Conclusion

We should be pleased that the organized Jewish community has begun to discuss seriously the issues of accessibility, affordability and participation. Our future in North America depends on gaining and retaining the commitment and involvement of a critical mass of individuals for the enterprise we call “Jewish communal life.” And, this task will surely grow more – not less – challenging over the years.

The community’s response, we have tried to suggest, must be multi-dimensional, embracing organizational change, multiplying access points and reducing the costs – financial and psychological – of participation. The first and most important step is to recognize that we are not powerless to change the current situation. Based on the above analysis, consider the following as an initial set of 20 practical options:

To help Jewish organizations become more attractive to current and prospective participants:

  1. All Jewish organizations should conduct periodic “marketing and quality audits” to examine how “clients” are treated and whether they are receiving real value for their
  2. participation. Based on these audits, institutions should develop and implement ongoing “self-improvement plans.”
  3. Staff and volunteer leaders should receive training in how to make organizations more responsive and “welcoming” to participants.
  4. Policies that may discourage participation, e.g., those requiring financial payments before any benefit is received, should be reviewed and revised whenever feasible.
  5. All organizations should have some activities that are open to non-members and widely publicized as such.
  6. Community-wide instruments (federation, a synagogue council, Jewish foundations) should provide both financial incentives and technical assistance to institutions prepared to undertake changes designed to make them more open, accessible and attractive (for example, by making consultants available to help with the marketing/quality audits and self-improvement plans).
  7. Success stories in organizational improvement and in increasing participation should be widely publicized in the Jewish media to encourage others to undertake similar efforts.

To broaden the opportunities available to individuals to become and remain involved in Jewish communal life, and especially in high-impact Jewish activities:

  1. Comprehensive efforts should be mounted in key areas, such as Jewish summer camping, campus services and youth/family/adult retreat programming to ensure that a) adequate and appropriate physical facilities exist to accommodate all prospective participants and b) programming in these settings is of consistently high quality and Judaic content.
  2. Institutional and communal policy-makers should initiate significant changes in the ways that the community currently engages adolescents and young adults. Existing model programs and recommendations made by several local and national task forces that have examined these areas should be widely adopted, including the investment of substantial additional resources and dramatically increased institutional collaboration.
  3. Institutional and community leaders should strongly support current efforts to expand participation in Israel experience programs through a combined strategy of improved education, financial incentives, innovative marketing and a wider selection of quality programs, both for the intrinsic value of these efforts and as a model or testing ground for learning how to increase participation in other worthwhile Jewish experiences.
  4. New initiatives should be undertaken to expand opportunities for Jews to connect to Jewish life through gateways, such as high-quality Jewish learning, social action, spirituality and healing and through opportunities that do not require formal institutional affiliation.
  5. Funding should be made available through federations, special endowments or foundations for Jewish “start-ups,” grassroots initiatives aimed at engaging and empowering individuals or groups.
  6. The community should experiment with engaging “outreach” workers who will “go where the Jews are,” based on such models as classical community organizers, the Jewish Campus Service Corps and church outreach workers.
  7. Community-wide audits should be undertaken to determine whether there are adequate opportunities for under-served populations to engage Jewishly (such as singles; divorcees; the physically, mentally, or emotionally challenged; newcomers). Where needed, efforts should be undertaken to develop additional programs, services and media for engaging such individuals (ideally, with their involvement).
  8. Synagogues and other institutions should create consortia to provide a wider array of Jewish educational options for both children and adults, including alternative models of supplementary Jewish education. Communal and foundation funding should be made available to provide incentives for experimentation, specialization and collaboration and to reduce the financial risks to individual institutions.

To reduce the financial burdens of active participation in Jewish life:

  1. Federations, institutions and philanthropists should join together to create, expand and secure funds for mechanisms to a) provide direct assistance to any individual or family who wishes, but is financially unable, to join or participate in a Jewish institution, program or activity and b) make institutional memberships and participation in educational and other programs financially attractive to a broader segment of the Jewish population.
    Such mechanisms might include:
    1. community-wide endowments to provide scholarships for day schools, summer camps, Israel trips and other high-cost/high-impact Jewish educational programs;
    2. federation-assisted endowment campaigns for individual day schools and synagogues;

    3. communally or institutionally funded incentives to encourage young people to join synagogues or JCCs and families to enroll their children in day schools (incentives might be time-limited for one to three years);

    4. revolving “free loan” programs to make funds available for day school tuition and other educational programs to be repaid after children have graduated from college;

    5. discounted memberships or fees for participation in multiple organizations (such as a synagogue and JCC, or a synagogue and day school), with the individual institutions and federation sharing in the cost of the subvention;

    6. a “communal voucher” system, in which individuals would receive communally and institutionally funded vouchers redeemable for one or more of a variety of Jewish-sponsored programs or services (these vouchers might offered at specific times: to young families after the birth of a child, to teens upon their Bar or Bat Mitzvah, to high school seniors before they go off to college).

  2. Federation, day school and foundation leaders should explore together the feasibility of a national day school fund, capitalized at a substantial level ($100 million plus), which could a) provide supplemental scholarships and loans for day school students where local resources are insufficient to guarantee access and b) make grants to schools for initiatives that will improve their long-term financial viability and attractiveness to prospective enrollees (the development of marketing and FRD campaigns or the addition of special programs or equipment).
  3. Institutions should explore a variety of ways to effect cost savings that need not compromise their programs, including: sharing of facilities and staff, joint purchasing and contracting, and joint sponsorship of selected programs and activities (such as for youth).
  4. Experiments should continue to be carried out and carefully evaluated to determine the impact on participation and client satisfaction of dramatically reducing the cost of day school enrollment, participation in Israel programs and other relatively high-cost Jewish activities. Federations, foundations and private funders who make these experiments possible should receive wide positive recognition for their contribution to Jewish life. Within three to five years, the outcomes of these experiments should be reviewed by communal and philanthropic leaders and a decision made as to whether a major, continent-wide effort to lower costs across the board is warranted.
  5. The Government of Israel should be encouraged to pursue its recent initiatives to provide funding in appropriate ways to assist in the education of Diaspora Jews and to use its influence to reduce costs associated with the Israel experience.
  6. All Jewish institutions should review their policies and practices regarding financial interactions with members or prospective participants to ensure that they are designed and administered fairly, sensitively and confidentially.

Obviously, these 20 options represent only one set of suggestions on how to proceed. Undoubtedly, as communal leaders undertake to address seriously the issues of participation and affordability, numerous other and often better ideas will emerge. The bottom-line concern, however, should not be whether the Jewish community has the wisdom to deal with its current situation. It does. The real question is whether it has the will, especially the willingness, to sacrifice some short-term interests for the longer term gain for the Jewish people.

At its core, this is the challenge we face at the end of the 20th century: Can we become a community that can win and hold the attention, loyalty and involvement of Jews by offering them experiences they will value in settings that value them and at a price they are glad to pay?

We have a long way to go before we are such a community, but we also have a great deal to build upon. The good news is that a community that is truly welcoming, engaging, content-ful and connection-building is likely to be a community that Jews with means will be happy to support. And who knows? It may even become a community powerful enough in its impact, in its ability to help Jews of all sorts find additional meaning for their lives, that it will no longer be for many of these Jews merely an “option,” a “provider of goods and services” or a “way station.” Rather, it will become a true home – a place that we come from and return to again and again, because it is part of who we are and an essential element of what we wish to be.