In previous years, Israel's back-to-back elections would have been an event the American Jewish community focused on. Individuals would discuss the political turbulence in Israel in their communal institutions, shul, and social networks. These upcoming elections, however, the level of engagement seems lower than usual and large segments of American Jewry do not care. The unprecedented dispersal of the Knesset following Benjamin Netanyahu's failure to form a coalition, and a second national election within six months, are met with a sense of disinterest by most American Jews.
The growing rift between Israel and American Jewry is one cause for this. There are also other, substantial explanations, the result of internal challenges and issues facing young American Jews operating within their respective communal frameworks.
For decades, a few umbrella organizations spearheaded the communal work and life of American Jewry. Generally speaking, these organizations are controlled by a few ultra-wealthy donors, with a similar profile – older Ashkenazi men, – despite the demographic and social changes the community underwent in recent decades.
In other words, there is a lack of diversity and representation at the organizational level. This causes younger Jews to disengage from the institutions meant to represent them. This disengagement is not only from the institutions – but also from traditional communal life. Since the community’s ties with Israel run first and foremost through its institutions – Federations, educational groups and others – stepping away from the organized Jewish world is also a step away from established connections to Israel.
The average American Jewish organization is managed by extremely wealthy older men. This image does not reflect the gender and ethnical diversity that exists within the community. In practice, the organizations established to work for the Jewish community, those which served it for over 100 years, no longer represent large segments of US Jewry.
While we have seen a recent increase in women's presence within Jewish organizations, including the appointment of Amira Aharonovich as the first-ever woman Director General of the Jewish Agency and Harriet Schleifer as the American Jewish Committee's first female President, other groups are still not part of the top brass of communal leadership. Jews from the former USSR or Israel, people with disabilities and LGBTQ Jews are only some examples. The gap between the unelected leadership and the community members it is meant to represent is only growing wider.
The lack of representation of large Jewish segments within Jewish organizations is even more obvious when compared to American legislative institutions. In the 2018 midterm Congressional elections, we saw Congress change greatly as more minorities and women took office. Female representation grew from 92 women in the 115th Congress to 106 in the 116th. Capitol Hill also became more racially diverse, with a 10 percent increase in African American representation, a nearly 15 percent increase in Asian representation, and a 100 percent increase in Native American representation. This Congress also saw record growth in the black and Hispanic caucuses.
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Furthermore, there has been a generational shift. The numbers of Generation Xers in Congress grew 17 percent, and millennials skyrocketed 420 percent, while representation among the Silent Generation and baby boomers decreased about 13 percent. Overall, the average age in Congress fell from 57 to 47.
These social changes cause young Jews to understand that in the United States, diversity and representation is important. However, when they look at their communal organizations' lack of diversity and representation, this is not the case.
By increasing representation within the organized Jewish world, we can properly address some of the biggest challenges facing the American Jewish community. It can increase the involvement of younger Jews, and those who identify with various marginalized groups. The ironic tragedy of this situation is that these organizations spend large amounts of money on projects promoting Jewish identity and connecting young Jews to the community and to Israel.
The most effective way to connect people to the community and its values is by giving them a seat at the table and allowing them to be part of our leadership. Representation might not solve all our problems, but it is a much-needed step in the right direction.
Jay Ruderman is President of the Ruderman Family Foundation, which works to promote disability inclusion and strengthen the relationship between Israel and the American Jewish community