Showing posts with label Pew Report. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Pew Report. Show all posts

Sunday, November 1, 2015

#JewishPurpose: An Open Invitation to Participate

This was posted this morning on eJewishPhilanthropy. Consider this cross posting to be me adding my signature. And it will fit in with my Jewish Educational Theory of Everything, I think!

Let's talk!


Since the release of the Pew study in 2013, there has been much hand-wringing in the Jewish community, with some calling this, again, a time of crisis. There is fear of increasing rates of assimilation and growing disaffiliation from traditional institutions. This was especially apparent in the recent statement, Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action, signed by many respected colleagues.

We do not accept this doom and gloom picture of a dying Jewish community, and we think the analysis and recommendations in the document are too limited. As leaders of Jewish social justice initiatives, we see instead an incredibly exciting moment in Jewish life, in which Jews of all generations are experimenting with new modes of practice, diving into learning, creating new Jewish cultural expressions, and drawing on Jewish wisdom and our Jewish traditions to inspire engagement with the world. Rather than mourning the changes in modes of affiliation, we should celebrate this moment and determine how the many different parts of our community might respond expansively and creatively. We want more new voices at the table and more ideas for next steps to be shared.

Pew reports that 56% of Jews say that being Jewish means working for justice. We take this statistic as an opportunity for the organized Jewish community to take on new powerful work for justice, with the involvement or leadership of our groups and our partners. This statistic is also a challenge to many in our ranks who are not doing justice work, or not doing it Jewishly, to act for justice in ways that are connected to the richness of Jewish tradition.

Integrating Judaism with social justice is not a gimmick – it’s a true, authentic way of being Jewish that is both rooted in our texts and traditions, and in the American Jewish experience. Over time, thousands (perhaps millions?) of Jews have acted for justice out of their Jewish values, history, and tradition. It is exciting that in the past 30 years this has become more visible and an entire field is being built around an explicitly Jewish perspective on pursuing justice. That field and those who populate it deserve a central place at this table as we debate aspects of our future.

But there is more. We who are doing this work know that we don’t have all the answers. We know that it is a core principle of social justice that the answers to the most pressing collective challenges have to come from the grassroots, from those most affected by what is and those looking the hardest for what could be. We, as Jewish social justice leaders, know that even perfect solutions to collective challenges often fail if they don’t feel connected to the community affected by those challenges.

So, we are hoping this letter launches this conversation into a broader sphere. We want to know what you – Jews inside and outside of Jewish institutions – think. What is your dream for a dynamic, exciting Jewish community? What do you find in the 21st century Jewish community that speaks to your interests? Where does it let you down? What are you doing outside the Jewish community that you would like to see become part of what the community offers?

During Chanukah, join us for a communal conversation on social media using #jewishpurpose responding to these questions.

This is an invitation to all of you and to the broad circles of people we suspect you can help us engage. We want people who are engaged in Jewish life, people who are occasional participants, and people who watch from the sidelines. We want those who are social justice activists and those who are quiet sympathizers; those who bemoan the state of the world and haven’t figured out what to do about it; those who work in the community and those who don’t; and we definitely want and need people of every generation.

See you online!

Abby J. Leibman, President & CEO, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
Abby Levine, Exective Director, the Jewish Social Justice Roundtable
Adam Berman, Executive Director, Urban Adamah
Alex Weissman, President, Reconstructionist Student Association
Aliza Levine, Organizer for UNITE HERE New England Joint Board
Amram Altzman, Keshet Leader, Co-founder of the Sexuality, Identity, and Society Club at Ramaz High School, and Blogger for New Voices Magazine
Andy Levin, President, Lean and Green Michigan
April N. Baskin, Union for Reform Judaism
Chava Shervington, President, Jewish Multiracial Network
Cheryl Cook, Executive Director, Avodah
Daniel Sokatch, CEO, New Israel Fund
David Eisner, President & CEO, Repair the World
David Krantz, President of Aytzim: Ecological Judaism
Davida Ginsberg, Moishe Kavod House President
Debbie Goldstein, Carolina Jews for Justice
Dove Kent, Executive Director, Jews for Racial and Economic Justice
Emilia Diaimant, Executive Director, The Jeremiah Project
Esther-Ann Asch, Advocacy Committee Member at Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York and Former Vice President of Jewish and Community Affairs at FEGS
Fair Trade Judaica
Habonim Dror North America
Idit Klein, Executive Director, Keshet
Jacob Feinspan, Executive Director, Jews United for Justice
Jenna Weinberg, Board Member, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger
Jewish Labor Committee Western Region
Joy Sisisky, Executive Director, the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New York
Judy Levey, Executive Director, Jewish Council on Urban Affairs
Karla Van Praag, Executive Director, JOIN for Justice
Kathryn Macías – Moishe Kavod House leader
Lee Sherman, President & CEO, Association of Jewish Family & Children’s Agencies
Leo Ferguson, Leadership Development and Communications Organizer, JFREJ
Nancy Kaufman, CEO, National Council of Jewish Women
Philadelphia Jewish Labor Committee
Rabbi Alana Alpert, Director, Detroit Jews for Justice
Rabbi Barbara Penzner, co-chair, New England Jewish Labor Committee
Rabbi Capers C. Funnye, Board Chair, JCUA
Rabbi Elizabeth Richman, Program Director and Rabbi in Residence, Jews United for Justice
Rabbi Jennie Rosenn, Vice President for Community Engagement, HIAS
Rabbi Jill Jacobs, Executive Director, T’ruah
Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, Director, Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism and Senior Vice President, Union for Reform Judaism
Rebecca Ennen, Jews United for Justice
Rabbi Deborah Waxman, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College
Rita Freedman, Acting Executive Director, Jewish Labor Committee
Robert Bank, Executive Vice President, American Jewish World Service
Ruth W. Messinger, President, American Jewish World Service
Sheila Decter, Executive Director, JALSA
Stosh Cotler, CEO, Bend the Arc
Tamar Ghidalia, Board Member, Jewish Community Action
Uri L’Tzedek
Vic Rosenthal, Executive Director, Jewish Community Action
Workmen’s Circle
Yavilah McCoy, Bend the Arc Leader and CEO of VISIONS Inc.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Maybe We’re Looking At the Wrong Pew

