Is Jewish education the stepchild of North American Jewish life?
For decades, scholars, educators, and policy-makers would have argued this—and they did. The idea seems to have been coined in 1967 by Joseph Schechtman (“Jewish Education in the United States: A Working Paper on Facts and Problems,” written for the Jewish Agency). Historical documents from the 20th century allude to the idea, from historian Lloyd Gartner noting in the late 1960s that Jewish education “was usually of marginal interest” to Jewish Federations (Jewish Education in the United States: A Documentary History, 24) to a 1917 report written for a New York Federation committee on funding Jewish education that frowned on funding for Jewish education because such funding required an ideological stand and supported religious activities. B’gadol—in total—Federation support for Jewish education has only grown slowly and over time. Historically, it was genuinely and even deliberately of lower priority than social services and responses to global needs.
The 1990s, of course, changed this. The 1990 National Jewish Population Survey can be seen as a watershed event in Jewish institutional life. It revealed the rate of intermarriage as above 50% and motivated policy-makers and funders toward new priorities. In its wake, spending on Jewish education grew dramatically. Communities adopted interconnected webs of initiatives expanding what we considered to be Jewish education to include education for families, to move education outside of the classroom, and to incorporate immersive experiences. A discourse developed that centered around Jewish continuity and identity to which today’s emphasis of Jewish education on identity and thriving
can be traced. Over time, and “by beginning with worries about quantity,” Jonathan Woocher wrote, “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.” (Jewish Continuity at 25: What Have We Achieved? What Have We Learned?
) Today’s richness of goals, expectations, pedagogies and methodologies, settings, audiences, and opportunities is a result of these decades of work.
In truth, that 1990 intermarriage statistic (52%) was a kind of public tipping point but far from a stark pivot point. In response to the same forces that led to that rate of intermarriage, communities (Cleveland, Boston) were facilitating “continuity commissions” even before 1990. Assimilation was in full effect; intermarriage was a symptom and the continuity commissions a reaction. And the connection of Jewish education to assimilation, its use as an antidote to the call of America, was witnessed even decades before: In 1962, the Council of Jewish Federations’ General Assembly passed a resolution affirming that “the strengthening of Jewish education in quality and effectiveness is of the utmost importance to the future of our communities and of Jewry in America.” It can’t be unrelated that “Federation spending on Jewish education rose from seven million to twenty million between 1966 and 1974, and the percentage of Federation allocations for education rose from 17% to 21% of domestic spending.” (Jack Wertheimer, “Jewish Education in the United States: Recent Trends and Issues,” American Jewish Yearbook 1999, 28.) In fact, concerns about assimilation and Jewish grandchildren are almost endemic to the American experience (indeed, to the post-modern experience!). The real story of funding reveals that Jewish education grew as a Federation priority throughout the twentieth century and particularly following World War II, with funding expanding to respond to the increased costs of Jewish education, and to include more funding for more forms of Jewish education.
Is Jewish education, then, the stepchild of the Jewish institutional system? Exploring that question leads emphasis away from the real story, which is this: During the 20th century, a dynamic infrastructure for learning and for bringing Jewish tradition to life developed in North America. The entire enterprise of Jewish education grew as did investments from the Federation system in Jewish education for all ages and stages, across settings, and with varied purposes. The system became complex, robust, and, in its variety, accessible and applicable to countless more populations than just the core of the community.
And that brings us to today. The collaboration and power of the Federation system have been at the center of the miracles of 20th century Jewish life—the founding of the State of Israel, the rescue of Soviet and then Ethiopian Jewry. Today, the miracles needed are not overseas but in our own communities. The trends of the 20th century will extend through the 21st century as well; or, more precisely, what began in the 20th century as a trend toward assimilation is only continuing and growing. Accordingly, Jewish education continues to be linked to assimilation as a corrective. And as much as Jewish education has many purposes—it makes manifest our holy and valuable tradition, it helps people thrive in challenging times, it gives depth to its adherents’ observance—it is also about helping Jewish tradition and culture continue in spite of the crazy pressures of Western society.
