Letter to the Editor: It’s a demographic cliff; not a fiscal cliff

Last week, (16-22 Kislev) Mark Pearlman wrote an erudite proposal for minding the Jewish communal coffers.  He asks how we can adequately fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community.  Eight causes are given for the fiscal deterioration of the community.  Unfortunately he missed entirely the main and intractable cause: not enough Jewish children.

To illustrate this case, please look at the weekly obituary pages of the Jewish Journal   It’s actually very much the same story each week; one that’s almost unnoticed, while it screams about our Jewish demographic crisis.

The Nov. 23rd issue, for example, reported thirty Jewish deceased over the age of 70.with a total of 99 reported grandchildren. That’s 3.03 grandchildren per person.  Remember though, that the numbers surely include some Orthodox families, bringing up the grandchild total significantly. Now those 99 not only represent one decedent’s grandchildren; but two grandparents.  So the news is this: Jewish L.A. now seems to average about 3 grandchildren per Jewish couple.

But wait. There’s an extra. Don’t forget to look at the names listed. There are some decidedly non-Jewish sounding names of spouses and grandchildren.  This is not a subtle reminder that not all those 99 grandchildren may actually be Jews.

The implications should be self-evident, but for those who don’t get it, I’ll be explicit: Those in generation now passing have been the prime financial stalwarts of our community.  As they depart, they leave behind few Jewishly committed children and grandchildren.

In desperation, some temples are making a survival effort by sort of rearranging the chairs in their gradually emptying Sunday schools. (L.A. Hebrew High went from 500 to 200 students in the last decade.)  Today, the JFC is attempting some heroic initiative to make up for generations of massive non-affiliation by creating shallow ‘on-ramps’ for Next-Gens to enter the Jewish community. They’ve created a proliferation of programs serving the needs of non-Jews in Los Angeles.. What’s the ‘Jewish’ link?  Of course, it’s ‘Tikkun Olam’., as if the United Way isn’t already in that business.  Our few and Jewishly illiterate youth are saving seven billion people on earth, while they disappear as Jews.

“Not to worry” once declared a Jewish Journal demographer as he suggested that a great many of the Orthodox will become Reform and Conservative just as happened with immigrants 70 years in the past. They, according to the theory, will replenish the lost numbers of secular Jews. Anyone who’s ever seen the inside of an Orthodox day-school today has to laugh at such a farcical hope. It’s not going to happen.

No discussion of solutions to the ‘Jewish fiscal cliff’ should ignore the issue of the Jewish fertility crisis. No matter how much you slice and dice budgets, there will soon be too few liberal/secular Jews to support the temples, Federations and all the other secular Jewish organizations. Who’s going to pay staff and support their pension plans? Oh, yeah, I forgot, the Koreans:

Now, we must give credit for creative efforts: One mega-temple is investing over $100 million to rebuild their neglected edifice and establish a free medical / dental clinic for local Koreans. Perhaps their plan is that in 30- 40 years the Koreans will help support the Temple?

Ask any president of a smaller Reform or Conservative Temple.  If they are growing, it’s because they have attracted Jews from other temples. But for many, current discussions about potential mergers are critical for survival.  Welcome to the beginning of a steep slope.

Some have said: “Well that fertility rate just reflects what’s going on in all of American society today.”  True. It’s one of the ‘benefits’ of assimilation.  But “Non-Jewish” is not a People; Jews are.  It’s a demographic fact that any People wishing long-term survival culturally and fiscally, must rear enough progeny to repopulate and carry on their culture. It now appears that the Boomer generation mostly opted to be Americans first and Jews, well maybe 25th.?

Now I fervently wish someone had a happy solution for this predicament. The solutions offered by Mr. Pearlman last week are a possible a band aid. But of the many liberal rabbis I’ve consulted in this matter, not one had any realistic solutions to offer about the demographic cliff. 

One main reason is that rearing children as ‘Jewish’ may require painful life-style changes, leaving some assimilated non-Jewish baggage behind: like the joys of bacon and eggs in the morning, a Christmas tree in the living room or golf and mall hopping on Saturdays.  A Chanukah-bush, just doesn’t cut it.

This is the price of a ticket to secure the American Jewish future. Another expensive Federation program or more gold-leaf on a painting doesn’t come close. The real cause of the Jewish fiscal crisis is the fact that today’s American Jews of parenting age have not produced enough Jewishly educated children for a future ‘vibrant’ secular/liberal Jewish community.

Unless more secular/liberal Jewish parents are willing to pay the price of having more children indelibly indoctrinated into Jewish culture, the liberal Jewish enterprise of the past 200 years will indeed roll off a cliff. 

What is the solution?  The fact that this might sound crazy to most, further reveals the problem, but there is like 3,400 years of experience with this:  Let every Jew turn Saturdays into Shabbat. Then, as surely as Spring follows the Winter, more babies and funding will follow, naturally.   Simple.  Right?

Gary Dalin

Avoiding the ‘Jewish fiscal cliff’

The main Capitol Hill sport these days (after obsessive coverage of the Petraeus scandal) is how the government can avoid the impending “fiscal cliff.” A similarly serious financial challenge lurks in the future of the Jewish community — namely, how do we better balance our books and continue to fund an engaging and vibrant Jewish community? We may not be running toward a cliff, but a long slide would leave us in the same place.