I first met Rabbi Gordy Fuller at a CAJE conference a lifetime ago. He was this really tall guy from Texas with a beard whose smile just made you want to be his friend. Our friendship was a once a year thing as we would find a few minutes to hang out while listening to music at a conference or attending the same sessions once in a while. I always enjoyed our time together. And he is a really smart fellow. This piece ran on eJewishPhilanthropy over the weekend. It is terrific. I think. What about you?

Maybe We’re Looking At the Wrong Pew

By Rabbi Gordy Fuller

In both the articles and the reactions to the recently published Statement on Jewish Vitality, the conversation has been centered around the now two-year old Pew Research Center’s “Portrait of American Judaism.” But I wonder if we are all focusing on the wrong Pew study as we plan for Jewish America’s future. I found their recent Religious Landscape Study, particularly the chapter on religious switching, to be more telling.

The thrust of the study is that, not surprisingly, most Americans take a “cafeteria” approach to religious choices, going through the line of entrees, perhaps sampling many, and then finally choosing their favorite. It also showed that an incredibly high percentage of Americans are now in a different faith tradition than the one in which they were raised (34 – 42%, depending on how one defines the change, i.e. to include or not someone who is in one Protestant mainline tradition and then joins another).

What does this say about Judaism’s future if we are not even on the menu of options for 120,000,000 or so Americans who are hungering for something more in their spiritual lives? Might we not be doing more for our Jewish future, as well as for the future morality and potential redemption of the world, if we were to put our best offerings in that cafeteria line instead of waiting for others to knock on our door (at least three times, no doubt)?

I know I am not the first, but I want to add my voice to those who have called for more active Jewish outreach to non-Jews and to overtly seek more converts to Judaism. And I don’t only mean for those who might currently find themselves in a relationship with a member of the Tribe. If we have such a wonderful heritage and such a rich, moral tradition, why not seek others to share it with? I’m purposely avoiding the “P” word, but I’m confident that we Jews could find a moral, ethical, and dignified way to bring our message to the Gentile world.

Last week we read the story of Avraham Avinu, and how he left Haran for the promised land “with all the souls he had made.” Genesis Rabbah tells us that this refers to all those whom he converted to belief in the One True God. If Avraham had not converted all those souls, who would have helped start the Jewish people? If we don’t seek to bring more non-Jews into our peoplehood, what will the future hold for us, and our world? And in the words of Hillel, “If not now, when?”

Rabbi Gordy Fuller is the spiritual leader of congregation Shirat Hanefesh in North Chevy Chase, MD.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

One Educator’s Response…
... on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

Several years ago, Joel Grishaver told me that he had been told that Nancy Parkes is the best Jewish educator in the country. I had to meet her. So I asked her to lunch. And she asked me to teach her teachers. And then we were in the Leadership Institute together. And traveled to Israel and learned together. I am not sure if she is the best - I have not actually studied her school, and I am not sure I am qualified to determine or declare who is the best. 

I will say that she is one of the smartest and most creative colleagues I have ever had the pleasure to learn and talk with, and we do not get together nearly enough. Like many of you I have been reading and attending meetings and thinking about the Pew report and the responses. Nancy went a step further today. She spoke up - from the perspective of a synagogue based supplementary school educator - and proposed a way forward.

