If You Build It, Will They Come?

Perhaps the greatest achievement of 20th century American Jewry is its imposing organizational system. Thousands of synagogues, centers, membership and service organizations, philanthropies, and educational institutions provide a myriad of settings for nurturing, expressing and sharing Jewish identity and commitment. Despite being entirely voluntary in character, these institutions engage literally millions of Jews each year in Jewish learning, prayer and ritual observance, fellowship and recreation, and acts of caring and social responsibility. The budgets that sustain these activities run well into the billions of dollars.

Recent studies of American Jewish life, however, suggest that this magnificent institutional edifice that we call “the organized Jewish community” is showing clear signs of cracks and erosion. Fewer Jews – especially younger Jews – join or financially support Jewish organizations than was the case a generation ago. Surveys indicate that fewer feel that belonging to or financially supporting Jewish institutions is necessary to secure services that they seek, to form and maintain social attachments, or to pursue meaning in their lives. Qualitative research reveals widespread ambivalence about “organized” Jewish life: “Baby boom” and younger Jews respect the contribution that Jewish organizations make, but they often feel that these organizations do not belong to, understand or effectively cater to them. They are put off by what they perceive as elitism and plutocracy.

American Jews (like Americans in general) are becoming less a group of joiners and more a collection of consumers. As good consumers, they are often highly discriminating in which products and services they will buy. Their “commitments” to particular institutions are often shallow and short-lived. Their choices are guided by whether what is being offered satisfies their needs of the moment at a price they are prepared to pay. Many of the Jews who do join organizations at one or several points in their lives also spend long periods of time without any institutional affiliations. Synagogue membership in particular is linked directly to stage in the life cycle: Tens of thousands of Jewish families join synagogues when their children are ready for a Jewish education, but drop out once that process is “completed.” As one observer has put it: For too many Jews, programs and institutions function more as “archways” than as “gateways” into enduring participation.

This trend in American Jewish life is cause for concern on both pragmatic and ideological grounds: Pragmatically, the concern is whether the institutional infrastructure itself can be sustained and, more importantly, can deliver what is still expected from it by many Jews and by society as a whole, if growing numbers of Jews decline to support it with their resources and energies on more than consumerist terms. Ideologically, the concern is rooted in the fact that “community” is a core value of Judaism itself. Some would argue, indeed, that the idea that the world can be perfected only through the action of a community – a people – committed to modeling a just, compassionate way of life is one of Judaism’s unique (and audacious) religious claims. Can American Jewry truly aspire to become a kehillah kedoshah, a “holy community,” on the basis of increasingly privatized, “limited liability” Jewish identities and commitments?

These concerns are important. There is no gain, however, in trying to turn back the clock or in berating those whose connection to the institutions of the Jewish community is tentative or intermittent. The forces that have brought us to where we are today derive largely from the successful passage of Jews into the mainstream of American society, and from changes in our society as a whole. Like other Americans, Jews today are often suspicious of all institutions. They react warily at best, with hostility at worst, to a priori “demands” and “expectations.” They have not abandoned the quest for community and belonging – indeed, they often bemoan its absence in their lives. But they are seeking to experience connection in ways that are more intimate and personal than most institutions appear to offer, and without giving up their autonomy. They want responsive institutions, which neither take for granted their loyalty and involvement, nor leave them feeling empty and unnoticed as they participate. They are willing to give of themselves – at least up to a point – but they do want to receive something valuable in return, for themselves and for their families. And, they are prepared to keep looking, even outside the Jewish community, if they don’t find what they are seeking.

The changing norms in institutional affiliation and participation over the past generation do not spell imminent doom for the American Jewish community. Jews are not turning their backs on Jewish organizations; they are asking them to do more to earn and keep their involvement and support. Where this challenge is being met, Jewish organizations continue to flourish. Indeed, in some arenas of organized Jewish activity, day school education and adult learning, participation seems to be increasing quite dramatically in many settings. This points, however, to a second area of concern today: ensuring that Jews who are willing, and, in some cases, perhaps even eager, to become involved in Jewish organizations, use Jewish services and participate in Jewish programs are encouraged and enabled to do so.

