Jewish community needs major shake-up, experts say

The American Jewish community is in a state of disarray — and it will find its way only after developing a clear vision of the future, according to one Jewish demographer.

"The problem with contemporary Jewish life is that we're looking backward, not forward," said Gary Tobin, director of Brandeis University's Institute for Community and Religion in San Francisco.

Tobin addressed the American Jewish Press Association conference alongside Martin Kraar, executive vice president of the Council of Jewish Federations in New York, the umbrella body for national federations. The two spent less time addressing the session's topic, "Is Jewish Communal Life Redundant?," than assessing the inertia of Jewish communal life.

The Jewish community, Tobin said, has to get off its treadmill of weary laments — the loss of Jewish knowledge, soaring intermarriage rates and concerns over extinction — and must take a no-holds-barred look at strengthening the positive forces in Jewish life as the 21st century approaches.

As an example, he cited a recent study of Bay Area teens from the former Soviet Union that shows a remarkably high level of Jewish involvement. "The Jewish identity of teens in San Francisco is being transformed through the Jewish community," Tobin said. "It's an enormously successful story."

Also worthy of attention, he said, are Jewish community campuses such as the Marin Jewish Community Center in San Rafael — places where numerous Jewish organizations and activities congregate under one roof.

"What we're really talking about is how to redefine and create a community in the modern world," he said.

Tobin cited a number of indications that the Jewish community is dislocated and in need of an overhaul:

*Donors are decreasing their gifts to the Jewish community even as their overall philanthropy rises. Part of this has to do with the attractiveness of other giving opportunities; in some cases, donors are unsure that money given to the Jewish community will be well spent.

*Some of the main purveyors of positive Jewish identity, those who work with teens, are overworked and underpaid. They are leaving Jewish communal work in droves.

*"Turfism" between Jewish organizations is often strong; sometimes organizations refuse to share lists of potential donors or volunteers.

*Three out of four Jews do not belong to a synagogue. Usually it is the cost that keeps them out, particularly in the case of singles under 35.

To address these realities, Tobin said, the Jewish community must take a good, hard look at what ideological gaps it is not addressing. And Jewish communal organizations must avoid overlapping and should instead work toward economy of scale.

"Somehow or another, the bounds of community need to be redefined," Tobin said. "That will require a shaking-up of major proportions. Some organizations and institutions must go out of business."

Kraar, who centered part of his remarks on federations' need to become more inclusive, agreed with Tobin that the Jewish community cannot rely on ways of thinking that may now be outdated.

Kraar said he envisions a Jewish community whose main aim is "not to save Jews who are dying but to help Jews who are living."

It would be a Jewish community, he said, that "does not have to respond to the tragedy in Jewish life, but the beauty and direction in Jewish life."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.