This past week, Mindy Zeitzer, Jewish Federation Chair of the Board, Bob Horenstein, JCRC Director, and I were in Chicago for the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly (GA). It was the first in-person GA in three years. The three main foci of the conference were issues that a broad swath of North American Jews care about and generally agree on: combating antisemitism and securing communal institutions; alleviating Ukraine’s humanitarian crisis; and reducing communal polarization. Personally, I wish we could have focused on more upbeat and positives issues.
Let me begin with the “elephant in the room.” President Isaac Herzog addressed the GA on Monday urging American Jewish leaders to respect the results of the following day’s elections. Herzog said, “The results may or may not be to your liking, but the vote of the Israeli people should be respected. Beyond this, I say to each and every one of you that the firm, vital connection between the State of Israel and North American Jewry will not, and should not, be compromised, whatever the results.”
As we now know, Benjamin Netanyahu will be the next Prime Minister of Israel with a coalition made up of multiple right-wing and religious parties.
State Department spokesperson Ned Price said yesterday that while it was too early to speculate about the composition of the coalition, “What I would say is that what makes this relationship so strong and what has made it so strong since Israel’s independence to the present day is that this is a relationship that has always been based on our shared interests, but importantly our shared values. And we hope that all Israeli government officials will continue to share the values of an open, democratic society, including tolerance and respect for all in civil society, particularly for minority groups."
Much has already been written on the election -- here are several articles with differing views:
These US Jewish groups are staying quiet on far-right extremists’ election success in Israel
It’s about to get a lot harder for American Jews to explain Israel
With overwhelming victory, Netanyahu to form strong, stable, legitimate, right-wing government
Israel voted for Netanyahu, Ben-Gvir. Let them govern
We have a winner, elections for the 25th Knesset are over
What Netanyahu’s comeback means for Israel
Also at the GA, I went to a session on the importance of data and the what you can learn from a community study. As you are aware, our community launched its study last week – please fill out the survey if you received it. Here are some key lessons:
Across the country, communities are seeing declines of affiliation and participation in Jewish life. Jewish families are having fewer children and fewer children are being raised as Jews. Nationally, donors to Jewish organizations have declined along with membership to synagogues and JCCs. It is estimated that 1.8 million people with a Jewish parent do not identify as Jews in any way. Moreover, younger cohorts say having Jewish grandchildren is less and less important. And we have moved from being actively engaged in Jewish life to more “episodic” involvement.
These findings have all been affirmed by recent local Jewish community studies.
However, it is important to note that among young Jews, they are connecting Jewishly in new and more diverse ways with a DIY (do-it-yourself) mindset. The question is how can longstanding Jewish organizations actively meet young Jews where they are – and not passively wait for them to enter those organizations’ doors?
One speaker made the following analogy. Up until the 1980s, most homes relied on network television and maybe 3-4 channels. Now we have hundreds of cable channels and multiple streaming services. In fact, today, more people than ever before are watching TV – just differently than how I did as a child. The speaker’s thought was that the “networks” are the legacy institutions in our community. With so many new avenues and new opportunities in Jewish life – we may have more people doing Jewish, yet in a different way.
One of the challenges of community studies is they are a “snapshot in time.” How do you turn that data into actionable community priorities?
Being “data driven” is very different than being “data informed.” These same questions are being discussed at the Jewish Federation so that we are fully prepared to move forward following the release of our findings in May 2023.
Here are some additional highlights:
- The Mayor of Highland Park, Nancy Rotering, talked about the mass shooting on July 4. She said, “Our children knew exactly what to do on the Fourth of July because they’ve been training for an active shooter their entire lives. What on earth does that say about us as a society?” Sigh.
- A Chicago pastor gave a glorious and uplifting talk about Jews and Blacks working together, and then led the entire audience in a rousing, soulful rendition of Hatikvah, Israel’s national anthem.
- Noted scholar Rabbi Yitz Greenberg shared his vision for Jewish life with the centerpiece being 4-5 day experiential/relational/spiritual retreats for people of all ages.
- We visited the headquarters of the Secure Community Network (SCN), our partner in providing security to our Jewish community. Just know that after seeing their “set-up,” feel confident in their preparedness to help protect and secure Jewish communities across the country. At their office, they have a chair with bullet holes from the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh along with the actual chair Rabbi Charlie Cytron-Walker threw at the hostage taker in Colleyville. These are reminders of what can happen and how we must be prepared if and when it does.
I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the power of seeing my colleagues from around the country in-person. These past several years have been hard on all of us and seeing faces on a screen is far different than being able to give a person a hug. That is what makes this conference so special – a group of people from across North America with a common goal -- to strengthen Jewish communities for generations to come.