Grappling With Pew Study
Federations' General Assembly deals with changing U.S. Jewish demographics.
n"rin:rn ❑" rn
hen it's held in Israel once
every five years, the Jewish
Federations of North
America's General Assembly (G.A.) aims
to focus on challenges and opportunities
facing the Jewish state. In large part, this
year was no exception.
Israel's president, prime minister and
other prominent politicians addressed the
crowd. Sessions covered Israel's foreign
and domestic agenda, from Iran's nuclear
program to Israel's marriage laws to the
aftermath of the 2011 social protests. The
conference culminated with a walk to the
But a funny thing happened on the
way to Jerusalem. The release of the Pew
Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews gave
conference delegates a comprehensive
picture of Jewish life in America, a set of
sometimes troubling statistics and plenty
to talk about.
Hanging over the delegates' heads were
two questions that have obsessed the
Jewish community since the study was
released last month: What does it mean?
And what do we do about it?
Answers came in sessions before and
during the conference, and in speeches by
JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman and Chairman
Richard Siegal. Taken together, they recom-
mended greater accessibility to communal
resources and programs, such as preschool
and camp, combined with a focus on devel-
oping personal connections between com-
munity leaders and young Jews.
"The fact that we act collectively, that
is our brand:' Silverman said at a plenary
session. "Not just the things we do, but
the fact that we do them together. Let's
never forget that. Let's never be so pas-
sionate about a single cause that we forget
that our real cause is community:'
Silverman lamented the high cost of
Jewish education and called for Jewish
preschool to be free as well as for a major
expansion of the Jewish summer camp
Federations, Silverman said, need to do
a better job of engaging the "low-hanging
branches" of alumni from large programs
like the free 10-day Birthright trip to
Israel. He recommended establishing a
one-on-one mentoring program between
community leaders and young Jews.
Participants mingle at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly
Silverman also advocated making bet-
ter use of technology and announced
plans for the creation of an encyclopedic
website within a year to share communal
best practices and pool data. He reiter-
ated his call for Birthright to make more
of its data available to communities
nationwide, a process that Birthright says
was already under way.
"Half of our young population has been
exposed to Israel, and yet we don't follow
up," Silverman said. "We could change
the face of Jewish communal life one rela-
tionship at a time:'
Siegal called for the creation of "Jewish
development zones" where large com-
munities each would have a summer
camp, high-quality Jewish day schools,
increased youth programming and lead-
ership training opportunities.
Panel sessions preceding the G.A.
focused less on policy solutions and more
on what principles should guide the Jewish
community in responding to a lack of com-
munal connection among young Jews. A
two-day summit on formulating a plan to
strengthen the connection between Israel
and Diaspora Jewish communities ahead of
the G.A. emphasized the value of immer-
sive experiences for North American Jews
in Israel and with Israelis.
"The Jewish identity of Jews around the
world has weakened:' Harel Locker, direc-
tor-general of the Prime Minister's Office,
said at the summit's opening session.
"This shift is opening a gap between the
Jews of the diaspora and Israel, especially
among the younger generation:'
Detroit was represented at the G.A. by
nearly 30 lay leaders and Federation staff.
Many participated in various Israel
missions beforehand, and then came
together in Jerusalem for the G.A.
Ron Sollish of Huntington Woods is co-
chair of Detroit Federation's Pathways to
a new program for
emerging leaders, that
hosted a mission to
Israel before the G.A.
"This was my first
G.A.," Sollish said. "It
was an extraordinary,
incredibly moving expe-
rience seeing the entire
North American Jewish community come
together in Jerusalem. Seeing Detroit as
a shining light in our interaction with
other communities — we have some very
progressive, very forward-thinking [pro-
grams] — made me very proud:'
Mark Kowalsky of West Bloomfield
also was at his first G.A., combining it
with a Detroit Partnership2Gether (P2G)
steering committee trip
to the Central Galilee,
region. Kowalsky chairs
Federation's Israel &
were informative, reas-
suring and energizing;'
he said. "We learned a
lot about the issues that
we face in Israel and around the world
as well as what people in other Jewish
communities are doing to address them.
A lot of the action items discussed, we in
Michigan are already doing. It was ener-
gizing because each of us walked away
with 10 ideas to implement [in Detroit].
"What I brought back is that our com-
munity is on the correct path to start
engaging the Jewish community as early
as possible at all levels. We have the
JBaby program, preschool programs, day
schools and beyond. You can't start early
enough. It's important to begin engage-
ment as early as possible and then have
opportunities going forward:'
Kowalsky says meetings with P2G
counterparts in Israel were very success-
"The message was that they really
appreciate everything Detroit does, but
it's time for them to be in the room with
their peers in Detroit," he said. "They
get the NEXTGen emails, and they are
so excited about what's going on in
Detroit that they want a way to share in
the excitement. We birthed this activity,
but they want to move on on their own.
That's the definition of success:'
Speaking at a Global Jewish
Peoplehood Roundtable sponsored by the
UJA-Federation of New York, Gil Preuss,
Boston's Combined Jewish Philanthropies
executive vice president, said that fed-
erations should focus on giving young
Jews meaningful, substantive Jewish
experiences instead of aiming to attract
the maximum number of participants to
"What does it mean to be Jewish, to be
part of the Jewish people?" he said. "If you
focus on content, you'll get numbers:'
Story Development Editor Keri Guten Cohen
contributed to this report.
November 28 • 2013