Ramie Arian is a a consultant who works with Jewish camps, youth movements and other agencies concerned with building Jewish identity and commitment. He was a senior member of the Wexner Heritage Foundation staff for nine years, ending as Vice President in 1998. He can be reached at ramie.arian@gmail.com. 

The reordering of priorities which was recently approved by the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) has already had at least one profoundly important outcome: it puts a serious discussion about Jewish identity on the front burner of the organized American Jewish community. Such a discussion is long overdue.

For many, it has been clear for years that the most important challenge facing the Jewish community is to ensure a positive, vibrant sense of Jewish identity among the young generation. Where once this happened organically, a result of internal forces like closely knit communities and of forces that came from the outside, such as pervasive anti-Semitism, today only a minority of young Jews grow up with a sense that being Jewish is a powerful, meaningful, important part of who they are.

American Jewish leaders have known for decades that Jewish identity is declining dramatically. The 1990 National Jewish Population Study shocked the community by reporting a 52% intermarriage rate. It is reliably (but unofficially) reported that essentially the same result was evident in the previous (1970) version of the study, but that a strategic decision was taken to downplay this finding.

Regrettably, this did not spawn a serious communal discussion about the sharp decline of Jewish identity, which lies at the root of intermarriage. Rather, it engendered bickering about the accuracy of the study, and much hand-wringing about the prevalence of intermarriage. There was a flurry of interest in projects — mostly small and relatively marginal — designed to promote Jewish “continuity.” But there was never a serious, sustained, deep conversation about how to make promoting strong, positive Jewish identity a universal part of the Jewish experience for young people. The organized community never seriously considered how to address the crisis of Jewish identity, and how to design and to fund a serious response.

The challenge of building Jewish identity was left to individual programs and projects that responded creatively and energetically, but without the community spotlight, and without the funding that the community as a whole (through the Federation system) might have provided. Important but relatively small efforts like the Foundation for Jewish Camp and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education were created by enterprising lay and professional leaders, and they made a difference. Philanthropists formed consortiums and some enlisted the government of Israel as a funding partner: Birthright and MASA are the prime examples. But in the main, the Federation world stayed on the sidelines, or at best, joined as a reluctant partner. 

The recent reordering of the Jewish Agency’s priorities should change all that. 

Natan Sharansky, head of JAFI, contends that building Jewish identity among Jews worldwide(notably including Jews in Israel) should now be the Jewish community’s highest priority. He proposed re-engineering JAFI to respond to the issue, and JAFI’s Board of Governors agreed. Going forward, the focus on Jewish identity should now trump JAFI’s traditional priority: promoting Aliyah to Israel, mainly as a means to rescue physically endangered Jewish communities elsewhere. Sharansky argued that unless the community acts aggressively to strengthen Jews’ Jewish identity, there won’t be any community left within a generation to consider making Aliyah.

The contention that world Jewry’s highest priority needs to shift from rescuing endangered Jewries by bringing them to Israel to strengthening Jewish identity is particularly striking coming from Sharansky, who as a Refusenik hero languishing for years in Soviet prisons was himself the iconic symbol of Jewry’s need to mobilize around rescue and Aliyah.

It is clear that Sharansky is right. He has taken a hugely important step in identifying the building of Jewish identity as JAFI’s new central priority, insuring that the crisis of Jewish identity will at long last receive the full airing and discussion that is needs and deserves.