After thirty seconds of "that's what I was thinking" and "I should have said that" nonsense, I decided to re-post her ideas that ran today on eJewishPhilanthropy (what? you don't get Dan Brown's daily email? Shame on you!) and hopefully expand the audience and the conversation. I suggest comments should be on eJP (Leave a Comment) or Jedlab ( - look for a posting by Saul Kaiserman around 9:30 am EST on December 3. What you are not in JEDLAB? For shame! Fix that too!).

I agree with everything Nancy says and wish I said it first. More students come through our supplementary schools than any other part of the Jewish education eco-system. We must get it right. And when get students to couple their enrollment in our schools with Jewish camps, Israel programs and youth groups (to name just a few opportunities) we can really change the future. Read on!


One Educator’s Response….. on the Findings of the Pew Report and the Jewish Future

By Nancy Parkes
I have read the reports and the responses. I have attended meetings and have discussed the findings of the Pew report with many of my colleagues and with experts in the field, all whom I would define as people who care deeply about the future of Jewish life in America.

And, like many others, I am concerned about the Jewish future. But not in the way you may think.

It is clear from the findings of the Pew Report that we still have work to do in making Jewish learning and life meaningful, engaging, and relevant for American Jews. I don’t believe that anyone would deny that. My issue with the articles and proposal presented by Steven Cohen and Jack Wertheimer is that there is absolutely no mention of the value and importance of supplementary synagogue education.

It is interesting that despite the Pew Report demonstrating that supplementary education in the high school years is indeed effective, the proposal makes no mention of supporting these programs. It does, however, mention day schools, Jewish camps, youth groups and trips to Israel.
I don’t know of one Jewish educator, lay leader, or Rabbi that would dispute that day schools and informal educational experiences are powerful influences in the lives of our young people. I certainly believe that they are. One of the reasons why these experiences are so effective is that they do not occur in isolation. As noted by Cohen and Wertheimer, “These programs work synergistically with each other and also with formal schooling during the critical high-school years.”

As a Jewish educator and director in a supplementary synagogue school, I would never claim that supplementary education alone guarantees or leads to Jewish engagement as adults. Why then is this the way so many evaluate our programs?

Educators and directors in the synagogue setting have done much soul searching during the past decade. We were told that our system was “broken”; that children and parents were not finding the joy in Jewish learning in our settings; and even more importantly, we were told that the learning that was taking place was not leading to Jewish living.

We took all of this to heart- because we were concerned and because we care deeply about the future of Judaism.

How did many of us respond? We made changes - significant changes – in the structure and design of our schools. We advocated for Jewish camp and even brought the camp experience into our schools. We made youth groups an integral part of our educational programming blending the formal setting with this valuable informal Jewish experience. Many programs now take teens on trips to Israel, and more and more programs take learning out of the traditional classroom setting. Perhaps one of the most significant changes that has been made is the education and involvement of parents. We involve them because we know that if Judaism is not relevant and meaningful for them, they as the decision makers, will not only remove themselves from Jewish life, but their children, as well.

With more than 60% of our families enrolling their children in supplementary educational programs, we know that much is at stake in the kind of educational experiences we create for our learners. So, what kind of message are they receiving by the silence – and worse, the negativity – leaders in research and education send them by not supporting their decision with funding? That they are not worth the investment? That they have made the “wrong” decision? That they care less about their child’s Jewish education?

I keep a running list of the negative comments I hear from lay leaders, clergy, and professionals in the Jewish world about supplementary education. Unfortunately, the list is long and continues to grow. Is it any wonder that less and less young people are going into the field of Jewish education, and why synagogue schools have difficultly finding educators and leaders for their schools? This kind of rhetoric perpetuates a self-filling cycle.

Supplementary schools matter – and they do make a positive difference in the lives of our families. Can they be better? Absolutely. But, they need support to do so.
Here is my proposal:
  • Stop the negative narrative. Leaders and clergy need to become vocal advocates for supplementary education, whether it is from the pulpit, in writing, or at conferences.
  • Be our partners. We need more leaders and clergy to truly be our partners in creating the educational excellence that we all want. If your synagogue school is not a place that you would send your own child, how can you work with your educational team to make it so?
  • Encourage people to consider Jewish education as a career. We need more Jewish educators – in all settings. We need to do a better job at reaching out to those who we believe could make a difference in the Jewish world of informal and formal Jewish education. We also need more scholarships dollars to help those who wish to become Jewish educators to realistically be able do so.
  • Provide mentorship and consulting for supplementary education directors. Change is hard, and it’s even harder when you are doing it on your own.
  • Collaboration. Jewish camps and youth groups “work.” So does supplementary education when it is combined with these informal experiences. More conferences should be held which bring leaders in these fields together to think about how they can truly collaborate to bring powerful experiential education to the supplementary school setting, while also encouraging our children and teens to attend camp and become active members in youth groups.
I am not an alarmist, but I do believe that supplementary schools matter and that the lack of support that they receive and the negative narrative that is perpetuated is indeed, in the words of Cohen and Wertheimer, “a condition that is dire enough to warrant the serious attention of anyone concerned about the Jewish future.”