Unfortunately, the Jewish Fiscal Crisis (JFC) is more systemic and fragmented than even our government’s current dilemma and cannot be solved by fiat of raising taxes or cutting programs. Rather, the JFC will only be resolved through addressing three difficult issues:

1. How we are organized.

2. How we educate and motivate donors and collect monies.

3. How we deliver services through a complex structure of separate yet (ideally) nonduplicative organizations.

As a long-time participant and funder in Jewish life with a good sense of our history and our complicated communal psyche, I appreciate how fortunate we are relative to previous generations. The point of this commentary is not, “Woe is us.” Rather, the focus here is to present ideas and generate a discussion that leads to collaboration. These ideas are all rooted in my practical experience as a business strategist and nonprofit activist, and in a genuine concern that our community needs to develop strategies that increase overall communal resources for worthwhile initiatives, and generate and allocate our communal resources in the most efficient manner possible.

Background: The impending Jewish Fiscal Crisis explained

The Jewish community has always contended with some level of financial strain, but the situation has materially deteriorated due to numerous interrelated factors and trends, including:

1. Difficult macroeconomic times, which have increased demand for poverty services and annual subsidies (e.g., for synagogue membership and day school tuition).

2. Generational shift in funders, with groups like Avi Chai spending down and next generation mega-donors frequently focused on non-Jewish causes.

3. Limited growth to no growth in Federation ongoing campaigns (not including emergency disaster and crisis relief).

4. Continued inefficiencies as organizations duplicate services yet refuse to merge or coordinate.

5. Expanded reliance on “free” pricing practices (Birthright, PJ Library, Chabad, High Holy Days, etc.) spawning a communal entitlement psychology.

6. Inability to effectively leverage new technologies to materially lower operating and marketing cost structures.

7. Increased unaffiliation as individuals have weaker formal ties to religious organizations.

8. Lack of unity with certain funders and segments (e.g., ultra-Orthodox) with targeted giving on particular agenda and not broader needs.

Vision: Preserving our foundation while seeking innovation

To create the necessary economic foundation for the Nextgen Jewish community, we need a game-changing cooperative approach that disrupts the current economic paradigm while at the same time takes into account established organizations such as the UJA-Federation.

In this regard, the publishing industry serves as an instructive model of how to move forward. Publishers are investing heavily in innovation in the new world of e-books and online distribution while at the same time working to protect their core print businesses. Significant restructuring and mergers are just one visible manifestation of this dynamic process.

We should apply this separate-but-focused approach in the Jewish community. The Federation system and other large incumbent organizations are our printed books, and we need to ensure their continuing, valuable, bottom-line contribution. At the same time, we need to explore and master innovative “e-book” approaches in a way that does not jeopardize major components of the Jewish enterprise.

Plan: Alternative strategy group with focused initiatives

We will only achieve substantive improvement through a collaborative effort that leads to a select number of focused initiatives that ultimately disrupt and improve how the market system operates. Thus, the challenge is not just to envision and implement any one option, but also to achieve widespread community acceptance. With this goal in mind, we should empower a think-outside-of-the-box, Simpson-Bowles-style committee to brainstorm, create and help implement such game-changing initiatives.

The participants would need to include key funders and representatives of incumbent organizations with leadership by visionary participants inside the community — forward-thinking federations (Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston), philanthropic groups (Andrea & Charles Bronfman, Avi Chai or Schusterman Foundations), philanthropic resources (Jewish Funders Network) — as well as market-savvy outsiders (Steve Einhorn or Jeff Weiner of LinkedIn).

The critical ideas on the agenda for this group are not necessarily high-profile, exciting projects, but rather the spinach on the table. They may not be as fun to eat, but they will give the community the basic nutrients to increase resources across the board and allow donors to more efficiently allocate for our future.

Here are four initial ideas this committee should consider (more details are available on  jewishjournal.com):

Idea 1: A transparent marketplace

Our community needs to better collect and organize critical, baseline information on the financials, best practices and strategies/missions of Jewish nonprofit organizations. Information is power, and we need to make our donors smarter about their choices and allocations. Donors can’t maximize their efficiency if they can’t assess where the dollars are going and how they are being spent.

Idea 2: Empowered and informed donors

A “one-size-gives-all” mentality is no longer the only answer as donors become less focused on institutional fulfillment and more interested in individual giving based on personal interests. We need a charity information platform that educates, activates and connects the Jewish community and is a trusted source that provides independent, high-quality and conveniently accessible information. This is not just a stand-alone Web site but will be a larger initiative that includes online and offline elements, all designed to improve donor engagement.

Idea 3: Communal efficiency

There are many organizations working in similar areas that might benefit from a range of coordination and cooperation. More resources need to be devoted to helping organizations start joint-venture operations and merge where it makes sense. There should be a venture fund with access to experienced professionals to assist organizations with the leap to consolidation.

Idea 4: Jewish giving category campaign

Last but not least, we need to address how to increase the overall amount of money given to Jewish causes. This would be general campaign to generate awareness of the importance of Jewish giving and engage funders to increase their allocation to Jewish charities by addressing attitudes, the paradox of choice and informational requirements.

In the end, though, we need to keep in mind that we will not win over major sources of new money through a campaign, but rather through a thoughtful and organized approach to giving Jewishly. This will only be accomplished through the types of initiatives discussed in this article (and in more detail in the extended paper) and other ideas that arise through these discussions.

Mark Pearlman has served on numerous charitable boards. He created JInsider.com and most recently launched Sinai Live Books. On a professional basis, Pearlman is a business and marketing strategist focused primarily in the investment area.