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American Jewry’s changing landscape

In 1964, Look magazine, the second-most popular magazine in America at the time, ran a cover story entitled “The Vanishing American Jew” that confidently predicted the disappearance of the American Jewish community by the year 2000. 

The article was logical and well-argued — it was also dead wrong. Today, the American Jewish population, as well as our organizations and leadership, can be called many things. But “vanished” is not one of them. Look magazine, on the other hand, closed its doors in 1971. 

So, amidst the very real challenges that our community faces in 2023 — from rising antisemitism, to younger generations feeling more disconnected to Israel, to dwindling synagogue memberships — it is helpful to take some of the most doom and gloom projections with a hearty grain of salt. Indeed, some of the recent data we see might even provide grounds for something that even resembles optimism.

Consider the 2021 Jewish population study from Los Angeles, an intensive examination of the 2nd-largest Jewish community in the U.S. As my friend, Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles CEO Noah Farkas, eloquently put it, “[It’s] the first time I read a study, where the future looks brighter than the past. Jewish life isn’t in decline. Jewish life is ascending, is rising…. Younger people who are Jewish and living in a Jewish household in almost every category are more engaged in Jewish life than older people. They consume Jewish media more, they talk about Jewish topics more, they wear Jewish symbols more, they make some version of Shabbat more.”

Yet if things are so good, why do they feel so bad? 

One reason is perhaps that while younger Jewish Americans are “doing Jewish” more than their parents did, they are not doing it in the same way. They are less likely to join a synagogue, marry someone Jewish, or go to a traditional community event, but more and more of them are finding ways to “do Jewish” in their own personal way.

Whether or not this is a positive development is really beside the point. The real question is whether we choose to acknowledge this reality or turn our backs to a reachable and growing segment of our population.

At The Jewish Agency for Israel, we are leaning into these changes. We have worked hard to have greater diversity among our emissaries who come to North America in terms of race, sexual orientation, and even religion with our first ever non-Jewish shlichim (Israeli emissaries). Yet this is only a first step. Our shlichim are now trained to look outside of the traditional locations to find Jewish students where they are. On a given week, shlichim are holding events promoting civil and gay rights or joining coalitions to include Jews of color or protect the environment. These changes have led to shlichim feeling closer with their American Jewish counterparts and have also enhanced their understanding of the American Jewish community.

We also know that it remains true that there is no more powerful way to build a connection to Israel than to spend significant time in Israel and live like an Israeli. That is why our Masa Israel Journey program provides such a wide range of experiences ranging from tech start-ups to yeshivas. The era of one-size-fits-all visits to Israel are over. Any serious Israeli experience provider knows that their offering must be contoured to the interests of the participants.

Finally, we are going all in on our SparkIL program, an innovative new initiative that allows Americans to provide interest-free loans to young Israeli entrepreneurs and business owners. A quick journey to the website will allow you to help, for instance, a new Ukrainian immigrant starting a new business or a Haredi woman with a new store. Yet SparkIL also develops genuine relationships, going far beyond the surface in forging connections to Israel. Every month, you will receive an update about the progress of the business you supported as well as an invitation to visit it on your next trip.

Let’s be real. Many Americans, like many Israelis, are concerned by what is happening in Israel right now. These are indeed real challenges. Yet, in moments like this, it is even more important for those of us who love Israel to help bring it closer and make it more accessible.

With the passing of Purim and the approach of Passover, we gather to tell the story of our survival against incredible odds. One of the many lessons was about our ability as a people to meet the challenges we faced. For the seders this year, as we reflect on our journey to Israel, let us also rededicate ourselves to reconnecting to it in any way possible.

Dan Elbaum