Nancy Parkes is the Director of Congregational Learning at Temple Israel Center in White Plains, an egalitarian synagogue in White Plains, NY.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Ask the right questions

"With the arrival and maturation of my generation,
the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé."
David A. M. Wilensky is a young man with whom I have strictly - so far - digital relationship. I began reading his work when he was a college student writing for Jewschool and have been and remain impressed with the depth and creativity of his ideas. He published a piece in The Jewish Standard a few weeks ago that I just saw. I think he makes some very important and interesting points.

When I was in high school (in the 1970s!), the big conversation still revolved around Jewish identity in juxtaposition with American identity. Are you and American Jew or a Jewish American? Which is the noun and which is the adjective? When I first began teaching (in the 1980s) we were still designing lessons and activities around those questions. We over-did it. To my almost 16 year-old son, those questions are meaningless.

Following the CCAR decision on patrilineal descent, in 1983 and ongoing efforts by the religious parties in Israel to amend the law of return to require conversion according to halacha (Jewish law) and officiated by approved Orthodox rabbis, the conversation became "Who is a Jew?"

Now add a variety of Jewish population studies, studies of how Jewish communities are structured and now the Pew Report, and we find our lay and professional leaders wringing their hands and panicking over the imminent death of  (choose any or all): day schools, synagogue schools, synagogues, Jewish Community Centers and/or the continued cohesive existence of the Jewish People as a distinct group in America.

Please read David's article. It splashes some cold water on those of us still fighting about things that don't really matter to the Millenials. And while I do believe we have put a bit more emphasis on Young Adults in Jewish life than is appropriate, they will soon be 40 year olds and able to learn Kabbalah and be treated like the rest of us!

It begins here, but the full article is worth reading and can be read on the Standard's web page. There are a number of comments there as well. I invite a conversation, there, here or on JEDLAB (in Facebook), in particular on the implications for us as educators. Thank you David for permission to cross-post.


David A.M. Wilensky is a program associate at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute. He lives in South Orange, and he is single, straight, and utterly shameless. 

David A. M. Wilensky
Published: 6 March 2014

So, really, why be Jewish?

With the arrival and maturation of my generation, the Millenials, the question “Who is a Jew?” is rather passé.

Forget the halachic dimensions to this endlessly debatable topic. Forget all the moralizing arguments over the issue. Forget the demographically induced paranoia, the post-Holocaust hand-wringing, the Israeli legal maneuvering (not to mention the pandering that comes with it), and the denominational infighting. And — for heaven’s sake! — forget the Pew study.

The fact is that “Who is a Jew?” is the wrong question. To maintain our relevance — to regain it, really — the question we must ask today is “Why be Jewish?”

The problem with the who-is-a-Jew question is the binary premise from which it springs: that there is an “us” and a “them.” (Worse, perhaps is the accompanying hope that we will one day delineate a set of criteria that define who is an “us” and who is a “them.”) The premise itself is as boring and potentially harmful as the question it gives rise to. It has infiltrated our national debate in a variety of guises: Who is affiliated and who is unaffiliated? Who is an insider and who is an outsider? Who is a member and who is a non-member? Who is inmarried and who is intermarried?

And, of utmost importance in the case of Millenials: Are your parents both Jewish? For 48 percent of us, the answer is no.

In each version of the question, the implication is clear: One is good and one is bad. When we make these questions central, whatever our intention in asking them, the question that many people will hear is this: Are you a good Jew or a bad Jew? And labeling people “bad” Jews probably is not the best way to draw them into deeper engagement with Jewish life.

 At the very least, the Millenials I know are bored with all this who-is-a-Jew business. And at the worst, the idea that this question will be useful as we confront the challenges now before us is a complete misunderstanding of the nature of the changes we see today.

continue reading the rest of the article


Monday, November 11, 2013

(Not) The Last Pew Reply - Guest Posting

Joel Lurie Grishaver is my teacher, mentor and friend. He is also a titan in Modern Jewish Education, and he freed us from the tyranny of the Stickmen and that holidays could be happy without a semi-fictional character celebrating them for us. He published this today on the Torah Aura Bulletin Board - to which you should be a subscriber. While I think there is a bit more to be learned from the Pew report, I think Joel makes some very important and interesting points - particularly, #2, 4 and 5. What do you think?

The Last Pew Reply  by Joel Lurie Grishaver

MY FATHER (z”l) once designed what he considered to be the ultimate North American synagogue. It had all the usual stuff and only one pew in the back. This was exactly where most people wanted to sit. When it was full, the weight triggered a spring, that tripped a switch, which started a motor, which brought the pew to the front of the hall, exactly where the Rabbi wanted it. Then a new pew popped up in the back.


