The Genius of the Lost NJPS
New York, December 2102:
Historians argue as to the precise moment when the Golden Age of American Jewry we now take for granted truly began. But many point to the cancellation of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), a century ago, in 2002 as a turning point — an event still shrouded in mystery that became a catalyst for a series of changes even the wisest sage could not have predicted at the time.
The NJPS was overseen by the United Jewish Communities, then the umbrella of the North American Federation system. The study was at first dramatically "delayed" on the eve of its release, and then quietly disbanded. The findings have still not seen the light of day.
At the time, recriminations were soon replaced by a period of reflection and mourning for the poll itself, for it had attained the status within the community as a veritable central text. Communal professionals were bereft at first, but then, forced to navigate on their own rather than rely on clinically defined data, they stopped talking to statistical target audiences, and started to listen, and intuit. In doing so, they reconnected with the humans behind the numbers and were able to see them as individuals with diverse wants and needs that the complex idea of Judaism could nourish and sustain.
This simple transition triggered a powerful domino effect. The basic fact that we now lacked the ammunition of numbers meant that the battle over "inreach vs. outreach" — a back-and-forth battle that had dominated the agenda for the previous decade — was laid to rest. At first, with this debate now moot, there was little to discuss around the board tables of many organizations. Communal pros scrambled to come up with some new content and material for discussion. "We had been talking about survival of our communal infrastructure for so long, we almost had to teach ourselves to talk about Judaism itself anew," one pro wrote in her annual report.
The immediate need to develop new Jewish substance placed a sudden emphasis on the production and dissemination of culture — long used within the general culture as a powerful tool to engage younger audiences, but, to this point, a footnote on the Jewish communal agenda. With content now king, the Jewish community reconnected with the power of its oral and written traditions, using the work of writers, filmmakers and technologists as vital players to deliver messages, explore values and engage in Jewish questions. This bursting forth of Jewish culture projected Jewish messages and values into the American mainstream. Its abrupt emergence made a particular impact on the young Jewish audience, a generation that until then had been written off as inextricably destined for assimilation. Remarkably, young Jews who had seemed impervious to Jewish communal marketing efforts not only began to consume this culture and demand Judaism, but began to "sell" it to each other through their peer networks.
In truth, the seeds for a new Jewish cultural dynamic had been planted long before the NJPS data disappeared. American identity itself had undergone a remarkable transition. California had just become the first large state in which white Americans were no longer the majority. No one racial or ethnic group predominated. New generations of Latinos, Irish, Italian and Native Americans had become self-confident enough to reclaim their heritage and cultures through "back-to-the-roots"-style movements. Young Jews had witnessed (and enjoyed) wave after wave of others’ cultural resurgence. It was only a matter of time before a Jewish wave occurred.
At the same time, the very nature of Jewish identity itself was up for grabs. The generation that had witnessed the Holocaust and knew a world without Israel — the very same generation that had defined the rhythms and values of our communal structure — was passing on. This loss literally hit home at Passover, when families across the country were faced with a stark choice as they gathered around the seder table. Many were aware that they could never replicate the traditional way their grandparents recited the haggadah and so were faced with a choice between letting the tradition disappear, or finding their own way to approach the ritual. For many families this forced a wider set of questions: who are we, what are we inheriting, what does it mean to us and what are we going to do about it?
To its credit, the Jewish communal world responded well to this opportunity. Many communal leaders had long been aware that messages built on a mix of guilt, fear, and obligation were of limited appeal to the next generation. And so, one organization after another began to experiment with Jewish messages that individuals would aspire to — one that confidently valued quality over quantity, content rather than marketing, questions rather than answers, and meaning and joy instead of survival and persecution.
And so, Judaism once more became an appealing option — an innovative mechanism that allowed individuals to be in touch with their humanity. Organizations again became means rather than ends in themselves to be sustained at all costs. The relationship between Israel and the Diaspora evolved as it became reconnected to the real questions of the emerging generation rather than the memories and emotion of those that came before it. And finally, as the generational transfer of wealth took place, young funders supported these changes, often forming funding collectives to support innovation and spread risk in a proactive fashion.
And this is how the vibrant, creative, self-confident form of Judaism we enjoy today came to pass. By adjusting our approach to the Jewish public, we became confident in the face of change and innovation. And in so doing, we reclaimed a widespread sense of Jewish value, heritage, connectivity, spirituality, social justice and ritual.
One such new ritual lives on unto this day: Every 10 years since the disappearance of the NJPS in 2002, just before Chanukah, the Jewish leaders announce they are commissioning a national population survey. They then lose the numbers. And the Jewish people celebrate their genius.
Roger Bennett is the vice president for strategic initiatives of the Andrea and Charles Bronfman Philanthropies, where he has helped found the Reboot Initiative. He can be reached at email@example.com.