December 19, 2018

Thinking big about littlest Jews

When Michael Siegal, chairman of the board of The Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA), addresses the umbrella organization’s upcoming General Assembly (GA) in Jerusalem on Nov. 10, he may very well be thinking about a constituency not likely to be present at the Jerusalem International Convention Center: America’s Jewish 5-year-olds. 

It was those kids — and their parents — that Siegal and JFNA President and CEO Jerry Silverman were targeting when they proposed offering free Jewish preschool to American Jewish kids as a way to combat the trend of assimilation and disaffiliation identified in the recent Pew Center study of American Jews. The proposal was published in an op-ed that appeared in The Forward and the Huffington Post on Oct. 24.

“Children laugh without the inhibition that they’re going to be judged. We have to bring that joyfulness back,” Siegal said in an interview with the Journal on Oct. 31. “And clearly, a 5-year-old can influence their parents.”

Siegal, 60, says becoming a grandfather made him favor this idea, but the chairman and CEO of Cleveland-based Olympic Steel — which was a family-owned business before he built it into a publicly traded company valued today at about $290 million — pushed any sentimentality aside, estimating such a giveaway could cost roughly $400 million per year. 

It’s a staggering sum — JFNA as a whole spent a total of $317 million in the fiscal year that ended in June 2012 — and the idea is still in its earliest phases of gestation. But in light of the Pew study’s findings, Siegal said, bold actions are required. 

“If we can’t get the money to do all of this, what part of this can we do?” Siegal asked. “Because we want to make an impact that changes the narrative 70 years from now.”

That Siegal and JFNA are addressing the Pew study results at the GA at all is itself a change — as of early October, Silverman said that the Pew study wouldn’t be on the agenda. 

But just weeks before the three-day gathering, which will begin with a plenary featuring a speech by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, JFNA assembled a panel about the Pew research that includes executives from Federations across the country — including Jay Sanderson, president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.

The topic seems likely to take up some of the other sessions at the GA as well. The more than 2,500 Jewish leaders from across the continent who are expected to attend — including about 20 from Los Angeles — will also witness a conversation between public opinion pollster Mark Mellman and five members of the “millennial generation,” which the Pew study found to be the least engaged of all adult Jews in the United States. 

Siegal and Silverman also mooted an increase in support for Jewish camp and proposed designating certain American cities as “Jewish empowerment zones,” where innovative pilot projects could be tested. They also urged Birthright to share its database of contact information for its more than 350,000 past participants.

Whether their proposals will drive discussion in Jerusalem remains to be seen. 

 “We threw these ideas out there for the debate,” Siegal said, “and that’s what we want to do at the GA.” 

A number of other controversial topics are up for debate at the GA — including the contentious argument over the future of the Western Wall. The GA will host the first public conversation between Anat Hoffman, chair of Women of the Wall, which has been holding female-led prayer services at Judaism’s holiest site for 25 years, and Ronit Peskin, who directs a new group, Women for the Wall, that opposes any changes to the current restrictions. 

Jewish Agency for Israel Chairman Natan Sharansky, who has been working to come up with a resolution that might appease — if not please — all parties, will also appear on the panel, along with MK Aliza Lavie, a member of the Knesset committee focused on the status of women. 

On Nov. 12, GA participants will walk to the Western Wall, where they’ll be invited to pray — as they wish, where they wish — or not. 

“Our walk is to state that Israel is a dream, and Israel is a reality,” Siegal said. “The fact that we’ve got leadership in Israel trying to connect the dream to the reality and trying to come up with solutions … we want to support the government.” 

The GA takes place in Jerusalem every few years, and this year’s gathering will focus on Israeli issues and on connections between Jews in the Diaspora to the Jewish state. 

But Siegal clearly sees his task as strengthening the Jewish American communities represented by JFNA. As such, at the end of his ranging conversation with the Journal, he returned to the themes — and concerns — raised by the Pew study.

“America is intoxicating, America is a drug,” Siegal said, seeming to simultaneously emphasize the positive and negative aspects embodied in his metaphor. “Minorities disappear and become Americans and are replaced by other minorities. 

“The reality is,” he continued, “Jews don’t have a lot of people to replace themselves with. We have to stand tall by ourselves and say that our responsibility is to the great-grandchildren that none of us will ever meet, for them to have the same vibrancy that we have today, if not better. And we’re heading down some paths that give us some pause.”