Pew points the way toward more avenues to Jewish life


NEW YORK (JTA) – Since the release of the Pew report on American Jews, the question I’ve been asked most often is what surprises me about it.

What surprises me most is that anybody is surprised.

The Pew 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.

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, inclusiveness is no longer optional. 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. We can no longer think in terms of a majority including a minority because in our highly diverse world, everybody is in one way or the other part of a minority.

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.

Three, nothing is either/or. 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.

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.

Four, organizational paradigms are inadequate. Legacy 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 like Committed to Give and NextGen Donors 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.

Five, we need new ideological leaders. The report shows that Jews haven’t ceased searching for values and meaning. But the ideological movements of the past 200 years – Reform, Conservative, Orthodoxy and ultra-Orthodoxy – are all modern phenomena created as different responses to the encounter between Judaism and the realities of the 19th and 20th centuries. They are historical, and we’d be ill advised to see them as timeless.

Andres Spokoiny is the CEO of the Jewish Funders Network.