The Pew Study

Every ten years (more or less on the decade) the Jewish Federations of North America would run a National Jewish Population Study. After a disastrous experience with the 2010-2011 study, the Jewish Federations of North America said that they would never do another such study. This year, because of that void, the PEW Foundation did a national Jewish study of their own.

Virtually every Jew in North America with a keyboard and a place to be read has already written about the PEW study and its finding. I feel like this is the last PEW. If you want to read a good summary of the reported findings read Samuel Heilman. The most important critical article, one that PEW responded to, was written by J.J. Goldberg. You can google the back and forth. I believe that the most important piece was written by Dr. Ari Kelman.

Kelman argues that the most amazing finding of the PEW study and the previous NJPS finding is that while we have developed a very refined language about Jewish religious behavior, we have developed no categories to look at Jewish identity that is cultural and secular. The PEW study found that 70% of present North American Jews fall into this slot. I am basing my piece on Ari’s article.


The Pew Study and Jewish Education 

The majority of North American Jews who presently receive a Jewish education do so in a Congregational School, a.k.a. a Complementary School, a.k.a. a Secondary School, a.k.a. An Afternoon School, a.k.a. The Drop-Off School, a.k.a. the Religious/Religion School, and a.k.a. the Hebrew School. The very insecurity in naming this portion of Jewish education reflects our discomfort with it, hence, our need to constantly re-label it. The most derogatory of these names, The Drop-Off School indicates that all students get to Day Schools and Community schools without parental involvement.

Most Hebrew schools are run under synagogue auspices. Most Day Schools also have religious orientation. Secular orientations/cultural orientations could be found only in the old Talmud Torah system and may be reflected in their namesakes—and in a few/but not all communal day schools.
Most Jewish education is centered in the families we serve—who are synagogue members, rather than reaching towards those we do not—cultural and secular Jews.

We labor under the assumption that Bar/Bat Mitzvah is the golden key to the City of Jewish Life. We shorten and cut everything else and tend to leave prayerbook Hebrew intact. That assumption is good if we want to raise future synagogues Jews and maybe just that which, synagogues want to underwrite. But, if we are going to meet the desires of most Jews—it is just the wrong pattern.

The following is my retelling of a story that Roberta Louis Goodman tells (and we published from the North Shore Congregation Israel Bulletin). Roberta and I disagree over its meaning, but I have included her complete telling in the TAPBB and here use mine for my purposes.

 One day at CAMP@NSCI, her Religious school, a 3rd grader named Leo started playing some piano. Robert compliments his play. He says, “I play guitar, too.” His mother says, “I want him to learn to play some Jewish songs.” Roberta responds without hesitation, “I can make that happen.” She finds a skilled senior from the cantor’s choir to teach guitar (during Hebrew school). By the time the class happens the next week, by telling the story, the cantor telling the story, and the sending of an e-mail, she has ten students and a few more teachers. Now she is preparing to teach Jewish music to more instruments and adding a visual arts option.

When I tell the story I emphasize “Jewish music” and guitar—a secular/cultural option. When Roberta tells the story she labels the program “Prayer Jam” and sees it as another path to liturgy.


Pew and Looking Towards the Future of Jewish Education 

So what would it mean to focus on Jewish educational outreach on cultural rather than religious Jewish Identity? Here are a few thoughts:

  1. Decouple synagogue membership from school registration and do not remove community or synagogue support. Think about the old secular Kibbutz Bar/t Mitzvah where a child was dropped in the Negev with a knife and told to find his/her way home. Link Religious and Secular silos.
  2. Add communicative Hebrew to the prayer centric Hebrew we tend to be teaching. I have heard it argued that we no longer have enough time to teach prayer-Hebrew. Two thoughts: (1) what is the problem with compounding failure if we are already bound to fail and can meet some needs in the process, and (2) perhaps with less God we can get some more time. We may be misunderstanding the calls for less as being time centric when in fact they may be religiophobic. Think Canada, think the old LA Hebrew High model, school credit for foreign language studies. Think of Hebrew School with a Hebrew Charter School option. Add a bit of communicative Hebrew to the prayer-Hebrew exclusive and our teachers, our students, and many of our families will be happier.
  3. Piaget teaches that students can’t understand the causality (or sequence) of history before seventh or eighth grade. That took history out of a lot of schools that used to have a 4th, 5th, 6th grade progression. Forget about cause and effect and eliminate any hope of sequence and put history back as a sequence of stories—narrative.
  4. The arts.
  5. Teach an apolitical Israel for a while. Think Humus not Hamas. Real Politick can come later. Israel is a foodies’ dream. It is music, art, cartography, major products, sports, democracy, dance, fiction, poetry, and a lot of great learning that doesn’t deal with chosen, settlements, and God. It is true that we can study Israel via siddur references, but we don’t need to. Desalinization and creative water technologies don’t have to link with terrorism or the territories. Israeli current events can be taught later. A-Zionist need not be Non-Zionist.
  6. It is hip to talk about Jewish Journeys. As schools we believe in many paths. It is time to consider a number of them that meet the needs of the majorities of North American Jews. A perfectly significant Jews life does not take prayer, kashrut and leaps-of-faith. Workman’s Circle was never Ethical Culture. 
I can recommend lots of Jewish options and still be in my synagogue every Saturday morning. I agree that recovery may take a higher power, but Jewish identity does not—unless we insist upon it. All we got to do is look certain results. Steven A. Cohen, Arnie Eisen, and Ari Kelman have been foreshadowing these insights for a long time. I may be in the last PEW, but we get to decide where we will let it wind up.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pew 2.0: Moneyball Judaism

