While purporting to offer a prognosis and prescription for what ails American Jewish life, Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Future, edited by Rabbi Sidney Schwarz, is actually an interesting retrospective on like-minded ideas and programs that have been regarded as innovative and have won recognition for years.
Schwarz’s own prognosis rests squarely in the assumption that young Jews today are not as galvanized by the Holocaust and the State of Israel as were previous generations. He warns that they have been put off by Israel’s settlements in disputed territories and by Holocaust-centered calls for loyalty to Jews and Judaism. Instead, they are galvanized by synagogue-based social justice projects like soup kitchens, as well as by do-it-yourself services and study groups. Yet Schwarz also points to the success of Birthright programs in instilling Jewish identity and love of Israel, and he includes among “social justice projects” sending packages to wounded Israeli soldiers. Clearly, some “particularistic” Jewish concerns and programs are still resonating and working.
Schwarz notes that contributors to current Jewish philanthropic networks, like Federation, are aging and not being replaced, while successful for-profit Jewish service organizations, like JDate, are doing well (though many start-up Jewish for-profit and non-profit organizations quickly crash and burn). He predicts that entrepreneurs may well make inroads in Jewish children’s education and in elder care. Rabbis and synagogues have failed to engage Jews spiritually, he argues, and must be “transformative” to the extent that synagogue attendees become “stakeholders.” The Jewish community, Schwarz warns, is characterized by a widening divide between “tribal Jews,” who “see their identity in political and ethnic terms,” [End Page 96] and “covenantal Jews,” who “see their identity less as a matter of group solidarity than as a spiritual legacy” (p. 11).
Among this book’s contributors, the CEOs write as if giving their annual reports and self-congratulatory motivational talks. Sandy Cardin of the Schusterman Philanthropic Network notes that the “Balkanization” of Jewish giving is here to stay, with family foundations beginning to compete with each other and with Federations, but that they can learn to partner with one another and with promising Jewish entrepreneurs. Elise Bernhardt of the Foundation for Jewish Culture thanks philanthropists for bankrolling the arts and programs that interest them and that often advance their own political and social agendas, in Israel as well as in America. She offers anecdotes about how this or that art exhibit or musical function has encouraged this or that individual to consider “the importance of passing Judaism on to my children.” But she fails to mention that there was a golden age of Jewish art and architecture and music in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s, and that philanthropists and Jewish cultural organizations alike have made no great push to engage younger people in recognition, preservation, performance, and continuation of valuable cultural landmarks in American Jewish life. The success of the recent book Sacred Trash attests that Jews of all ages can be engaged in the wonders of Jewish history and scholarship—and, by extension, in iconic Jewish art and music.
Barry Shrage of the Boston Jewish Federation breaks with the CEO mode at the beginning of his essay on “The Federation System,” just enough to offer some bold and clear thinking. He provides a compelling defense of Federation as “an organization that has the power to mobilize enormous financial, intellectual, and human resources in the service of the Jewish people and Jewish meaning” (p. 189)—and, I think, he’d let us add, “of God,” since, a few paragraphs later, he speaks of seeking to create a Federation “that is focused on change and on a compelling vision of a Jewish future characterized by purpose and spiritual grandeur.” His...