“Jewish Continuity” at 25: What Did We Achieve? What Have We Learned?

July 29, 2015

Source: Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living 

It isn’t really the 25th anniversary of what came to be called the “Jewish continuity” endeavor in North America. The first Continuity Commission was established in Cleveland before the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey was mounted; and the first results of the 1990 NJPS – including the alarm-ringing, hand-wringing statistic of a 52% intermarriage rate – didn’t appear until the calendar had turned. But, 1990 is a convenient enough date to mark the beginning of a significant effort that has unfolded over the past two and a half decades aimed at strengthening Jewish identity and engagement among American Jews, many of whom, it was argued then and since (viz. the reactions to the 2013 Pew study) are in danger of or are already being lost to Jewish life as active participants.


We might start by asking whether the Jewish continuity endeavor actually achieved anything notable. My answer: If we are referring to the sum total of the activity that was in some way stimulated by or aligned with the rhetorical calls for action that followed the 1990 population study, then the endeavor did in fact achieve a great deal. There’s an important qualifier here. With the notable exception of a few communities, the formal, federation-led local and national continuity initiatives that garnered much attention at the time had at best marginal impacts (and I include those in which I was personally involved). But two other phenomena emerged at least in part as a result of the heightened focus on “Jewish continuity” post-1990 that have had a transformative impact, if not on demographic statistics (though their effects may now be being felt there as well), then certainly on the volume, nature, and quality of Jewish activity in North America. These are, first, the emergence of a vigorous innovation sector in American Jewish life, and, second, the rise of foundations, especially so-called mega-funders, as agenda setters, catalysts, and resource providers for a wave of new initiatives, some unprecedentedly massive in their ambition and reach.


There is not space here to tell the stories of both of these developments (at times interconnected) in detail. But, together, they have altered the landscape of North American Jewish life in dramatically positive ways. Birthright Israel and PJ Library alone have engaged hundreds of thousands of Jewish individuals. First day schools and more recently Jewish camps have experienced dramatic growth, powered by philanthropic dollars. Venerable organizations like Hillel and BBYO have been revitalized. Synagogues too made efforts to become more visionary and welcoming. And, a host of new Jewish programs and organizations, often started in the Jewish equivalent of garages, are now reaching adolescence and impacting tens of thousands of individuals and families: Hadar, Moishe House, Hazon, G-dcast, Mayyim Hayyim, Kevah, Reboot, Ikar, LabShul, and dozens more. In a number of instances, federations have aligned themselves with and added their support to these endeavors. So, even if not as initiators or as the architects of “master plans” for Jewish continuity, central communal institutions have had a supporting actor role in the flowering of Jewish life over the past quarter century.


I read the balance sheet of changes since 1990 as a substantially positive one – there are many more opportunities for Jews to express and enrich their Jewishness through Jewish learning, spiritual life, social activism, philanthropic generosity, connection with Israel, communal fellowship, and Jewish culture than existed 25 years ago, and there are large numbers of Jews doing so (even if not as many as we might like). They’re just not necessarily doing it in the places and ways of the past.


Only a fraction of this activity can be credited directly to the work of Jewish continuity commissions or committees. But, these endeavors and the rhetoric that accompanied them – overly alarmist and self-important as it may have been – helped create an environment in which new ideas could get a hearing, and some funding. And, these, in turn have produced positive change in Jewish life.


Are there lessons in all this for what we do next? I would cite several:

  • The key to success is understanding what people are seeking, and finding ways to meet their needs and aspirations, not getting them to fulfill ours.
  • We can’t control the course of events, but we can influence it.
  • We have to be willing to act boldly, take some risks and make some mistakes.
  • We need new and better language for the important conversations we will be having.

So, 25 years on, was the endeavor worth it? I think so. Not because it created a demographic revolution or saved the Jewish community from disappearing – which it was and is not in danger of doing. But, because by beginning with worries about quantity, it led to initiatives that have greatly improved the quality of American Jewish life. It did not ensure that every Jew would be learned and observant, or even just engaged and active. But, it has encouraged individuals and organizations to develop and support new opportunities and vehicles for Jews and their fellow travelers to encounter Jewish ideas, make Jewish friends, adopt and adapt Jewish practices, and enact Jewish values. That is not a small achievement.


Read the entire post at the Lipman Kanfer Blog.

Updated: Aug. 04, 2015