At this rate, I am not sure I will have new wisdom to add to the blogosphere about the Pew Report. Today I read two responses that I think are critical going forward. I will paraphrase the first from the Forward. They recognize the negatives in the report, but are emphasizing the datum that 94% responded that they are proud to be Jewish and are looking for stories about people in that demographic and their Jewish pride. Well done.

The second arrived via (are any of you still not reading that?) and I reprint it in its entirety below. As always, I urge you to make comments on the eJP site to be part of the larger conversation!

Moneyball Judaism: We’re Not Selling Jeans Here
If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization.
by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

My favorite summer pastime is baseball. Every day, I watch baseball, read about baseball, and pray that my beloved Baltimore Orioles will eventually win the World Series (hey, a guy can dream). However, while it has been years since I gave up my dream of ever playing in the major leagues, I still try, every day, to find ways to follow baseball more intelligently so that I might better understand what it takes for a player or a team to be successful. Without question, the single thing that allows me to better understand pathways to baseball success is sabermetrics, unofficially known as Moneyball.”

Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane, and the strategies Beane employs to position the A’s, with a relatively low payroll, to routinely make the playoffs over other teams with far deeper cash reserves. Beane’s strategies were taken from the sabermetric playbook, where objective data is used to measure baseball performance as a means of helping baseball professionals make their decisions based on evidence, rather than gut instincts. Sabermetrics currently impacts all major sports, Hollywood, and even politics, where Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland recently wrote an article in the The Atlantic Monthly asking, “Can the government play Moneyball?.”

I thought a great deal about Moneyball when I read the results and subsequent reactions to the Pew Forum’s recent report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. On the one hand, I was not surprised to see so many bemoan the overall negative picture the survey paints about the current state of Judaism in America, articularly amongst liberal Judaism. At the same time, I find it ironic that, as a community, we pay far less attention to the data that helps tell us what works than we do the data that tells us what we are doing wrong.

Over the past several months, I read debates about the relative merits of day school versus congregational schools, in-reach versus outreach, whether denominations have a future in Judaism, and a myriad of other big questions that can affect our community’s strategy for taking ownership of our future. However, in most cases, when I read these debates, or even share my own opinion on a question, I see the opinions of myself and others justified by an over-abundance of personal perspective, and a dearth of objective data.

The consequence of this is that the majority of conventional wisdom and conversations in the Jewish community are driven by what we believe to be true, rather than what concrete evidence we can offer to support our claims, in spite of the fact that we do have data that paints a picture of what works in creating meaningful, lasting Jewish experiences. As a result, as I watched the baseball playoffs, and thought about the implications of the Pew Forum’s survey, I wondered what it would take for the Jewish Community to play “Moneyball Judaism.”

Of course, we have organizations in the Jewish Community promoting data-driven decision-making, such as Measuring Success and J-Data, and researchers who use qualitative and quantitative data to measure emerging trends, such as Professors Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe. However, producing data is the easy piece of the puzzle; the hard part is listening to what the data tells us. The Jewish Community lacks a culture that collectively promotes the essential principle behind Moneyball, namely that it matters, “less how much money you have than how well you spend it.”

When you have limited money, finite resources, and a competitive marketplace, you will succeed only through a shrewd understanding of how the marketplace based on objective data, which, if used properly, will challenge conventional wisdom and results in leaner, meaner pathways to success.
By extension, if the Jewish Community is to transform our vicious cycles into virtuous cycles, we must understand how to judge the relative value of organizations and strategies, and recognize our own fallibility as human beings who always bring our assumptions to the big Jewish questions of the day. While I am not a statistician, nor a sabermatician, I would like to suggest three principles as a starting point of enacting a strategy of Moneyball Judaism, each of which apply a major principle of sabermetrics to our Jewish Community:
  1. What matters most is getting on-base: One of the statistics deemed critical by sabermetrics in baseball is On-Base Percentage, otherwise known as OBP. The basic assumption behind the OBP is that getting on-base is more valuable than making an out, one of the reasons why Billy Beane hates when baseball players are asked to bunt, as bunting generally involves a team voluntarily relinquishing one of three precious outs to the other team. In contrast, even if a player draws a walk instead of getting a base hit, each of these acts are of similar value, since drawing a walk also gets the player on base (as an aside, this is the reason why Jonah Hill’s character in the movie Moneyball states several times that current New York Yankee, Kevin Youkilis, is the “Greek god of walks”). Ultimately, moving a player across the diamond is a skill of paramount importance when judging a player’s effectiveness.

