully. But, it is also the case that there are myriad opportunities to frame and to find answers to this question, and that where these opportunities exist, Jews (and others) are seizing them in often surprising numbers. Our goal as a foundation is to multiply these opportunities and to help those who are working to motivate and equip individuals and groups of individuals to embrace them. Will success in this endeavor help stabilize or grow the “Jewish ‘Middle’”? Perhaps. But, our goal is much more ambitious, and the community we imagine for the future may as a result look quite different than the one we are familiar with today, a prospect we find exciting and energizing.

This difference in objective has direct implications for strategy. We understand the logic of advocating more investment in “what works.” But, there is an important qualification in that logic that the statement on Jewish vitality glosses over. We must ask not only “what works,” but “for whom” and “under what circumstances.” Yes, we are in favor of having more young people attend day school and intensive supplementary education programs, go to Jewish summer camps, remain Jewishly active as teenagers, and travel to Israel. That’s why we have made grants to support RAVSAK and the Schechter Network, BBYO and the multi-community teen engagement and education consortium, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp. But, we also know that even with our best efforts, there are limits to the reach of the “tried and true” venues for Jewish learning and networking that the statement focuses on. In one paragraph the statement notes that for young adults, there is value in providing a variety of alternative settings and points of entry into Jewish engagement – Moishe Houses, film festivals and concerts, independent minyanim, and learning experiences like Limmud. We would go much farther: we believe that cultivating and supporting new forms and venues for Jewish expression is vital, not just for single young adults, but for Jews of all ages – including those who do affiliate with mainstream institutions today.

That’s why we are vigorous supporters of what has come to be called the innovation sector in Jewish communal life. We need more than day schools, synagogues, youth groups, and Israel trips. We also need the institutions and programs, many of them begun outside the mainstream, that are engaging Jews through their passion for social justice and a sustainable world, their love of the arts, their desire to create new forms of ritual, and their yearning for welcoming communities that support their personal growth with inspiration and resources and without judgmentalism. Can mainstream Jewish institutions do this? Absolutely, and many are. But, our focus as a foundation is not on the settings and venues themselves, as if they were magic black boxes that automatically deliver engaged and active Jews, but on how we can help both mainstream and newer institutions – of which we also support many – feed the passions, use the talents, and fulfill the aspirations of those proud-to-identify Jews who are asking, “what does Jewish life have to offer me?”

This may be a subtle distinction, but we believe that it’s an important one and reflects a larger difference in perspective that underlies some of our discomfort with the strategic directions statement. Not only do we see the condition of American Jewry today differently than the authors of the statement do, we also see the process of change differently. The statement as we read it reflects a social engineering mindset. It calls on funders and policy makers to launch a mobilization campaign and a “public health” education effort. It treats the people it hopes to impact as targets, individuals whose behavior needs to change, as the recipients of programmatic interventions that will induce them to do the things “we” would like them to do – marry other Jews (or convert their partners, if they’re not Jewish), have more children, affiliate with Jewish institutions. This kind of thinking, however well intended, is antiquated, insulting, and even potentially counter-productive. Everything we know today about what motivates and engages people reinforces the proposition that individuals want to be – often, insist on being – active agents in choosing and shaping the life paths they will follow. We can try to motivate, to empower, to provide opportunities, but we cannot and should not want to impose our preferences on others. Change in Jewish life is not going to come from the top down. Unless we policy makers and funders learn to listen to and respect what amcha is saying and seeking, our social engineering efforts are doomed to failure. And, it is no good to say that we can do this tactically while maintaining a mindset that says that we know best what is good for them. It won’t (and shouldn’t) work.

In the statement, this difference in perspective is revealed most directly in the single paragraph on intermarried families where the only “strategy” recommended is greater emphasis on conversion. In light of demographic realities, and in the face of the successful efforts to engage and support interfaith families by national organizations like Interfaith Family and Big Tent Judaism and a host of local institutions, including many synagogues, this is a remarkable lacuna. No one, including those who look at the present through the eyes of surveys that can only tell us about the outcomes of the past, can know what the Jewish community of tomorrow will look like. But, even more important, the shape of that community will not ultimately be determined by what policy makers and funders desire, but rather by the actions of thousands of individuals making choices based on what enriches their lives. We can influence those decisions, but only if we respect their autonomy and invite them to be partners in creating options and opportunities that respond to their needs and desires, including those of which they might not yet be aware.

At bottom, the statement on Jewish vitality and our and the several other critical responses to it that have already been published or shared on Jewish social media platforms reflect two different conversations taking place simultaneously today. The statement is part of the now decades-old conversation about Jewish continuity – How many Jews will there be? How many will affiliate? How many will raise Jewish children? It’s the most recent iteration of an even older conversation about Jewish survival. It is not a conversation to be dismissed lightly, but it is not, we would contend, the most important or productive conversation to have today. The conversation our foundation seeks to be part of (and to foster and facilitate, when we can) is about how Jewish wisdom in its broadest sense can make our lives richer and more fulfilling, more purposeful and responsible, and bring us in closer relationships with each other. It’s a conversation about how Jewish institutions and community can both embody and transmit that wisdom, can serve as springboards for action in the world and havens where we can find physical and spiritual support and companionship. This is a substantive conversation as well as a strategic one. We believe that growing numbers of Jews are eager for this conversation and that this is the conversation that can truly shape, and thereby secure, our future.

Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, based in Akron, OH, promotes and supports efforts to help Jews and others encounter, engage with, and use Jewish wisdom and sensibilities to live better lives and shape a better world.