The Unintended Consequences of Two Generations’ Success: The Pew Study and the Next Generation’s Challenge

The bad news that the Pew report delivers so abundantly is, in reality, nothing but a glowing report on our success at achieving what we set out to achieve over two generations and more.

by Ramie Arian

It is hard to read A Portrait of Jewish Americans, the Pew report released last month, without seeing it, at least in significant part, as a report on the success of the last two generations of American Jews in achieving what they set out to do.

For two generations, the Jewish community of America has – with a remarkable degree of unanimity – undertaken vast, seemingly unachievable projects, projects that probably exceeded in scope anything that any Jewish community anywhere had ever attempted. And they succeeded spectacularly in accomplishing them.

For the rising generation to succeed as grandly, it will need to coalesce around a broad, generational project of its own. It will need to achieve broad consensus across denominational and institutional boundaries that have rarely if ever been bridged, around the goal that it will seek to achieve. For the next generation, this will require collaboration on an elaborate scale. Learning to collaborate is a key skill that individuals, leaders and institutions will need to master. This will be a significant survival skill for the North American Jewish community going forward.

The Foundation for Jewish Camp’s Nadiv program is a bold experiment in collaboration. It’s an experiment with huge upside potential, but with – as the funders like to say – a lot of moving parts. Nadiv is a collaboration which involves 16 separate institutions – two funders (the Jim Joseph and AVI CHAI Foundations), one operating foundation (Foundation for Jewish Camp), six schools, six camps, and the Union for Reform Judaism, which is the umbrella for half the participating camps and schools.

Besides all these institutions and the two dozen or so professionals who represent them in interfacing with Nadiv, our project involves two mentors, a project manager, and six talented and gutsy experimental subjects: the Nadiv Educators. It’s a complicated project.

Collaboration is the bread and butter of the day-to-day work of our Nadiv Educators, each of whom is tasked with operating across institutional boundaries in a Jewish camp and a Jewish school. Nadiv’s importance, its potential and its promise lies very much in its ability to serve as a laboratory where young leaders and their institutions master the critical skill of collaboration.

I believe that the Jewish community in America, the most prosperous and powerful Jewish community in history, can accomplish more or less anything to which it sets its mind. The 20th century provides at least two powerful examples of our having successfully attained monumental goals which we, as a community had set for ourselves. The Pew study, which has rightly been read mainly as a description of widespread Jewish communal failure, can also be read as a report on the unintended consequences of widespread Jewish success.

My parents were members of the so-called “greatest” generation. Born between 1915 and 1920, they were children of immigrant parents. They grew up in Yiddish speaking homes, were raised by parents who had an innate understanding of Yiddish-based Jewish culture, and yearned more than anything to be accepted into America. I doubt that it was much articulated at the time, but acceptance into America was a nearly universal goal that – without being debated at the G.A. – was shared by all strata of American Jewry. It was a goal that seemed lofty, and essentially unattainable. Individually and communally, Jews of my parents’ generation pursued this goal doggedly and with single-minded energy.

And they succeeded. Jewish acceptance in America is today so thorough that it is self-evident, and scarcely needs to be documented. We’ve made it into the colleges, the board rooms, the country clubs, the resorts, the whatever, the everything of America. “They” are not trying to keep us out any more… they are intent on marrying us. For the last eight years, I’ve kept on my desk an announcement of the publication of Kristina Grish’s Boy Vey! The Shiksa’s Guide to Dating Jewish Men. I’ve always viewed that book as an announcement of the ultimate success of the central Jewish project of my parents’ generation: achieving acceptance in America.

As for my generation, I’m a baby boomer. I was born in the post-World War II years, at the mid-point of the 20th century. I was born just five years after the Holocaust; a year and a half after the State of Israel had been created. Those two events were historical facts for me and for those of my generation, and their memory was extremely fresh. For Jews of my generation, there was a clear, singular Jewish program and priority: ensuring the survival and physical safety of Jewish communities around the globe. This was our project, and it spawned a handful of corollaries that animated me and my peers, and that to an extent that seems exaggerated to me, animate the Jewish community still.

Our first priority was the safety of the State of Israel. At least until the seemingly miraculous Israeli victory in the Six Day War, and yes, considerably beyond that as well, Israel seemed constantly endangered, constantly insecure, and more than anything else, that energized us.

We raised the funds and the political will to aid Israel in bringing whole Jewish communities out of persecution in Arab nations – out of Yemen and Morocco, out of Algeria and Iraq, out of Syria and Egypt and many more, and resettling them, mainly in Israel.

In 1984 and again in 1991, we were dazzled as Israel organized lightning operations to bring nearly the entirety of the Ethiopian Jewish community out of Africa and into the 20th century, into safety, into Israel.

Our next priority was preserving the memory of the Holocaust. We worked tirelessly for this cause, never satisfied until the United States government in 1993 recognized and helped to establish the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, providing perennial Federal support and offering a prominent location among our national monuments to freedom on the National Mall in Washington D.C.