    The value of OBP translates into the first principle of Moneyball Judaism, which is that an effective organization increases overall Jewish involvement. If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization. If an organization brings participants together for an intensive experience, yet those participants do not or cannot independently engage in Jewish life once the program concludes, it would be difficult to argue that the organization’s program was effective at advancing that individual person’s Jewish involvement. By extension, if we want to compare organizations with one another, we should be able to compare how each succeeds, or fails, at getting Jewish people “on base.” We may not be able to judge the relative value of each act of Jewish living, but we can agree the more active your Jewish life, the more likely you are to be active your entire life.
  2. Measure Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Before he became famous for predicting the results of political elections, Nate Silver was a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus, a publication that uses sabermetric analysis to create statistical models to measure all aspects of a baseball player’s performance. Silver’s main contribution to this publication was a statistic called PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test and was named for former journeyman infielder Bill Pecota. Essentially, PECOTA allows us to measure the best-case, worst-case, and most-likely scenarios of a player’s performance. While you cannot know how a player will perform before choosing to draft him or sign him to a multi-million dollar contract, you can measure the probability of a player being a tremendous success, or have a sense of that player’s value even if they never fulfill their maximum potential.

    The principle behind PECOTA provides a model for thinking about how to judge one Jewish decision versus another. Every Jewish organization showers us with their success stories, individuals for whom participating in their program changed the entire trajectory of their Jewish life. However, we need to ask whether or not those success stories are a typical result, or a statistical aberration. Many organizations provide data about the portrait of their program’s alumni, and how much those alumni engage in Jewish life years after their participation in the program. Based on the data, we can create composite pictures of the best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios for how a person’s Jewish life will be impacted by that organization. If a program or organization claims substantial impact, yet the most likely scenario is a mediocre impact, it would be reasonable to conclude that this organization is not a worthy investment.
  3. We’re not selling jeans here” (Or- Value impact over image): Famously, Michael Lewis writes in Moneyball that when scouts at the Oakland Athletics would ignore statistical performance and state that a prospect “has a great body,” Billy Beane would respond “We’re not selling jeans here,” implying that the goal of a successful baseball team is to find players who produce the needed impact, not project a desired image. We might want a certain conclusion to be true, but if the data does not back it up, we need to consider a change in strategy.

    Not surprisingly, this final principle is key for own understanding of what a “Moneyball Judaism” should mean. When we comment upon and promote individual organizations and modes of Jewish engagement, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are searching for impact, or whether we are “selling jeans,” valuing image over impact. On paper, if one organization closes, and another one receives a $10 million donation, our typical reaction is to assume that the former organization is a failure, while the latter is a success. However, at the moment, we have limited knowledge as to whether or not the organization flush with cash is successful because they have the right members on their Advisory Board, the right marketing strategy, or simply the right aura.

    While Moneyball may be about the numbers, ultimately we reap the benefits of Moneyball when we use data to recognize what works, what doesn’t, and where our own biases hold us back from seeing the difference between the two. Sometimes, the data might confirm what our collective wisdom suggests, and while other items it might challenge a well-established belief. In either case, the more willing we are to use data to identify effective strategies, the more likely we are to pursue the strategies that lead to maximum success.
In his introduction to The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that, “we must think differently about our ideas – and how to test them. We must think more carefully about the assumptions and beliefs that we bring to a problem.” At the present time, the Jewish Community faces a variety of challenges on a number of fronts, yet we cannot stem the tide of declines in almost every measure of Jewish participation unless we are willing to challenge the way we make decisions, analyze the assumptions behind our current strategies, and learn how to ask the right questions about judging talent, value, and performance. Moneyball sparked a movement of thinkers in sports, politics, and business who saw the importance of being smarter about how we determine what assets are valuable in a market with limited resources and fierce competition. If the Jewish Community wants to succeed in stemming the tide of declining involvement, then we must have the courage to embrace “Moneyball Judaism,” and do the same.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island. You can read more of his writings at

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Pew Data And Us

Welcome back to the Next Level. I am afraid that a month of chagim and opening school make blogging in Tishrei a real challenge. This week has been dominated (outside the cocoons of my school and family) by the government shutdown and the Pew Report. I expect to have something to say about the report later this month (about the shutdown I can only hope someone we have elected will be adults and solve the impasse). This post from eJewishPhilanthropy crossed my desk and struck me as one of the best early pieces on the report. (BTW, the full 212 page report is here.)

Shall we discuss it?

