We meet at yet another extraordinary moment in Jewish history.
During the first part of the 20th century, we focused on enabling waves of immigrants to integrate successfully into America and for the second part of the 20th century, while continuing to build local communities, we responded to the urgent need to rescue Jews and to build the Jewish state. We were essential in bringing 3 million Jews from throughout the world to Israel to establish new lives in freedom. We come together today with the “age of rescue” behind us; with an Israel that continues to face formidable external and internal challenges beyond what we imagined when we came together 10 years ago, but Israel today is nothing less than an economic, cultural anddemocratic miracle.
As American Jews, we find ourselves in the most accepting and generous society where Jews have ever lived, having achieved status and influence far beyond what our grandparents could have dreamed. Thus, the historic challenge is, as we stated a decade back: can we create Jewish life and Jewish communities that are sufficiently inspiring and compelling so Jews choose to self- identify not because they have to, for they do not; not because of guilt, for they have little; but because Jewish life provides meaning, purpose and community? Because engagement in Jewish life ennobles and enriches their lives. Because we have provided a means for engagement in the world, framed by the wisdom and values of our people and the recognition of shared history and destiny.
We have made substantial progress, to be sure, but much work remains. To be among the first Jewish generations to live with such freedom — whether in New York, Tel Aviv, or Moscow — provides new challenges and awesome possibilities. Hopefully, this will be the work of our generation and many that follow us.
For me, Jewish life and Judaism is a way of understanding and appreciating the gift of life itself. Summers at Jewish camp introduced me to the power of vibrant, participatory Jewish community. Reinforced by youth groups and Israel trips that forged my bonds with our Jewish homeland, these experiences led many of us to understand that we could create Jewish communities that were vibrant, that provided both meaning and community.
Here at UJA-Federation, I am able to bring my lifelong passions together: to nurture and encourage participation in inspired Jewish communities so larger numbers can experience the ability of Jewish life to sanctify life and to invest life with meaning and purpose. And to extend care to all in need: the isolated elderly in Brooklyn and the former Soviet Union; the new immigrant in Israel; the recently unemployed. To care for both the Jewish community and the entire community.
How we understand the present moment and what is required becomes critical in shaping Jewish life for our children and grandchildren. The recently elected chairman of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky, has sagely observed: “Identity is now the driver for everything we care about. If one is not positively identified, why care about the Jewish poor, renewing Jewish life in the former Soviet Union, or securing the Jewish state?”
Many observe that we in America are experiencing both erosion and renewal. While contemporary culture is attractive and seductive to large numbers, we have a simultaneous parallel burst of Jewish creativity and energy. Hence the overarching challenge is: what steps can we take to strengthen the forces for the revitalization of our community and our people?
Four Key Areas
In this context, I want to go beyond the broad vision and strategies that I discussed 10 years ago: to create inspired communities and caring communities that are connected to Jewish communities globally. I believe the experience and accomplishments of the past decade confirms the broad framework and strategies outlined and they will continue to guide our work. Today, I want to call attention to four issues that are very much on my mind and, I believe, require our focus and attention if we are to seize this historic opportunity.
Foremost on my mind for the immediate future is the crisis of the affordability of Jewish life. Tens of thousands of our young — in New York, in North America, and in the former Soviet Union — are being turned away from Birthright, MASA, Jewish summer camps, and Jewish day schools. They seek to experience the best of Jewish life but for a lack of resources, large numbers cannot. While multiple factors impact such decision-making, the current economic crisis exacerbates the squeeze both on the poor and middle classes, leading growing numbers of Jewish families to forfeit enrolling their children in these programs.
We must address the affordability issue or we will deny growing segments of our people the opportunity to join our ranks and participate in what have been confirmed to be the most powerful Jewish experiences that can shape identity, particularly for those not raised in highly identified families or communities. It is time for federations, foundations, major philanthropists and all who care about the Jewish future to come together, pool our thinking and determine a course of action; for if we do not, we will have squandered a unique opportunity to engage large numbers of the next generation. Look for an announcement early next year for a high-level study on “Priorities and Philanthropy for the Jewish People in the 21st century.” It will research and propose needed changes in communal policies and priorities to increase affordability and access.
