What To Do About Pew?

Unless we break some molds, we’ll be having this very same conversation 20 years from now.

by Steven A. Rakitt

Now what?

On October 1, 2013, the Pew Research Center released “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” an exhaustive survey of the American Jewish community with over 3,500 respondents. Within only a few weeks, hundreds of articles and blogs have been written and dozens of conference calls held, along with countless hallway conversations on what it all means. Is it good news? Is it bad news? Is it news?

The answer to all three: “Yes.”

The Pew Research Center is a non-Jewish, non-partisan, non-policy research center funded by the Pew Charitable Trust that focuses on survey research. Their methodology is sound; their research data reliable. Pew has given the American Jewish community a gift – an unvarnished look at who we are and what we believe. There have been – happily – very few challenges to the methodology as there were in previous demographic studies funded and conducted by the Jewish community. And that’s good because it has given us more time to talk about the results.

The full report is over 200 pages long, and I find it fascinating that within a day of its release, prescriptions were already being offered for what we need to do. Some simply sent out a Jewish telegram: “Start worrying, details to follow.” Some suggestions were quick and predictable. Other ideas reflected the authors’ long-standing beliefs which may or may not be supported by the findings. These times and these results require a different and more serious approach.

Clearly time is wasting, so what should the Jewish community – organized and not-so-organized – do about the results, right now? So what to do about Pew? My first suggestion? Take a deep breath.

Now let’s get started.

Each organization, movement, synagogue, Federation, camp, JCC and day school will read into the study and derive conclusions that either fit or challenge what they are already doing. And that’s part of the problem. We see what we want to see, admit what we’re prepared to change, and often try to sweep the rest under the rug. It’s not likely that we’ll come to consensus about the results and certainly not about the strategies. There are, however, things we can all do.

Here are my 5 suggestions for what we can do with Pew:

  1. Be honest: Ignoring data won’t make it go away and it’s intellectually dishonest to pretend that a particular program created 30 years ago or 30 minutes ago is THE answer. Ask your board, donors and staff what they think. Look carefully at the data and be prepared to find fault in some of your current strategies. Are they really working? For which groups? To what end? This data is honest and we need to be as well.
  2. Be relevant: Simply believing that you’re relevant doesn’t make it so. Relevance is in the eyes of the beholder and knowing your audience is the first step in creating relevant programming. Pew’s data is a gold mine of information about what different cohorts of Jews find relevant. Figure out your target audience, understand what they are thinking and strategically offer appropriate, engaging, and yes – relevant – programming.
  3. Be smart: Or said another way, don’t try to be all things to all Jews. Be strategic in your branding, your focus, your programming and your follow up. Don’t aim too far and wide lest you miss everything. Be smart about who you are, what resources you have or need and how best to implement your strategy.
  4. Be sincere: I’ve already seen fundraising appeals from organizations seizing upon the Pew data to bolster their case. While I understand the urge, it can come across as disingenuous. If your organization truly cares about the Jewish community (and I assume it does) then hold thoughtful conversations about the report’s findings and debate potential strategies. Don’t run straight to your marketing department and try to raise funds on the challenges we face. Donors understand – and respond to – sincerity;
  5. Take risks: Sometimes easier said than done, but clearly not done enough in the Jewish community. With scarce and precious resources, we often take the safe route to minimize our losses. And that’s wrong. We must take (calculated) risks to captivate and engage a Jewish community that is clearly proud to be Jewish but far less willing to be categorized according to previous or current nomenclature. We have to find and engage Jews where they are, not where we want them to be; what they want to do, not only in how we want them to do it. Tough stuff yes, but unless we break some molds, we’ll be having this very same conversation 20 years from now.

Let’s take the “gift of Pew” and schedule organizational and communal conversations about what it all means and what we can learn from one another. The richness and variety of thoughts and suggestions will add greatly to the robust conversations we must have.

Let’s get busy.

Steven A. Rakitt is CEO of the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington.