In 1978, I received a letter from the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia that changed the very course of my life. The letter said, “We have identified you as a future leader of our Jewish Community and would like you to participate in a ‘free’ trip to Israel.”
I was in my late 20s and was a young lawyer, wife and new mother. The timing was far from ideal yet I knew that I just had to go. I made a commitment to give $2,000 to the Federation annual campaign, attend pre- and post-trip educational programs and to solicit five people in person when I returned.
Prior to this, I was not involved in organized Jewish life at all. Yet this unbelievably empowering experience of traveling to Israel with 30 peers (28 men and 1 other woman, I might add) changed the course of my life.
On Yom Hazikaron, Israel’s Memorial Day, we heard the siren go off and watched everyone suddenly stop, bow their heads and reflect on their lost loved ones. That same night, we danced to celebrate Israel’s independence and huddled together at Jonathan Netanyahu’s grave on Mount Herzl, heard the story of the Entebbe rescue, and learned how the Israeli officers always leave the battlefield last.
All of us bonded, and fell in love with Israel and our Jewish heritage in a way we had never before experienced. That trip was aptly called Zachor, Hebrew for “remember,” and none of us ever forgot our experiences. We came back to Philadelphia charged with energy and emotion, wanting to communicate these powerful feelings to all our friends.
We emerged as leaders in our community.
Today, Federation offers another version of Zachor — Israel 360. Over the last two years, Federation has provided an intensive Israel experience to 150 young adults, ages 27-35. There is a great demand among our young people to participate in this experience that has yielded many positive results.
Federation in 2013 is far different than it was in 1979. When I returned from my Israel experience and became active in Federation, there were generations of role models to guide me. There was a Lawyer’s Division that had huge representation from every “Jewish” firm.
In the 1970s and before, it was the norm for Jews who had achieved success in their business and professional lives to be actively engaged in the Jewish community. Involvement as volunteers and donors was considered to be both the right thing to do as a Jew and the pathway to social success and networking.
Today, both national and large local law firms are wide open to Jews. Now, most Jews don’t want to identify Jewishly through their firms and there is little or no organization within the legal community.
Changes like these present Federation with great challenges. While we must remain true to our core mission of providing a safety net for the poor, elderly and infirm, here and in Israel, another key priority has become paramount. We must ensure our Jewish future by strengthening Jewish identity and engaging younger generations of Jews and Jewish families in Jewish life.
The world has changed dramatically. Merely 30 years ago, Jews were Jews by necessity. Today, Jews are Jews by choice. According to a recently released study conducted by the Pew Research Center — the first major national study on American Jewry in over a decade — a significant number of Jews are Jews without religion.
Their level of communal involvement is low to non-existent and their connection to Israel and Jewish causes is weak. Among the many disturbing statistics cited in this study are:
• There are now 6.8 million Jews in the United States and just over 6 million in Israel. Jews represent 2.2 percent of the U.S. population;
• A growing portion of Jews are unlikely to raise their children Jewish or connect with Jewish institutions;
• Since 2005, the intermarriage rate has been at 58 percent, which is up from 43 percent in 1990 and 17 percent in 1970;
• Among non-Orthodox Jews, the intermarriage rate since 2000 is 71 percent;
• Sixty-nine percent of American Jews say they feel attached or very attached to Israel;
• Less than one-third of American Jews say they belong to a synagogue;
• The Reform movement is the largest denomination with 35 percent; 18 percent identify as Conservative and 10 percent as Orthodox; and
• Thirty percent are non-denominational
These are significant shifts from the past. The Reform movement embraces intermarried couples and families. Even though the Orthodox community is growing, the larger shifts are toward less-traditional forms of Judaism.
Our Federation conducted a comprehensive local population study in 2009 and found similar, but less severe trends. Regarding the intermarriage rate, for those under 40, it was 45 percent and for those over 40 it was significantly lower. While still troubling, these rates are not as elevated as those reported in the Pew study.
