'Elitist' leadership alienating U.S. Jews, says prominent sociologist
Professor Chaim Waxman blames the 'non-cooperation' of Jewish organizational life.
The perception that the American Jewish leadership is "elitist, parochial, self-serving and resistant to innovation," is fueling a decline in Jewish communal participation in the U.S., a leading sociologist said this week.
In a policy paper prepared ahead of the President's Conference, "Facing Tomorrow," Professor Chaim Waxman asserted that a sense of "too much overlap, duplication, and non-cooperation" among organizations in the American Jewish establishment is also disillusioning, especially among the younger generation, in regards to Jewish organizational life.
"There is a sense among some that the older established organizations are incapable of making the changes necessary to accomplish what some non-establishment organizations have been able to achieve," he wrote. Waxman also pointed to the perception that the American Jewish establishment seems closed to those "who are not members of the "'old boys club,' the circle of wealthy, old men who are at the helms of most major Jewish organizations." He stressed, however, that these perceptions were just some of the many factors contributing to a decline in communal participation and a general "disillusionment" with the organized Jewish community. Other more prominent factors include the growing importance of cyberspace, the declining importance attributed to ethnicity as a defining element in American culture and a general lack of familiarity with the established Jewish community. He also said a growing number of young Americans - Jews included - view their identity as pluralistic and fluid, rather than fixed.
Waxman, a prominent sociologist of American Jewry, is professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University. He presented the paper at a symposium of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute in Jerusalem, where he also serves as a senior fellow.
He recommended reconsidering a mostly forgotten report commissioned half a century ago by the National Community Relations Advisory Council that recommended greater cooperation among the various organizations and agencies. "Given the passage of time and the declines in membership among some of the very organizations that attacked the report, it clearly is time to revisit it and evaluate its relevance to the contemporary organizational structure of not only the American Jewish community but Jewish communities in other parts of the world as well. There appear to be grounds for assuming that some of the basic organizational problems still exist."
In an interview, Waxman added, "At the time [the report was issued] too many organizations had a vested interes - tthere were too many egos - and it was therefore buried. Today, many of these organizations don't need someone to tell them that they are in trouble. They know they are in trouble and so there is no threat. I am not suggesting that anyone should close up shop, but what the organizations can do is look at their activities and say to each other, 'I'll emphasize this and you'll emphasize that' and then coordinate. So much could be accomplished if we coordinated."
Though he noted declining degrees of identification with the concept of peoplehood among young American Jews, Waxman said projects like Taglit-birthright Israel could be leveraged to further connections between youth and the organized American Jewish community. "I see this situation as an opportunity to find out what we can do to charge up numbers of Jewish youth," he said, "not necessarily so that they can join the American Jewish Congress or Bnai Brith, but so that they can get involved in Jewishness and the Jewish community."