If we are to work collaboratively to make significant progress in helping more Jews and those who love them to live meaningfully in dialogue with Jewish tradition, we need to understand the context in which we are working as well as the millions of dollars invested by the Federation system across Jewish educational opportunities. Out of this need for context came the Portrait of Federation Investments in Jewish Education and Engagement presented here.
INTRODUCTION TO THE PORTRAIT
It is within this context that this essay outlines lessons learned from the Portrait as well as steps JFNA will take to continue to share, discuss, and analyze the data. This Portrait exposes Federations’ work in this critical area, its strengths and also the varied ways we need to grow, sharpen, and deepen this work. It portrays a moment in a long evolution. While some will certainly argue we are not spending enough, it is also clear that we are spending more than ever, and more creatively than ever. The future can and will continue to place demands on the system for more, and we have established a strong foundation for this growth.
In the summer of 2017, as a group of Large City Federation executives discussed the stickiest challenges facing the Jewish world, the Jewish engagement of North American Jewry rose to the top of conversation. We face a crisis, they noted, in declining engagement in Jewish activities generally and in many legacy organizations (such as Federations, JCCs, and synagogues) particularly. They thought that Federations could and should take collective action in this area. But they realized that in order to design such action, we needed to know more about what current efforts look like. “What are we currently spending in Jewish education and engagement?” they asked, and, “What are we spending it on?” More generally, as a major area of philanthropic investment by and through Federations, it seemed critically important to be better able to project an accurate and descriptive message of the collective reach and impact of Federations in this area.
The study we are presenting here is a means to tell the Federations’ story more powerfully and also a way to document a rationale for why we are positioned collectively to do more to influence this critical area of Jewish organizational life across North America.
JFNA’s Jewish Education & Engagement partnered with the TCC Group, an international consulting firm, to conduct a survey of the field, a kind of financial audit. Every Federation was given the opportunity to provide information about their spending in this area from three sources: annual campaign, designated/ special/ restricted gifts, and endowment/ foundation sources. Federation leaders were also asked a series of open-ended questions about trends. At the survey’s close in June, 100% of Large and Large Intermediate Federations, 75% of Intermediate Federations, and 50% of Small Federations had participated, representing 71% of Federations in the system but 95% of the North American Jewish population.
The dataset is enormous and the data itself complex. To that end, there are a number of perspectives or frames we could take on its analysis—basic questions about what the data say, what we really want to take home and think about, what the whole project means for each of us. The rest of this essay looks at the data from each of these perspectives and we encourage everyone, of course, to take a look at the report
WHAT ARE THE FOUNDATIONAL FINDINGS FROM THE DATA? What do we observe about our work?
Here are six foundational observations we draw from the data.
1. We asked Federations to delineate their spending on Jewish education and engagement in 18 categories (plus “other”), noting the source of the spending (annual campaign, endowment/ foundation, designated/ restricted giving.
Of about $1.2 billion total spending reported (for all purposes outside of overhead), 105 Federations reported spending $381,535,050 on Jewish education and engagement in either FY16 or FY17.
The three largest categories of funding accounting for 52% of the $381 million in total spending on Jewish education and engagement:
- Day Schools: 24% (Approximately $90 million)
- College/20s/30s 15% (Approximately $57 million)
- JCCs 13% (Approximately $50 million)
Funding is otherwise spread across the sixteen additional categories explored in the project.
2. Federation funding of Jewish education and engagement is broad and inclusive. A majority of Federations—often even a vast majority—provide some funding for most of the categories in the survey.
In addition, Federations use expansive, general definitions of education and engagement in their grantmaking. Parenthetically, Federation leaders are interested in more robust and even more empirical definitions and may even be eager to use them in their funding.
3. On average, about 75% of Federations’ investments in Jewish education and engagement comes from Federations’ Annual Campaigns; other sources are primarily endowment funds, and, secondarily, special/designated gifts. In some categories, particularly those where newer initiatives have launched, non-campaign revenue can represent as much as 40%, with special/designated gifts comprising the bulk of that non-campaign revenue.
4. Funder is only one role that Federations play in this area. They also serve as convener, strategist, incubator, and change agent. Federations use all of these roles to create new communal initiatives with updated approaches to Jewish education and engagement. When Federations are proactively designing the educational landscape, working with partners to expand opportunities for people to engage with Jewish tradition, they are adding significant value and at their best.
