Professor Jonathan Sarna on the impact of the recession on Jewish communities

Source: JPR News Release, 7-7-09

Jonathan D Sarna*, Professor of American Jewish History and Director of the Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program at Brandeis University, Mass, USA, delivered the JPR William Frankel Memorial Lecture in July in the auditorium of Berwin Leighton Paisner, in association with the Jewish Chronicle. The lecture was chaired by Harold Paisner, Chairman of JPR.

Professor Sarna gave a stark warning that over the coming year, the Jewish community would have to make difficult decisions concerning ‘who will live and who will die’ in Jewish communal life. He predicted that organizations that were weak or undercapitalized before the recession were the least likely to survive.

He highlighted five trends to watch out for:

1. He observed that some Jewish organizations in the United States either have, or are close to being merged into non-Jewish organizations. He said that today Jews seemed confident — maybe too confident — that deals could be made with secular non-Jewish or even avowedly Christian organizations, without Jewish identity being lost.

2. Efforts to re-engage small donors. Historically, large, wealthy donors have always dominated Jewish philanthropy. Today they are cutting back, but new technologies have made it easier to re-engage small donors cheaply.

3. Calls for higher standards of ethics and greater transparency in Jewish philanthropy. Madoff losses, investment losses and nationwide dissatisfaction with high executive salaries and perks are affecting the nonprofit world. Donors, and in some cases governments are demanding more financial openness, greater disclosure of conflicts of interest, and less reliance on the wisdom of a small, wealthy clique. He predicted that Jewish non-profit organizations would be stronger in the years ahead, if these reforms were instituted.

4. A new focus on ‘sweat equity’. Young, creative, technologically savvy Jews will give time to causes that inspire them. The goal is for them to make a difference and, also, as a side benefit, to socialize.

5. Both demographic decline and greater aliyah as jobs disappear in the diaspora. Demographic decline frequently accompanies prolonged downturns: people simply do not feel secure enough to have children.  Professor Sarna warned that this will have a ripple effect on Jewish education and communal life. And with unemployment for young people at the highest levels in decades, it was no surprise that Jews were turning to aliyah, especially the Orthodox.

He explained that these changes underscore one of the great demographic transformations in contemporary Jewish life:  Israel is overtaking the United States as the largest Jewish community in the world. Indeed, while Israel’s demographic rise marks the ultimate triumph of Zionism, for the rest of the world, however, this development will demand adjustments in communal thinking and the flow of money and power.

Professor Sarna predicted that when the economy recovers, we will know much more about the changes that the ‘Great Recession’ has wrought, but it was still far too early to take their full measure now.

In the meantime, he posed two crucial questions about the future:

First, will the years ahead be marked by assimilation or revitalization? It was easy to make the case both ways. For example, one week we hear that intermarriage is going through the roof, and the next that, in some communities new Jewish day schools are bursting at the seams. So which will predominate – assimilation or revitalization?  The truth is, he said, that nobody knows the answer.  It would be determined day by day, community by community, Jew by Jew.

The second question is whether the Jewish community will be able to identify a mission compelling enough for young Jews to become passionate about and rally around? The great causes that once energized contemporary Jewry – immigrant absorption, saving European, Soviet, Arab and Ethiopian Jewry, creating and sustaining a Jewish state–have now been successfully completed. Today, for the first time in memory, no large community of persecuted Jews exists anywhere in the diaspora.   Nor will 21st century young western Jews gain the kind of meaning from helping Israel, keeping alive the memory of the Holocaust and fighting antisemitism that their parents did.

In the meantime there is no shortage of secular and universal causes that attract young Jews, as well as social justice organizations directed at Jews. Jews are also embracing programmes to promote conservation, environmentalism, and the like.  These are significant causes, with a sound basis in our tradition, Professor Sarna said, but they are not, ultimately, Jewish causes, in the way that Zionism and the Soviet Jewry movement were. He concluded that Diaspora Jews are the poorer for not having a well-defined, elevating mission to inspire us.  Once the economic downturn is behind us, he called for the goal of formulating a new and compelling mission for our Jewish community to be high on our collective agenda.

*Professor Sarna is a leading commentator on American Jewish history, religion and life, and the author of many books, including the acclaimed American Judaism: A History. He is the Joseph H. & Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History at Brandeis University and Director of its Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program.

Dubbed by the Forward newspaper in 2004 as one of America’s fifty most influential American Jews, he was Chief Historian for the 350th commemoration of the American Jewish community, and is recognized as a leading commentator on American Jewish history, religion and life.

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