Fired for Challenging U.S. Jewry's Focus on Young Adults

A director at San Francisco's Jewish federation is sacked for suggesting that the Jewish community puts too much premium on engaging young adults, instead of putting 'older, integrated' adults forward.

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NEW YORK – Michal Kohane is fed up with the American Jewish community’s focus on young adults at the expense, she says, of attention to Jews who are middle aged and older. It was this view that she sought to express in an essay titled “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement,” which was published Wednesday in the Jerusalem-based newsletter eJewishPhilanthropy. It was also this view that led to her being fired, the same day the essay was released, from her job at the San Francisco Jewish federation, where for three years she worked as the director of its Israel Center.

Kohane’s essay is raw – a clear departure in tone, as well as message, from the carefully worded statements routinely issued by the American Jewish establishment. But her firing begs the question: is challenging the American Jewish community’s recent focus on outreach to young adults now considered so far beyond the pale that it merits marginalization, much the way that supporting Israel boycotts does? Has the community’s ability to tolerate debate and dissent so narrowed that questioning the huge sums spent on trying to attract the young and unaffiliated gets you fired?

“I’ve had it with the constant song and dance around ‘young adult engagement’ as the only promise of any Jewish life anywhere ever at all…Building a sustainable community can’t be just about paying for buses full of young people in hopes they will make Jewish babies,” wrote Kohane, who is 52 and the mother of six children, ages 15 to 26, in her essay. “I’ve had it with smug young people who bring little to the table short of age, whose presence leaves no room for anyone else, and the fact that they are 20 some, or 30 some does not make it cute…There was always promise in young age. That is nothing new. But there was always more. It seems that now we have lost the 'more.'"

In an interview Kohane didn’t want to talk much about getting fired, though she confirmed the circumstances. “I’d much rather talk about the issue I was trying to raise in the article and not make this a campaign against the federation in any shape or form,” she said.

“We are seriously battling issues of continuity. The only thing I want to argue is that you can’t combat continuity with goodies,” like birthright Israel trips. “You have to communicate that this is a very meaningful way of life that is worth your investment, and in order to do that you need functioning, integrated older adults, otherwise the young people don’t see where they’re going,” Kohane told Haaretz. “I want to take Judaism out of the sandbox.”

In an editorial the next day titled “The Cost of Criticism,” EJewishPhilanthropy’s publisher, Dan Brown, wrote, “Why is it that our organizations cannot accept criticism? Why is it that our largest organizations behave vindictively towards anyone – employees, lay leaders, the media – that say anything critical of any initiative or policy? Are their CEO egos so fragile? Are their missions so questionable that some behave like the worst dictatorships in history?”

Some commenters under a second piece in eJewishPhilanthropy about Kohane being fired, and elsewhere, suggested that perhaps there were other factors at play in her being let go. But Kohane said that she had had no employment issues until the essay appeared.

On Friday, Jennifer Gorovitz, CEO of the Jewish Community Federation of San Francisco, the Peninsula, Marin and Sonoma Counties issued a statement saying that Kohane was fired for writing something contrary to the organization’s message, and for not getting it cleared before publication.

“Public communications from within the organization require review and approval prior to publication,” wrote Gorovitz. “This is particularly important when they involve the use of official Federation titles and positions.” Kohane’s professional affiliation no longer appears on her essay, though it did initially.

Gorovitz added in her statement, “I wholeheartedly support robust and meaningful debate about the many important questions facing the Jewish community and the leaders who support it. The Federation strives to listen and grow and improve continuously…The post published recently in eJewish Philanthropy, however, does not represent the views of the Federation. In fact, it runs very much counter to the spirit and culture of our organization, which works to engage and benefit EVERYONE in Jewish life, at every stage of their lives, and to promote an open environment that allows civil discussion of complex issues affecting Jewish life…It’s never been an either/or situation, and we want to make sure that message is clear to our wider community of supporters and leaders.”

Addressing Gorovitz’s statement, Kohane said: “We’re in agreement on our values and thinking, so I’m sorry we’re not continuing to work together toward the same common goal.”

People outside of the immediate controversy found it troubling that Kohane was fired for her essay.

“We spend so much time speaking about innovation, but if people can’t question the status quo, then how are we to innovate?” said Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, a Conservative rabbi who works as director of Rabbis Without Borders. The project is run by CLAL: The National Center for Jewish Learning and Leadership, and provides a fellowship to 20 rabbis each year and safe space for discussing new ideas. “If we want to remain relevant as a community and make Jewish wisdom accessible, we have to get outside our boxes.”

Rabbi Andy Bachman, spiritual leader of Brooklyn’s Reform Congregation Beth Elohim wrote, under the eJewishPhilanthropy piece announcing that Kohane had been fired, “Michal was fired for saying what most Jewish professionals I know believe to be true. And even if one were to disagree with Michal (which I do not) dissent is a Torah value. The San Francisco Federation looks pretty bad here.” 

Birthright Israel participants waving Israeli flags.Credit: Kobi Gideon
Michal Kohane. Credit: Courtesy

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