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Mashup: Jewish leaders respond to Pew survey

NEW YORK (JTA) — What would happen if some of the biggest players in American Jewish life sat down and debated the implications of the new Pew Research Center’s survey of U.S. Jewry?

After last week’s landmark study, I talked to nine Jewish philanthropists and organizational leaders about the lessons Pew holds for them and how they spend and invest their hundreds of millions of dollars per year dedicated to American Jewish life. (The result was this story: Engagement trends are negative, but Jewish funders see validation in Pew study.)

I thought it would be interesting if they’d actually speak to each other, so I weaved together what they said (without altering any quotes) so it sounds like they’re actually having a conversation.

Here’s what they had to say.

Arnold Eisen, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary: I see the study as a wakeup call for all of us – the vital religious center of American Jewry.

Mark Charendoff, president of Maimonides Fund: I think it’s an indictment of our collective efforts… As a community, we made a decision a couple of decades ago to focus on Jewish continuity and Jewish identity and we don’t seem to have moved the needle by even one degree… I don’t have another word other than devastated.

Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America: I’m not devastated because I don’t know that the information is shocking based on the trends of 1990 to 2000 and some of the trends we’ve seen in local community studies.

Andres Spokoiny, CEO of the Jewish Funders Network: I don’t think we should cry gevalt.

Sandy Cardin, president of the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation: It’s too soon, I think, to see the immediate impact of what many of us in the community have been doing over the past five to 10 years.

Yossi Prager, North American executive director of Avi Chai: This new study reinforces the idea that we need an energizing nucleus… The Jewish community spent a lot of money trying to reach those it saw as on the Jewish margins, and I think this study shows that those efforts were largely unsuccessful… Intensive and immersive Jewish education is the right answer.

Spokoiny: Orthodox education cuts both ways. Yes, it some cases it guarantees continuity; in some cases, it pushes people aside. If you don’t define your Judaism by religion, you’re basically saying that Judaism is not for you… Given that a lot of Jews define themselves as secular or atheist, it’s critically important… to explore and find and foster venues for encouraging Jewish identity through non-traditional ways: through culture, through arts.

Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism: It’s very clear that the intermarriage rates are not going away, and the big question is what does the Jewish community do in response. Our approach is to bring those people close, not to push them away, not to judge them.

Eisen: They want a new notion of what being Jewish is – we haven’t really responded to that… We need to have options… Stop trying to make Judaism only about religion. There are substantive ways to be a Jew beyond religion.

Prager: This study should diminish anyone’s confidence in a smorgasbord approach to building enduring Jewish commitment. Lots of efforts have been tried and seem not to have worked.

Jacobs: Demographics give you a slice of reality. They don’t tell you what to do; they don’t tell you what’s possible. That’s the challenge of Jewish leadership.

Michael Steinhardt, Jewish mega-philanthropist: The leadership in the community is atrocious.

Charendoff: People felt that if everyone does their part maybe we’ll get there organically. I think this study shows if everybody does their part we’re not going to get there.

Cardin: There’s no silver bullet [but] there’s reason to be optimistic that we can, as a community, come together and address those issues and concerns.

Spokoiny: Organizational models need to adapt. They need to be able to operate more as a network than as a traditional pyramidal, top-down organization… Organizations that have fundraising as their main, core task, like federations, should really be investing a lot in engagement in different ways.

Silverman: There definitely will need to really be a convening of real thought leaders and thinkers to really look at this from a sense of implications and strategy going forward; it’s not going to happen at the G.A.

Steinhardt: I don’t see the community thoughtfully dealing with it… So much of this was obvious a long time ago, and the worthwhile question is not so much about the Pew study but about the community itself, to ask why the community is so lame in dealing with change.