A prescription for battling rampant assimilation

A prescription for battling rampant assimilation

The American-Jewish community has a sickness that threatens our very survival: rampant assimilation.

We have discovered the most effective preventive medicine: day school education, Jewish camping, and Israel experiences. (Extensive research has shown that these childhood experiences lead most effectively to committed Jewish adults.)

We have the capacity to pay for the curatives: One highly conservative estimate puts philanthropic giving by Jews at $400 billion over the next 50 years.

We are smart, well organized, pragmatic, and pretty darn good at what we do: Jewish federations raise and distribute more than $3 billion annually and have $13 billion in assets in their foundations. When Israel —or Haiti — is in crisis, we respond, seemingly overnight, with tremendous focus and efficiency in raising tens of millions of dollars.

So, why can’t the American-Jewish community figure out how to remedy its illness and secure its own future?

Over the past decade, we have seen great success in focusing expertise, philanthropic resources, and advocacy on this critical triumvirate of day school, camp, and Israel experiences (most notably Birthright Israel). But these highly laudable efforts are not enough. The rising cost of living Jewishly, combined with general apathy among Jewish families, are leaving too many of our youngsters without these life-transforming experiences.

We need to raise billions of dollars nationally — and raise much more awareness among young families — in order to ensure that the vast majority of American-Jewish families can and will choose at least one of these opportunities for their children.

There’s nothing more important that we can do. Fifty years from now, what would be the point of having a Jewish communal infrastructure if there are precious few Jews to serve? And who will be there to support and advocate for Israel?

Achieving this requires a fundamental rethinking of how communities approach fund-raising and how we reach out and engage young families.

Over the past few years, United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ and our federation’s endowment arm, the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest, have raised more than $30 million in permanent funds to enhance and secure Jewish day school education, Jewish camping, and Birthright Israel. We are poised to raise many millions more. We have done this through carefully planned, targeted fundraising; committing time and resources to listening to major donors and engaging with them in family philanthropy; and putting the institutions to work to secure their futures. We have expanded the role of federation into new areas of fundraising — without diminishing the primary importance of the UJA annual campaign in our community.

Here are four key lessons to date:

Targeted fund-raising will strengthen, not weaken, the Jewish community: Some communities have been reluctant to move boldly into fundraising targeted for specific causes out of fear that this will weaken the federation annual campaign. But strategic targeted fundraising is not a zero sum game. Listening to donors and working with them to match their philanthropic vision and priorities with real community change can lead to major, transformative gifts — in addition to annual giving for the UJA campaign.

Beyond strengthening our Jewish future, these targeted efforts also strengthen the federation today: We are reaching out to Russian Jewish families through Jewish camp incentive grants for their children; we are connecting with young families far outside our usual network through offering them PJ Library books; and through day school and Jewish camp fund-raising, we are welcoming new leadership and new ideas and energy into our federation system.

Teach the organizations how to “fish”: The real heart of targeted major gifts and endowment fund-raising lies at the institutional level — with individuals and families who have been touched by the institution over years. For example, we have utilized the expertise and resources of the federation to help our day schools reach their own constituencies — parents, former parents, alumni, grandparents — to raise millions in endowment funds, housed at our Jewish Community Foundation.

Focus on quality — and market it effectively to young families: In MetroWest we focus not only on making Jewish experiences more affordable, but also on excellence — whether through enhancing the science programs in our day schools or through helping young families find the right sports programs for their children at a Jewish camp.

This requires a new kind of outreach. A key part of our camp effort, for example, is having a full-time manager “selling” Jewish camp through Twitter, Facebook, and other social networking techniques and acting as a helpful guide to young families out in the community — in synagogues, living rooms, and school parking lots.

Everyone has to play a part. While major philanthropists and federations can lead the way here, this is too big a task for them to tackle alone. It is time for large numbers of day school alumni, Jewish camp alumni, and yes, even new Birthright alumni — as well as the families of these alumni — to step up and support these experiences for this generation and the next.

Making “Jewish preventive medicine” available to all is a monumental challenge. But we know what works and have the capacity to achieve this. If we can harness the commitment, vision, and leadership around these goals, we can secure a healthy, strong, and vibrant Jewish community into the future.

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