What are the implications of this data for our Federation and for the Jewish world in general? How do we make Jewish life and heritage relevant and exciting to our children, young adults and intermarried families? How do we attract the next generations to love and connect to our Jewish heritage as we do? What will influence them to give their resources and time to participate in Jewish life and to transmit our values and traditions to their children?
How do we ignite the passion in our community members that I and my Zachor buddies felt when we went to Israel that first time? What is our brand? What are we selling? What is our mission?
Is our brand:
• Israel and love of the Jewish homeland?;
• Living responsibly by taking care of those in need?;
• The power of community as opposed to each Jew trying individually to do good?; or
• Strengthening Jewish identity and ensuring the future of the Jewish people?
I submit our brand and what we are selling is all of the above. A brand is a promise. Our promise to the next generations is to address the Jewish future in intelligent, efficient and creative ways and to build a community that is inclusive, engaging and meaningful.
Our Federation is trying to create new Jewish leaders by exposing Jews from childhood to adulthood to identity-building programs. We start with the PJ Library books, CDs and family engagement for young children. We fund Jewish camping, Jewish day schools and other forms of Jewish education, and Israel experiences ranging from Birthright to Israel 360 to Family and Mega-Missions, to boutique missions directed to high-end and highly-capable donors.
The recent Young Entrepreneurs mission bonded 23 potential leaders into a Delta Force for the future both in leadership and financial support.
Twenty of our community’s most generous women donors recently returned from a mission to Russia. The mission was led by our own Connie Smukler, who together with her late husband, Joe, led the Soviet Jewry movement. I expect that this experience will mold and inspire our women’s leadership for decades to come as they retraced the steps of the activists who pressured the Russian government to free the Jews and caused the modern-day Exodus of 1 million Russian Jews to Israel.
Everyone who participates in these Israel experiences comes away with heightened personal passion and the passion to excite others.
In my two years as president, I have been deeply inspired by our Federation’s work and what I see in our Philadelphia Jewish community.
We recently honored 41 individuals who passed away and left legacy gifts to our Federation, as well as living community members who have made endowment gifts. Several family members spoke about the generosity of their loved ones who passed away, and it was so beautiful to see the legacy these departed members left through the eyes of their families.
At Café Europa, an annual celebration we host each spring for our community’s Holocaust survivors in conjunction with JFCS, more than 300 older adults gather to dance, tell their stories and reunite with their landsmen.
This summer, we hosted a reunion for our Israel 360 participants. We expected 40 young adults, but 100 showed up. Everyone wanted to be together to celebrate their Judaism and newfound friendships.
At every meeting and event I attend, I am struck by the dedication of the hundreds of volunteers who commit countless hours and resources to our cause. There is always a commonality of interest, of heritage, of belief system that is unspoken, but clearly present, which brings us close together.
Each year, we honor those community members who have faithfully supported Federation for more than 25 years at an event called Circle of Partners. There are over 1,000 attendees, many quite elderly, and many who have steadfastly written modest checks to our Federation for 50 years or more.
At this year’s event, we surprised long-time supporter Ralph Snyder with a special honor. Ralph, who is now 91, comes to our Federation twice a week to call donors and close gifts. This year, he has alone collected $250,000.
Ralph said to me that it was his pleasure to do this work. He told me that this was his way of honoring a beloved Jewish teaching transmitted to him by his father. It comes from Rabbi Hillel in the Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers). The saying is: Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibor — “Do not separate yourself from the community.”
We must find ways to communicate this teaching to present and future generations of Jews because of its enormous significance to Federation and to the preservation of the entire Jewish community.
Federation’s Ambassadors’ Dinner was held on Tuesday, Oct. 8, in Center City. Carole Solomon, local, national and international Federation leader, spoke about “Building and Bringing Community Together in Philadelphia, in Israel and Around the World.” Full coverage of this event, which honors our Jewish community’s most generous donors, will be found on the Federation page of the Nov. 7 edition of the Jewish Exponent.