The two largest gaffes in American Judaism are its lack of direction and lack of leadership. Both of those are interconnected properties of a prospering country or culture. There have been plenty of promising signs over the last few years of Jewish cultural growth, namely a flurry of new organizations, publications and diverging ideas about Judaism itself. But all of those advancements have been inhibited by the economic crash and subsequent financial hits from sources like Bernie Madoff.
Suddenly, Jewish full time and part time schools are unrealistic options for both passionately-devoted and nominally-dedicated Jewish parents. Jewish organizations face permanent closure. A host of other communal concerns undermines any hope for continued cultural momentum.
A New Approach
Now considering the sheer size of America’s Jewish community, which far outnumbers the populations of several states in the Union, the incoming leadership of the United Jewish Communities (UJC – the overall leadership of the United States’ Jewish federations), will have his own opportunity to adapt the community to the new economic environment and tackle long-standing crises like education and population decline.
Along with several other issues, it would be worth viewing them as general subjects worthy of national direction from a high office on education, or population growth, or finance, etc. In other words, the Jewish community’s leadership must be competent enough to set policy on a large scale and consider trying to govern the 5.5 million + strong Jewish community as if it were the constituency of another state in the union.
The analogy seems to make no sense when thinking about things like taxes, a tribute that governments impose on their constituents and then re-disperse on various projects throughout the government’s jurisdiction. But the UJC and its daughter federations collect dues, some required of individuals and synagogues, others gifts from wealthy members. In essence, we can compare the dues paid to synagogues and dues synagogues pay to federations and that federations pay to the UJC as taxes. The gifts of the wealthier members of the Jewish community further the analogy, as if we as a Jewish community were on a graduated tax system like the United States.
The Jewish Departments of Education, Economy, etc.
Needing their own particular attention, a national office for each important categorical concern, just like a government department, would encourage comprehensive and organized planning for the community.
The argument for a Department of Education is long, but I assume obvious. A Department of Conversion, akin to a Department of “Immigration Absorption” would better integrate new members into the community and could either be subdivided by denomination or push unifying policies like the ideas of Rabbi Norman Lamm or organizations like the Eternal Jewish Family to create a universally acceptable conversion.
But other concerns, like security and threats to the Jewish community, could fall under the responsibility of a Secretary of Security or Anti-Semitism. “Foreign” relations with other ethnic and religious communities, individual American states or the Federal government, or other Jewish communities around the world could be managed from its own department. A special Department for Israel Affairs would be useful as well. Best of all, any department could offer to be a coordinator for programs offered by many Jewish non-profit organizations.
Boards of trustees exist throughout the Jewish world. But this does amount to the privatization of the Jewish community. Lay leaders outside of the upper class would have little opportunity for advancement. Very few get to devote a substantial amount of volunteer time and truly represent a constituency.
In much the same sense the old unelected American Senate, or old House of Lords in Great Britain appointed members, the American Jewish community could create two chambers of leadership, demanding more consistent input from its active leaders in a lower chamber and its financial leaders in an upper house.
It would provide a real chance to give official title and motivation to the potential leaders of the Jewish future in the United States. There would be a noticeable outlet for Jewish activists, perhaps as young as 18, to project dynamic and new ideas that will decide on allocation priorities for the Jewish community.
Census and GDP
An audit of the American Jewish community would provide the most accurate accounting of the community’s human resources and financial assets for the first time.
Rather than the limited estimations published over the years, a distinct census could count Jews by various categories and types of identification. With those statistics, issues of population decline could be addressed by targeting specific constituencies, and determining the extent to which intermarriage and assimilation present in the Jewish community.
A Jewish GDP would give an accounting of the financial viability of the entire community, plus an assessment of how much potential philanthropic funds exist. The information would be vital in planning financial growth for the US community, and setting fundraising goals for major programs and development projects (financial or otherwise).
Involving Existing Groups
The goal would be to ultimately unify the American Jewish community, in a lesser or larger extent. Efforts still have to be made to better involve Orthodox Jewish communities in certain federations around the country. The federation system needs to avoid remaining solely in existence for the benefit of non-Orthodox Jewish groups. The support of the Orthodox Union and Chabad respectively would maximize and optimize the organizational effectiveness of the UJC and the viability of Jewish communication overall.