Second, the reweaving of our community. When I called for placing social workers in synagogues 10 years ago, none of us could have anticipated the positive impact both in our synagogues and in our human service agencies. Today, there are social workers from our human service agencies in over 150 synagogues, connecting the incredible resources of our network agencies to synagogues and their members; enabling synagogues to provide care to congregants in new ways. We are consciously reweaving the community by connecting our human service agencies more directly to places where Jews come together as Jews. This paradigm needs to be extended and expanded to Jewish day schools, to Hillels, and to additional Ys and JCCs. And we will. Instead of bifurcating human services and Jewish education, we have come to even more fully understand that both are essential for a stronger Jewish community.
Third, our future role in Israel. Our president, John Shapiro, board chair, Jerry Levin, and I are convening a task force of senior leadership to review, reframe and re-envision our future role in Israel. The Jewish state is no longer a fledgling economy in need of philanthropy for its survival. Israel’s GNP is now $180 billion; North American Jewish philanthropy annually approaches $2.5 billion. While our funding supports important work in Israel, the recontextualization of North American Jewish philanthropy calls on us to consider new ways, working with our partners, to engage in strengthening Israel. We believe this may require us to develop new partnerships with Israeli philanthropists and with the government of Israel so that together we can again take on major challenges facing the Jewish state and its people. Israel is one of the two main stages of Jewish life today and effective engagement with Israel is imperative both for American Jewry and Israel, and for strengthening the bonds of our people.
Which leads me to the fourth issue. Simply stated, too few of our people — on and off college campuses — are able to effectively respond to Palestinian claims or to campaigns that seek to de-legitimize the moral basis for Israel.
The last decade has demonstrated the import of Israel advocacy. We provide support for multiple advocacy efforts and will continue to do so. However, in conflating Israel advocacy and Israel education, we deny members of our community the opportunities to deepen their own engagement and bonds to Israel by developing their own positions and perspectives. At its best, Israel education prepares young and old to develop their own positions, their own conflicting visions, about what Israel can and should be. An important component of effective Israel education provides settings to work through difficult historical and moral issues, which both deepens knowledge and solidifies personal commitment to and engagement with Israel.
In cooperation with the Jewish Agency’s Israel Engagement Center/Makom and other Jewish organizations, we will embark on a major effort to enable young and old to legitimate Israel — not because they are defending a given line, but rather on the strength of the positions they have developed after wrestling with Israel’s history and difficult existential issues and reconciling their views with their deepest values.
These four issues — the affordability of Jewish life; reweaving our community to connect our chesed work more deeply in the Jewish community; our future role in Israel; and differentiating Israel advocacy and Israel education — will augment our continuing commitment to the vision of creating “inspired and caring communities.”
Above all, we will continue to hold high the banner of Jewish communal collective responsibility. In a culture too often defined by rampant individualism, including in philanthropy, we affirm that we are indeed part of a people and community that promotes the axiomatic value of our responsibility for one another, of the shared and mutual responsibility of each and every member of the house of Israel. We do this not only because it is the core foundation on which the work of federation rests. We do this because it is a core principle on which the entire enterprise of the Jewish people rests. Our reciprocal responsibility is not a gimmick; it is not a technique. It is who and what we are about.
Federations, including ours, are not without flaws: laborious processes, sometimes too slow to change. But I have come to believe that federations represent the very best of areyvut — responsibility for an entire community and for an entire people. While some view our annual campaign as anachronistic, I see it as an inspired cause, an educational curriculum enabling each of us — even those who have lost considerable wealth during the past year — to recognize that we remain among the most privileged human beings that have ever roamed this planet, and certainly the most privileged Jews.
I see our campaign as actualizing our abiding commitments to both teach Torah and, in the words of Isaiah “feed the hungry, house the homeless, and clothe the naked.”
I see our annual campaign as asking every Jew to accept responsibility for the entire Jewish people — those we know and those we do not, those with whom we agree and those with whom we do not — to make sure that each has the ability to live with dignity.
Our annual campaign recognizes that while we may understand God, Torah, and commandments quite differently, we share both history and destiny.
What a sacred curriculum at this moment in time — for our people and beyond.
John Ruskay is CEO and executive vice-president of UJA-Federation of New York. This article was excerpted from a speech he gave last week at an event marking his 10-year anniversary as the top executive of the charity. For the full text, go to this link.