Through the 1970s and 1980s, we rallied for Soviet Jewry, and brought their plight into the mainstream of American consciousness. In 1974, Congress passed the Jackson Vanik Amendment, which placed restrictions on trade with the Soviet Union until and unless they allowed oppressed Soviet Jews to emigrate. “What’s all this I hear about Soviet jewelry,” cried Gilda Radner, famously, during the first season of Saturday Night Live in 1976. Between 1989 and 2001, some 2 million Jews – virtually everyone who wanted to – emigrated from the Soviet Union, mainly to Israel and the United States.

Within the first year or two of the 21st century, though anti-Semitism had certainly not been eliminated, it was reasonable to say that for the first time in 2,000 years, there were no longer any sizeable Jewish communities remaining, anywhere in the world, whose physical security was in danger because they were Jewish.

American Jews of my generation took as their project ensuring the physical security of Jewish communities around the world. To a remarkable extent, they succeeded.

In light of the success of the last two generations of North American Jewry in achieving their key generational projects, the results of the Pew study are hardly surprising.

Many Jews do not identify as religious? For two generations we’ve set – and achieved – goals that are social, societal, communal, political, diplomatic, practically anything and everything BUT religious.

Jews are assimilating? Assimilation is nothing but the end product of the acceptance we so eagerly sought.

Jews are intermarrying? Talk about the ultimate acceptance!

Jews are proud to be Jews, but their identification is ethnic? For 50 years we’ve been teaching, above anything else, that kol Yisrael areivim zeh b’zeh, that all Jews, wherever they may be, are connected by a web of mutual responsibility.

Jews value remembering the Holocaust? What other message could we have been expected to internalize?

The bad news that the Pew report delivers so abundantly is, in reality, nothing but a glowing report on our success at achieving what we set out to achieve over two generations and more.

Were there unintended consequences? You bet! The Pew report is chock full of those!

So, what of today’s Jewish community? What of the Jewish community of our Nadiv Educators’ generation, of our young people? What is their project? What is the great cause in which they are implicitly though tacitly united? What is the challenge for which they will move mountains to attain the seemingly unattainable? The answer is far from clear. Indeed, the Pew study and our own experience portray a Jewish community today that is splintered, polarized, diffuse, lacking any shared sense of direction, destiny or challenge. I think it is fair to say that the greatest challenge for the Jewish community today is to find a single project, a single program, a single priority around which to coalesce.

And two questions arise, one regarding content and one regarding methodology. What shall that project be? And how shall we achieve community-wide agreement to pursue it?

Around the first of those questions, I think there’s already a fairly clearly emerging consensus, at least among those parts of the Jewish community that remain deeply engaged in Jewish life. At this juncture in history, more than anything else, we need to answer the question: Why be Jewish? We need to articulate a Judaism that will sparkle with meaning and relevance, that will enhance people’s lives by anchoring them in history and tradition, that will speak powerfully to their souls as they traverse the peaks and valleys of life’s journey. In short, we need to rekindle Judaism’s religious flame. We need to ignite in the thousands of Pew’s “nones” in our midst, a passion for Judaism that creates a bedrock Jewish commitment and Jewish identity, that is solidly grounded in Jewish literacy. What we need, in short, is precisely what Jewish education, writ large, can provide.

That leaves the methodological question, the question of how to get our diverse, diffuse, polarized community to coalesce around this project. And here, I think there is no short-cut. I think the answer is that we need to engage in an intense process of collaboration, of building consensus, of generating steam, institution by institution, leader by leader, individual by individual. We will need to collaborate, and then collaborate some more. I don’t see any other way.

I think that our Nadiv Educators and their peers and colleagues have a critical role to play in leading our Jewish community forward. It is theirs to define a central project for their generation, and they face the monumental task of building consensus around that project across the entire Jewish community.

I don’t think it is an exaggeration to say that Nadiv is situated at a critical place to address this generation’s challenge. I’m convinced that the next generation’s project needs to be about “doing Jewish” much better than our generation has done. That’s a task that is all about school, and all about camp, and all about how to catalyze an explosive expansion of the power of our two most important institutions, by bringing them together and learning from one another’s key strengths. That is precisely what Nadiv is about. I think that the next generation will have the additional methodological challenge of achieving consensus across a deeply splintered community. They will need to collaborate across boundaries that have never before been bridged. And that, too, is precisely what Nadiv – our 16-institution collaboration – is all about.

Though most of the news in the Pew report represents deep challenges for the Jewish community, it is reasonable, too, to read it as a story of the incredible success of our Jewish community in achieving seemingly unattainable dreams, over two generations. In that sense, Pew can be read as a harbinger of hope. The younger generation of Jewish leaders – the generation represented by our gifted Nadiv Educators – will need to rise to the challenge of articulating, building consensus around, and then achieving a new generational project that will lead to the creation of a glowing, new golden age for Jewish life in the 21st century. Nadiv is the potent laboratory in which to develop the skills which both they, and our community as a whole, will require.

Ramie Arian is a consultant who works with Jewish camps and other organizations that use experiential education to build Jewish identity. He serves as Project Director for Nadiv, a program of the Foundation for Jewish Camp. In each of six communities, Nadiv has built a partnership between a Jewish camp and a Jewish school, which have jointly hired a full-time, year-round Jewish educator, who is tasked with elevating Jewish education at camp, and with bringing more of the “magic” of camp to school through experiential education. Nadiv sponsors partnerships in Atlanta, Minneapolis, New York (2), San Diego and Seattle.