Here, we face a special challenge. The Jewish community has an interest in expanding participation in organized Jewish activity on whatever terms Jews are (initially) willing to “sign up.” However, this is especially true with respect to those experiences and activities that demonstrably correlate with (and almost surely help cause) increased Jewish commitment. Yet, it is precisely the activities or affiliations that have demonstrated the greatest potential for nurturing Jewish commitment – synagogue involvement, day school education, participation in Israel programs – that demand the greatest initial investment of self and money. Thus, even while we strive to induce more Jews to buy into these “high investment, high return” activities and affiliations, we must at a minimum ensure that no Jew who is already willing to make this investment is prevented or discouraged from doing so.

In this complex reality, perhaps the most direct route to formulating policies that will encourage increased and intensified participation in organized Jewish life is to look at the barriers that serve to inhibit such participation today:

First, on many observers’ lists, is the cost of being Jewish. Studies going back more than a decade have shown that living a “model” Jewish communal life – belonging to a synagogue, providing children with a high-quality Jewish education (day school, and/or summer camp, and/or a trip to Israel, etc.), joining a JCC and/or other Jewish organizations, giving to tzedakah (including the local Jewish federation) – is an expensive proposition. The total annual cost of being a serious, affiliated Jew can run into the tens of thousands of dollars, especially during the years when children are of school age. For many families, this is simply beyond their means. The availability in some instances of scholarship assistance or reduced fees may mitigate the cost somewhat, but studies show that many individuals are either unaware of the opportunities to receive assistance or unwilling to go through the sometimes embarrassing process of asking. For young people just beginning careers, whether single or married, even the cost of a synagogue membership and a modest federation gift may well be more than their limited budgets will allow. What is especially frustrating from the perspective of those concerned with “Jewish continuity” is that those experiences that have shown themselves to be most effective in nurturing Jewish identity and commitment also tend to cost the most. While we have no exact way of measuring how many more individuals and families might belong to synagogues, attend day schools and summer camps, and visit Israel if these activities did not typically cost thousands of dollars, there is good reason to believe that the number would be substantial.

Some may protest that despite the cost, thousands of Jews of relatively modest means do pay to join synagogues and send their children to day schools and on trips to Israel. What this means, of course, is that “cost” functions as a barrier to participation in relation to perceived “value.” To those for whom belonging to a synagogue is a sine qua non of being Jewish, cost may be a burden and may call for a sacrifice, but it will not be allowed to stand in the way of membership. However, for many (if not most) Jews, Jewish activities and affiliations are not absolute priorities. They must prove their value in a marketplace of potential allocations of time and resources. We may hypothesize that the issue of “perceived value” as a barrier to participation manifests itself in two ways: In some instances, the value of an activity (e.g., sending one’s teenage child to Israel on an educational program) may be perceived as so minimal that it will not be pursued regardless of cost. In other instances, the value may be acknowledged, but the “price point” at which it overrides other considerations and induces one to take action is lower than the current market provides for. In the second instance, reducing the cost may be sufficient to motivate participation. In the first, however, approaches (e.g., education) that actually raise the perceived value of a particular activity or affiliation, not a reduction in price alone, will be needed to induce action. Again, we do not know precisely the extent to which low “perceived value” in either or both of these forms currently inhibits participation in Jewish activities and institutions. But, there is good reason to believe that it is a major factor for many Jews: What the organized Jewish community offers is simply not perceived as worth the “cost” – not just monetary, but in terms of time and energy invested – required to partake.

“Cost” and “perceived value,” though clearly among the most important barriers to participation in organized Jewish life, are hardly the whole story. The demographic transformation of American Jewry over the past generation challenges institutions to maintain their relevance and attractiveness to an increasingly diverse population, a challenge that many organizations are finding difficult, if not impossible, to meet. Consider the factors and population groups that currently call for attention:

  1. high geographic mobility and increasing geographic dispersion;
  2. a growing population of elderly Jews;
  3. a “boom-bust roller coaster” profile for successive age cohorts;
  4. delayed marriage and increased divorce, meaning more single Jews, including single parents;
  5. a large number of two-earner families;
  6. a growing population of inter-married;
  7. substantial numbers of “latent” Jews, who are happy to remain “invisible” to the organized community (at least for the time being), without entirely abandoning a Jewish self-identification;
  8. gay and lesbian Jews who are not prepared to remain invisible;
  9. physically, emotionally and mentally challenged Jews who want to be part of the community’s life.

