It’s time to opt in

In Short

To further strengthen Jewish community resources and institutions, we need to actually use them.

Amid our grief over the past nearly-six weeks, as the landscape has evolved since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, two things have become clear to us as executives at the JCCs in Chicago and Boston. 

First, the American Jewish community needs and supports a thriving, healthy Israel, and Israel needs a thriving, healthy American Jewish community. We see the manifestation of that belief in the lobbies of our buildings, which are wreathed in blue and white, and in the outpouring of support for Israel and Israelis that has spread throughout our communities. 

Second, in Chicago and in Boston — and in communities large and small across the country — Jewish people are recalibrating what it means to be American and Jewish, Jewish and American. Our Jewish community centers are poised to be the place for this exploration, connecting community members to their Jewish identity and to one another.

We were moved by and grateful for Barry Finestone’s piece in eJP last week outlining the need for funders to dig deep and, along with funding to address the needs in Israel, support the institutions that give shape and meaning to the American Jewish community. Thank you for saying it, we couldn’t agree more. Today, we are using our voices to advocate for participation in addition to generosity. 

This is the year to opt in. 

This is the year to opt in on Jewish choices, Jewish experiences and Jewish community. Opting in on Jewish life in ways that strengthen American Jewry, ladders our young people into Jewish experience and service to their Jewish communities ensures that we become a stronger, healthier American Jewish community than we are today.

Children learning about Chanukah at a Chicago JCC early learning center. (Courtesy/JCC Chicago)

The research is clear: choosing Jewish early learning centers is when young families enter a lifetime of Jewish communal engagement, and choosing Jewish summer camp has long been vital to ensuring deep Jewish identity development and choice-making. At the same time, the 2020 Jewish Population Study shows that only 31% of Jewish-defined households in Chicago send their children to Jewish preschool, trumped by the 40% who send to non-Jewish preschools. National Jewish overnight camp participation statistics share that well under 20% of kids going to camp are going to Jewish camps. American Jews have been opting out. 

To new parents making the pivotal early childhood decision: our Jewish preschools are built for your Jewish families. Parenting is a long, hard road. Parenting when the world is against the Jewish people is much harder. At JCCs around the country, classrooms boast Israeli flags, PJ Library books, sukkahs and Shabbat candles. Kids take home pomegranate prints and tzedakah boxes and Afikomen bags. Like every JCC exec, we can each share story after story of the moms who met as infant parents, kids who have been friends since the toddler room, families for whom Jewish preschool not only helped frame Jewish life at home, but who found life-long friends at the J.

For parents seeking a summer program for your kids: consider going Jewish. With antisemitism on full display in the freewheeling landscape of social media, Jewish camps provide both a break from the toxicity and a big communal embrace. With identity flattened to posts, sound bites and memes, Jewish camps provide a supportive environment that is not only a salutary respite for our strung-out kids, but a chance for them to experience the acceptance and kindness, connection and community, support and solidarity that define Jewish camps. That they will experience Shabbat, sing with arms around one another, participate in acts of kindness, meet Israeli campers and counselors is yet another way Jewish camps inform their Jewish futures. 

Two young staff members at JCC Greater Boston’s Camp Grossman. Courtesy/JCC Greater Boston

As for Jewish teens raised by the Jewish camp community, pressure from the professional world and parents alike pull them away from the strongest Jewish connections they have known. With feelings of isolation and alienation so raw, the vitriol against Jewish Americans so shocking, might they now choose to work at Jewish camps — choose to be in a place of affirmation, nourishment and joy? Choose to be mentors to younger peers? Choose to serve their communities? 

Might they choose Jewish?

Our interest in going big on Jewish programs and experiences is both existential and pragmatic. Kids and families need to gather, to connect, to feel affirmed and to contribute to building strong, meaningful and enduring Jewish communities. At the same time, the vast majority of Jewish communal institutions are supported not only by the generosity and dollars of visionary philanthropists, but also by the tuition dollars and program fees paid by everyday people who choose excellent programs and Jewish experiences for themselves and their families. Our respective JCCs in Chicago and Boston, for example, earn about 80% of their revenue from program dollars. Participation is the most vital factor for strong JCCs across the American Jewish home front.

In this moment of anguish and uncertainty, when people are wondering whether or not to distance themselves from their Jewish identity or double down, choosing Jewish is the most assured way to support Jewish community in the Diaspora. If we have learned anything since Oct. 7, it’s that we are for ourselves, and we need to be for our future. We are inviting you in this moment to opt in — to choose Jewish.

Addie Goodman is the CEO of JCC Chicago and Lily Rabinoff-Goldman is the CEO and president of JCC Greater Boston.