This week, UJA-Federation of New York marked the 20th anniversary of its Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal with a daylong conference at the charity’s Midtown headquarters. Responding to what was deemed as a crisis of Jewish continuity, the commission embarked on funding a spate of Jewish education and identity-building projects meant to shore up young people’s connections to Jewish life. Environmental and social-justice groups received funding, as did Kveller.com, a website devoted to young families.
The Jewish Week caught up with Deborah Joselow, COJIR’s managing director, Eric Goldstein, the commission’s chair by e-mail.
Q: “Jewish continuity” is a bit of a fuzzy term. How do you characterize it, and is it still relevant in 2013?
A: When it came into fashion, “continuity” was not at all a fuzzy term. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey indicated that 52 percent of Jews were marrying non-Jews. The immediate reaction was that this statistic threatened the very continuity of Judaism. While UJA-Federation of New York established a “Continuity Commission,” in a less reactive moment the name was changed to the Commission on Identity and Renewal recognizing that the real challenge was cultivating positive Jewish identity and opportunities to experience inspiring Jewish life.
How has your thinking changed over the years about the kinds of projects you’ve funded?
In the beginning we were intently focused on New York. Today, in this flat, fast and interconnected world, our portfolio extends into the FSU and Israel. But what has remained constant is our belief in making bold decisions that reflect the dynamism of this moment in Jewish life.
You’ve funded some very forward-thinking projects yet federation still has the reputation of being stodgy. How do you feel about that?
UJA-Federation is in fact the antithesis of stodgy. The organization is incredibly nimble. Within days after Hurricane Sandy, for example, we committed $10 million to relief efforts, including money to schools and synagogues most severely impacted. In the area of Jewish education, we have always been countercultural, investing in good ideas whether they were generated by startups or legacy organizations. We were the earliest adapters of such brands as Adamah, Avodah, Storahtelling, Teva, Limmud NY, JDub, Hadar, Hazon, Kveller.com, and more. There is nothing stodgy about that list!
Many young Jews today respond more to the idea of universal values than specifically Jewish ones. How do you balance the two in your funding decisions?
Our investments are balanced because Judaism is balanced with a profound respect for both the particular and universal. Our conversation is always about what needs to get done to assure that inspired Jewish learning is part of the fabric of personal and collective life.
Research has shown that Jewish identity is a terribly fluid thing. How does identity-building figure in your approach to funding?
The Jewish life cycle was once much more predictable. Contemporary life and culture has indeed complicated the process of religious identity development, but it has also ushered in an age of unprecedented Jewish creativity and entrepreneurism. We have chosen to focus on this as a moment of extraordinary opportunity.
Is Israel a complicating factor when thinking about funding projects?
COJIR spends half of its current allocation overseas. The Israel experience is a proven commodity in terms of Jewish identity development. Israel provides a unique opportunity to live in a Jewish time and place. In addition, UJA-Federation has been a pioneer in the field of Israeli Judaism. We continue to work to build a Jewishly democratic Israel believing it is critical for the Jewish state and for the relationship of worldwide Jews to the Jewish homeland.
So much of Jewish identity has been based on crisis and survival. How, in your funding priorities, do you move the discussion to something more positive about Jewish identity?
Certainly the world is a dark and uncertain place but Judaism remains a repository of hope and aspiration. Every lay leader and professional sitting at a COJIR table embodies this belief. Every partner in the field holds this ideal. That’s how you start a revolution.