Jewish Outreach: The Endangered Species

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I’ve spent considerable time defending why Jewish Outreach should have a presence on campus and elsewhere. I’d like to now discuss an issue I consider to be legitimate (joking!). There are learning centers in Israel that are dedicated to grooming young men and women to go out and help make the world a better place by teaching Torah and inspiring Jewish young people. The worthiness of such institutions are invaluable given the sharp incline in Jewish assimilation and intermarriage in  America. So far, so good.

Since adulthood, I knew I wanted to devote my life to sharing Judaism’s beauty with other Jews. I was fortunate enough to meet a guy who was passionate about the same cause and wanted to build a home filled with Torah and loving-kindness. We immediately moved to Israel and found the cheapest, smallest apartment we could find. We were thrilled.

We spent over four years in Jerusalem and were fortunate enough to carve that time out to infuse our home with spirituality. We talked and dreamed together about the outreach we would eventually move on to do. We also took classes and soaked up lessons from the wonderful role models Israel boasts so we could leave as prepared as possible to enrich Jewish communities and campuses.

We were job hunting in a post-2008 world where every organization and business was downsizing. There were very few choices and we felt incredibly fortunate when we landed in Southern California working for (arguably) one of the most successful campus outreach organizations in North America. We worked long and hard but loved every moment. We made incredible relationships with people I now call family – and for some- I call their families family too (Hi Sorrells!).

We left USC and I can tell you about that later. Point is, Rabbi Daniel and I decided to move on although we weren’t sure where we were going. The job options in kiruv (Jewish outreach) are so few and far between – I can’t tell you how many charismatic, dynamic, upstanding rabbis I’ve come across who are now real estate brokers, lawyers, and IT people. I’m not knocking these professions AT ALL- just commenting that what may be the real estate market’s gain is the Jewish community’s loss. To some, this is a fact of life. To me, this is a tragedy.

The crazy thing is that it boils down to the money (doesn’t it?). What’s driving expansion of non-profits that creates new jobs? Philanthropists and their willingness to invest in Jewish outreach. The National Study of American Jewish Giving put out a publication called Connected to Give: Key Findings. Here are the the five key findings:

  1. Most American Jews are charitable givers (76%- the same percent that are intermarrying according to Pew. Random but interesting.)
  2. 92% of Jewish contributions go to non-Jewish organizations. 79% go to Jewish organizations.
  3. The biggest factor influencing American Jews to make a charitable contribution is an individual’s connection to and engagement with the Jewish community.
  4. As income increases, the incidence of giving increases.
  5. Younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish organizations (although not surprisingly more likely to give through new methods like texting, giving circles, and crowdfunding sites)

Let’s focus  on #3 and #5: The younger Jews are less likely to give to Jewish causes and the biggest factor influencing American Jews’ contribution is individual connection and engagement with the Jewish community. My conclusion is that younger Jews are, as individuals, feeling less engaged and connected to the Jewish community (otherwise they’d donate more to it). But it’s not all doom and gloom because Jewish Outreach is a wonderful counter-attack to the disconnection all these young Jews are experiencing.

Problem is, in order to provide quality Jewish programming to engage young people, funding is a critical necessity.

I hate to leave you with this conundrum but that’s exactly what I’m doing. Hopefully no one closes their laptops feeling depressed- my goal is to be solution-oriented and empowering. There certainly are some wonderful efforts being made to combat the low engagement and charity that is a reality for Jewish non-profits (nod to Moishe House for innovation). Clearly, however, there is more to be done. If we’re just focused on fundraising and old-fashioned programming, Jewish outreach will become irrelevant quickly. We need to think about the needs of our generation and the best way to reach out- fast. Your Bold Ideas and comments are most welcome.

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