What surprises me most about the Pew report on American Jews is that anybody is surprised.
The report points to a series of phenomena that are well known in the world today: identity fragmentation, radical free choice, embracement of diversity, and the breakdown of organizational and ideological loyalties.
Jews are, according to the witticism, like everybody else, only more so. For many of these phenomena, we are the canary in the coal mine, the early adopters and the over-adapters.
The report is not good or bad news. It shows us a reality we can’t ignore anymore. It is up to us to see the opportunities hidden in this new reality. There are a few things we should be thinking about here.
One, in a highly diversified community like ours, inclusiveness — of mixed marriages, of people with disabilities, of different sexual orientations, of different ideologies and levels of observance — is not optional.
Two, we need more avenues to Jewish identity. Those of us who grew up in communities where the main expressions of identity were secular (Zionism, Hebrew, arts and culture) are not surprised to learn that more than 30 percent of young American Jews do not identify as religious in any way. But it would be foolish for us to think that they have a weaker potential to identify themselves meaningfully as Jews.
If we don’t want to lose 30 percent of our people, we need to work much harder at developing alternative avenues for Jewish engagement. We significantly underinvest in Jewish culture as a way to foster Jewish identity.
One of the main tasks of Jewish leadership needs to be opening as many gateways as possible to Jewish life without being judgmental about which ones are more authentic. As the Talmud says, the Torah is a heart with many rooms. In a context of extreme uncertainty, we can’t foresee which ones will be successful in offering a good path for engagement.
Three, the Pew report shows that American Jews don’t see their identity in either/or terms. However, those of us in leadership positions usually do. In a world of fragmented, plural identities, we need to break loose from old definitions that condition our thinking and action. The concepts of religion, culture, nation and people are 19th-century ideas created to respond to the specific reality of European Christianity. They are not adequate (and never were) to describe the Jewish experience.
Things shouldn’t be either/or in terms of communal funding. We shouldn’t invest in culture at the expense of investments in education or synagogue life. Rather, we should look at the synergies that will materialize if we stop looking at those areas as unconnected silos.
Skeptics will say that hard choices must be made because resources are scarce. But excluding any part of Jewish expression will only shrink the pie further. We should not look at funding as a zero-sum game because new initiatives and matching grants can bring new philanthropic resources to the community.
Four, Jewish organizations in many cases are stuck in paradigms inherited from the Industrial Revolution. They are pyramidal, centralized, top-down structures that rely heavily on the loyalty of their constituents and donors.
Yet Jews don’t think in terms of organizational loyalty anymore. Pew and other reports show that Jews don’t give to organizations but to causes. Organizations need to see themselves as tools for donors and users rather than vice versa.
The Pew report shows that this is a time of bubbling creativity in the Jewish community. Rather than announcing doom, the report could spur us to create mechanisms that capture and catalyze that energy. We have to address the critical question of what Judaism as a culture, religion and civilization has to offer to those of us who yearn for meaning in an uncertain world.
Answering the question of why be Jewish is just as important as how to be Jewish.
Andres Spokoiny is the CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.