5. We asked respondents about “bright spots,” areas of their work that they felt showed the most potential. While hundreds of bright spots were mentioned, three were mentioned most frequently. They include:
- PJ Library engagement programs—initiatives to engage families outside of their receiving the book subscriptions;
- Public space events—opportunities that bring Jewish life out of Jewish walls, either by sharing Jewish rituals in spaces like grocery stores or convening small programs in businesses and other public venues; and
- Connector/concierge initiatives, where individuals reach out one on one to support the Jewish growth and engagement of those just exploring Jewish life.
6. Federation leaders see all Federations as being engaged by similar questions and challenges in this work. They asked for greater opportunity to explore these challenges together and for shared resources and approaches as all Federations try to reach the same goal of greater engagement in Jewish community and life.
WHAT DO WE MAKE OF THESE FINDINGS? What do we learn about our accomplishments?
The breadth of the Federation system’s work is significant. We have succeeded in building Federation portfolios that invest in Jewish learning, exploration, and living across settings, pedagogies and strategies, and age groups. Sometimes, this has been through and with partners (such as Jewish Community Centers) that also are engaged in varied activities. Sometimes, this is because we have witnessed a changing community and responded with new strategies to help people engage, by building new organizations and initiatives or by providing service directly.
That last point is worth noting. Federation’s role as funder is obvious; the largest concentration of professionals who work at most Federations spend most of their time on donor relations and solicitation. But just as a hospital or university is not a fundraising organization—despite the fact that both types of organizations have deep competencies as such—Federations add significant value when we build the community landscape. “Jewish education” in this context can be defined as the infrastructure of the community, the structured opportunities that facilitate learning. As the report observes, in addition to funder, we are strategist, change agent, incubator, and convener; we provide technical assistance and help our partners build their capacity. We build Jewish educational infrastructure through these many roles, and that work is critical to understanding Federations’ accomplishments in this area. The word “investments” does not cover all of the work that Federations do, and some grants represent the culmination of a significant amount of strategic and implementation work on behalf of the Federation.
It is because Federations are pursuing social change—greater and deeper engagement in Jewish life—and because Federations use a variety of tools to act as change agents that our agenda in Jewish education and engagement has grown and become so complex. As Jewish life has changed and as life has changed more broadly, Federations’ funding for Jewish education and engagement include initial engagement in Jewish life, classical text study, immersive experiences where learning happens through living, the celebration of the sacred, bringing Jewish values to life through social justice work and communal living, and much more. Our goals (as outlined in eJewishPhilanthropy
) are broad, rooted in ancient Jewish ideas, and also an exercise in bridging Jewish tradition to today.
The breadth of our work is also testament to the idea that funding for Jewish education is no longer secondary or tertiary in our work. It is central to how Federations lead.
WHAT’S OUR NEXT TASK? Where and how can we grow?
Federations’ work in this area has grown tremendously since our inception. And, we have more work in front of us.
Vision: As our work in Jewish education and engagement has grown, it has often done so as we have recognized individual needs and opportunities—of Russian-speaking Jews, or of families with young children, or of empty nesters. Because of the survey we now have a chance to step back and look at the big picture, to identify a vision of what it means to live an engaged, rich Jewish life in our community, to blend the pieces into a larger whole. That work may be practical as we think about “hand-offs” from one program to another or about how we lower barriers to Jewish life by exploring marketing outside of traditional avenues. It also might be conceptual as we consider how to drive our work—investments, planning, and capacity building—from that vision, trying to understand what community initiatives will bring our vision to life. We can work more deeply, our work aligning toward a coherent set of goals, by naming our vision and, therefore, our definition of Jewish education and engagement and our sense of what it means to live an authentic Jewish life today.
Study and Scale Bright Spots: The “bright spots” piece of this project points out the extent to which Federations have been engaged in experimental work in helping more people explore Jewish life. The excitement with which people described these initiatives (during phone and written responses to this project) was palpable. But these initiatives are not yet systematized, documented, and evaluated. Family engagement and peer outreach (peer connectors) are evolving institutional structures and may even represent new fields of work in Jewish education. We have a tremendous opportunity to study them, develop an empirical understanding of their impact, and scale them properly across the continent.