The growing diversity of the population that faces and surrounds them presents Jewish institutions with multiple dilemmas. Can they possibly hope to appeal to and serve effectively all of these Jews (even leaving aside, for the moment, ideological issues)? If not, where should they point their (limited) energies? If they become “niche” providers, can they ensure their own continuing viability? If they choose (like many institutions) to target the Jewish “mainstream” (intact families with two Jewish spouses and one or more children), who will serve all the other Jews?

These are real dilemmas, and the difficulty institutions have in dealing with them has resulted in a situation in which many Jews do not find the organized Jewish community well attuned to their needs, desires and life situations. They perceive the community as difficult to find, unwelcoming or poorly equipped to provide the specific supports and services that they seek. In too many instances, these are not merely perceptions: They reflect negative experiences of being turned away, tuned out, bored, preached to or otherwise made to feel a “stranger in one’s own house.”

On the other side, institutions often feel confused by the demands they perceive being placed upon them and their own uncertainty as to how to respond. They are often genuinely troubled by the indifference they encounter from Jews whom they would like to engage, not recognizing, perhaps, that what they are offering is not what these Jews are looking for. Feeling rebuffed, they may withdraw into themselves, reinforcing stereotypes of Jewish institutions as rigid, cold, cliquish and elitist. Of course, examples of the opposite, institutions that take on the task of “outreach” with vigor and skill, exist as well. Still, the overall picture is one of a community that is having difficulty keeping up with the pace of change, and, as a result, is losing ground in the already uphill struggle to keep Jews involved in organizational life.

The upshot of all of the above is that changes in policy and practice – in some cases dramatic ones – are clearly needed if the Jewish community is to maximize its potential over the next decades for involving Jews in the activities and affiliations that are most likely to produce strong, durable Jewish commitment. Before outlining some potential strategies for expanding accessibility, affordability and participation in Jewish communal life, however, one caveat is in order:

Expanding participation, or what we might characterize as “unlimited access” to Jewish activities and organizations, should not be seen as the only goal for communal, and certainly not for institutional, policy. If we take seriously the concept of “community-building” as both a practical and an ideological desideratum, then issues of quality of community life and standards of participation are relevant as well. Though the Jewish community as a whole may have an interest in expanding participation on (almost) any terms, an individual institution may justifiably seek to limit participation to or at least favor the participation of those who share its vision and values and whom it can most effectively serve and accommodate (and, realistically, those who can help sustain the institution itself). This complicates policy making, because it means that diverse considerations may need to be balanced when assessing the desirability of specific proposed initiatives – e.g., those that would reduce the costs of membership.

Fortunately, given the diversity of institutions in the community, it is generally feasible to allow organizations to find their own “comfort level” with policies that would open them to greater participation (and, in light of institutional autonomy, often little option to do otherwise). There is no need, for example, to insist that all synagogues make explicit efforts to welcome gays and lesbians as long as some are prepared to do so. The challenge to communal policy makers is to find and implement approaches that achieve the overall goal of enlarging and deepening participation without damaging the interests or integrity of the institutions that ultimately must provide the contexts for this participation. On the other side, organizations need to recognize that they will in most instances benefit in the long run from pro-participation policies and initiatives, even though these may occasion some difficult short-term adjustments and even sacrifices.

What, then, are some of the policy options for increasing and deepening participation that need to be explored seriously today? No single approach, such as reducing costs, will suffice. Involving more Jews in Jewish communal life requires a multi-dimensional strategy. Reluctant Jews must be convinced that it is worthwhile to join and participate. Jews who are seeking places and means to become involved must be helped to find the right connections. And, those who want in, but feel barred from entry either by cost or other sources of discomfort, must have these barriers removed. We would group the most promising approaches under three broad categories:

  1. Changing organizational cultures and behaviors
  2. Multiplying access points to Jewish life
  3. Making Jewish participation more affordable