Shabbat shalom,


The Pew Data And Us
by Daniel S. Horwitz

For the early classical Reform Jews who settled in this country, the broad assimilation (71% intermarriage rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews) reflected in the recently released Pew survey data would be seen as amazing. “You mean the non-Jews are marrying us willingly, and people are referring to Judeo-Christian values? What a success! We’ve finally made it!”

The Pew data is truly fascinating. While it should come as no surprise that due to historically high rates of intermarriage there are now more individuals who identify as Jewish in some way (think about it – there are now that many more households containing a Jewish person), the more telling data makes it clear that “identity” doesn’t inherently link to practice or active involvement as part of the Jewish community (the fact that over 30% of those surveyed indicated they felt that being Jewish and believing in Jesus are not mutually exclusive in their minds is particularly indicative of this point).

The big issue in my mind is that outside of a construct of commandedness (an area where the overwhelming majority of American Jews reside), we in the liberal Jewish community have failed to meaningfully express an appropriate answer to that most fundamental of questions: “Why be Jewish?”

When we say that we want people to be Jewish, what do we really mean?

Why is it so important to us to continue existing as a nation / faith / culture?

In liberal Judaism today, one of the favorite answers is “Tikkun Olam” – “repairing the world.” But the answer can’t simply be Tikkun Olam. Many faiths hold “repairing the world” – often viewed through a social justice and charitable lens – as a value. Frankly, many Americans who do not identify with a faith group share this value and view it as a secular humanistic one.

So how do we respond to the question “Why be Jewish?”

“Because it’s tradition” as an answer will fail.

“Because of the Holocaust” as an answer will fail.

“Because we have a Jewish State” as an answer will fail.

“Because who are you to break the chain” and other guilt-ridden answers will fail.

Not only do we often struggle to find the right words to answer what theoretically should be a very simple question, but what the Pew survey (and many of the already drafted responses from interested parties) also makes clear is that ultimately, we have a complete inability in the liberal Jewish world to define what “success” looks like.

Here is where our Orthodox brethren arguably have it easier. Living within the context of commandedness implies that producing offspring who lead mitzvah-observant lives is the ultimate measure of a parent’s success in transmitting Jewish identity, literacy and practice to their children. In the liberal Jewish community, each person often measures success differently, as we (arguably, overly) value the experience of the individual, and encourage people to learn, explore, and take on practices that are meaningful to them. Thus, as a “community” (and whether or not there really exists, or can exist, a centralized, idealized, “Jewish community” is another question in and of itself), it’s near impossible to determine whether or not our collective efforts have been successful, due to a lack of definition as to what success itself looks like.

What constitutes “success”?

Let’s look at a hypothetical that helps elucidate this issue.

There is an independent Jewish prayer community that exists in Manhattan, made up largely of young Jewish adults in their 20s. Its members are both well educated and very insular. They celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, in many ways function as a chavurah, give charitably (but only to the minyan itself), and have a general disdain for the Federation system, Synagogues, Day Schools, Jewish Summer Camps and any other mainstream Jewish institution (despite often being products of some or all of these institutions themselves), due to rejecting what they perceive as “pay to pray” and “pay to play” models.

Is the prayer community itself, and the members who comprise it, a Jewish communal success? Why or why not?

What if it existed in a small mid-western town as opposed to a major city? What if its members’ average age was 65? Would such factors make a difference in determining whether or not it was deemed a “success”?

Would the “organized” Jewish community even know that they exist?

It’s time to stop worrying and start rejoicing.

Rabbi Brad Artson is quoted in the Forward (10/1/13) as saying that for the Conservative movement, while affiliation numbers may be down, his focus is on enhancing quality. His message should be universally accepted amongst liberal Jews of all (or no) denominations.

Being Jewish can add meaning to life. Being Jewish can add joy to life. Being Jewish can provide you with the chance to be part of a community of shared purpose, support, and annual rhythm. And, there are other faith (and secular) groups that can do that too. Truly. Being Jewish isn’t for everyone – even if you were born Jewish. If Judaism doesn’t add meaning to your life, and the Jewish community is one that you aren’t particularly keen on being a part of, guess what?

It’s okay.

We should strive to make the liberal Jewish community one that is full of substance, meaning, learning, warmth and above all, joy. Rather than trying to retain Jews using our strong history of tradition and (unfortunately) guilt, we should strive to live our lives as individuals and as communities in such a way that exemplifies how being Jewish is something so wonderful and joyous that if you were raised in a Jewish home that was actively part of a Jewish community, you couldn’t imagine raising your children any other way; and if you were raised in a Jewish home that was not actively part of a Jewish community, that you wish you had been, and seek to create one for your own family.

There is no universal definition of success. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to “Why be Jewish?” – the answer will be different, and intensely personal, for each individual. All we can do is live our lives authentically, with purpose and with joy, and make sure that the word is out – and that our actions reflect our deeply held value – that all are welcome to join us.

Daniel S. Horwitz is the Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.