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Engagement trends negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study

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NEW YORK  — If you’re pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into Jewish identity building, what do you do when a survey comes along showing that the number of U.S. Jews engaging with Jewish life and religion is plummeting?

That’s the question facing major funders of American Jewish life following the release last week of the Pew Research Center’s survey on U.S. Jews.

The study — the first comprehensive portrait of American Jewry in more than a decade — showed that nearly one-third of Jews under age 32 do not identify as Jewish by religion, that American Jews are intermarrying at a rate of 58 percent (71 percent if the Orthodox are excluded) and that most intermarried Jews are not raising their kids as Jews.

For many of the Jewish world’s biggest funders, the answer to this question is clear: Stay the course.

“We’ve known about these issues and many of us have been working in our own ways to address them,” said Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, which with more than $2 billion in assets is one of the Jewish world’s largest foundations focused on bolstering Jewish identity and community among young people.

“We haven’t done it yet, and by no means is success assured, but I do think as a community we have identified significant ways to address these challenges,” he told JTA. “It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.”

The logic to this approach is relatively straightforward: The findings in the Pew survey mostly upheld the assumptions upon which major givers in Jewish life already have been operating. In their view, the survey validates their own philanthropic priorities — even if they disagree about what to prioritize.

“This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus which is literate in Hebrew, and which is engaged in intensive and immersive education and committed to Jewish life and Jewish institutions,” said Yossi Prager, executive director in North America of Avi Chai, a major investor in Jewish education.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, drew a different conclusion: “Those that were investing heavily in Jewish culture and alternative venues for Jewish identity were right,” he said.

“Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important that while investing in traditional venues in Jewish life, it’s important to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways — through culture, through arts,” Spokoiny said. “I think that’s a key message.”

Mark Charendoff, president of the Maimonides Fund, said the study demonstrates a remarkable failure to achieve many of the central goals adopted by the Jewish community in the wake of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, which showed what many considered alarmingly high assimilation rates.

“As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity, and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree,” Charendoff told JTA. “I would love to tell you I think it’s a wakeup call, but I don’t think anyone’s waking up.”

Jewish foundations need to get on the same page to develop a comprehensive strategy to begin to reverse the negative trends, he said.

“Donors by and large are focused on particular efforts and not focused on the field as a whole,” Charendoff said. “There needs to be more coordination, more resources. We’re only going to have that impact if there’s alignment and not 10,000 people doing God’s work but without regard to what their neighbors are doing.”

Whether the Pew study will prompt a systemic response, or even an attempt at one by Jewish funders, remains to be seen.

Next month, the Jewish Federations of North America will convene its annual General Assembly, which draws fundraisers and leaders from federations throughout the United States. Jerry Silverman, the umbrella group’s CEO, told JTA that this year’s confab is not the place for beginning a communitywide conversation about the Pew study results.

This year’s G.A. will be held in Jerusalem and focus on the Israel-Diaspora relationship. The Pew study will not be on the agenda, he said.

“You really need to bring together thinkers and thought leaders who can really think this through. I don’t think that’s the G.A. population,” Silverman said. “That’s not the forum to think this through.”

Chip Edelsberg, the executive director of the Jim Joseph Foundation, which has awarded about $280 million in grants for Jewish education and engagement since 2006, said his foundation needs more time to delve into the Pew data to figure out what changes are necessary, if any, to their strategies for engaging young American Jews.

“It will certainly animate our discussions and have a bearing on the foundation’s decision making, because it is actually good data,” he said.

Michael Steinhardt, the mega-philanthropist behind Birthright Israel, Hebrew-language charter schools and a host of other Jewish community programs, said the results of Pew are hardly news: Separate community studies over the last few years have made the trends clear.

“We should not need the Pew study to give us a reality check,” he said. “The question is what to do about it.”

Steinhardt says he isn’t optimistic that the Jewish community will respond effectively.

“Nothing’s a galvanizing event for the Jewish community,” he said. “I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it.”
 

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