Raise Non-Campaign Funds: As much as the Annual Campaign continues to be the primary fund development vehicle for the Federation system, this research also demonstrates that investments outside of the campaign—whether through planned or designated giving—flesh out Federations’ portfolios in this area. It may even be fair to say that Federations rely on funding outside of the campaign in order to respond to evolving needs. The opportunities and pace of growth in Jewish education are extraordinary. As the world changes, the modes of Jewish engagement that we create through Jewish institutional life also need to change to be in line with how Jews communicate and think and with their consumer habits. That change is happening more quickly than our institutions can evolve. Significant funds are needed to accommodate growth if we want to preserve what is most valuable amidst our existing infrastructure while developing the new. As demonstrated here, much of those funds will likely come from outside of the Annual Campaign.
Expand Recent Investments: Federations’ spending in this area is balanced between traditional obligations—to day schools, Jewish community centers, Hillels, Israel education—and newer investments, for camps, synagogues, newer teen initiatives, newer 20s/30s initiatives, and so on. Some of these newer areas remain of potential, but under-funded. As example, an area that received a good amount of funding but that the fewest Federations support is that of “niche” populations—Israeli-American/ Canadian Jews, Russian-Speaking Jews, interfaith couples and families, LGBTQ-identified people. Again, many Federations have not insignificant and creative funding for these communities, but not a majority of Federations. Our work in this area has grown over decades, but we have much more work to do to build a robust infrastructure of opportunity for everyone, that is accessible and attractive to everyone.
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR EACH OF US? As a leader of this work in a local Federation, what’s my stake in this? What do I do with this?
JFNA has work to do, and we have work to do as a Federation system.
Each Federation also has work to do within the context of this research. Our Jewish education and engagement work has to start with that vision—informed by tradition and history—of what Judaism means in the 21st century in Western culture, for those at its core, at its periphery, and in between. We need to understand the role today of literacy, of outreach, of prayer, of peoplehood, and of countless other Jewish values and behaviors that represent sacred Jewish expressions but that are unattainable or inaccessible to many. Each Federation’s lead education and engagement professional, whether in a planning department, a unique Jewish education & engagement office, or part of other another portfolio, has an opportunity to develop this vision, to have a sense of its purpose for each audience we work with, and to engage in work that is both broad and deep, Jewishly meaningful and also informed by academic discourse and data.
Developing this vision might mean answering questions for ourselves of what Judaism and Jewish living mean to us, personally. We are all, also, on Jewish journeys, not dissimilar to those of our audience. The more we understand of our own ideas and proclivities, the more we have a sense of why any of this matters to us personally, and the more we can engage in discovery even when it makes us uncomfortable, the more we can expect the same of others.
And we must do the same at JFNA. Our collective work needs to be vision-driven, and it will start with a collaborative research project defining what we mean by Jewish education and Jewish engagement and the relationship between the two. And, we’ll seek resources to train and support vision-driven leadership, to equip those inside of communities with the resources needed to design and navigate vision-guided change.
This Portrait sparks additional projects as well. We have already begun our work establishing a system to define and measure outcomes for Jewish education and engagement. That work will grow as we learn from pilot efforts
to implement that kind of measurement and explore customer relationship management (CRM) systems that can track Jewish engagement work. We’re going to study the work of the field leaders in each area of the Portrait and try to understand—and share—what it means to spend big and creatively in each area. And finally, we’re going to explore a system of benchmarking, using the data to give each Federation a sense of where they stand in funding compared to others.
It’s that system of benchmarking that brings us to a final point. We have an opportunity, through this research, to act as a field to begin to document principles and standards in our work. We have not yet evaluated our bright spots but we can, particularly by implementing evaluation projects in specific communities and sharing the learning widely. We have common challenges and similar responses to these challenges. We can open ourselves up to learning together and learning from each other—and, to investing together in a system of evaluation and research that helps us learn about the next steps in this work. If the Federations’ work in Jewish education and engagement in the 20th century was about establishing ourselves as an actor in this space, this collaboration to elevate our work through study and field-building is the work of our time. For the Jewish people past and future, we can do no less.