The changes underway in the North American Jewish community are seismic and irreversible. Fewer and fewer Jews are affiliating and engaging with traditional institutions, even as the reported desire for spirituality and engagement remains sky high. Some innovators – from foundations to synagogues to individual spiritual leaders – have tried to create new paradigms for Jewish life with varying success. Yet, by and large, at most Jewish institutions, models for Jewish learning, community, service and engagement and, critically, the financial models that underpin them, remain as they have for decades or longer.
American Jewish University, which I lead, reviewed this environment and decided that our future was predicated on making radical changes to embrace a changing Jewish population. We decided to dramatically alter how we operate by selling our Bel Air campus and using the additional resources to reach the increasing number of Jews who do not feel connected to any particular building.
FAMILIAN CAMPUS AJULA
We are under no illusions that this shift will be easy, but this is the only viable path for us in a world where the most notable trend is the ever-increasing number of Jews avoiding Jewish institutions. The 2020 Pew Study found that only, “About one-third of U.S. Jews (35%) say they live in a household where someone is a formal member of a synagogue.” Similarly, in the recent study of the Los Angeles Jewish community, the second largest in the United States, the Federation of Greater Los Angeles found that, “Nearly half of Jewish adults feel a great deal of belonging to the Jewish people, but only 20% indicate a great deal of belonging to any Jewish community in LA.”
These individual decisions reflect largely structural changes in the American population that cannot be reversed by communal actions. While there is evidence that Jews are notably less religious than other Americans in general (for instance, far fewer believe in God “as described in the Bible” than the American public), Pew noted that, “the most obvious” trend is growing religious disaffiliation as the percentage of Jews (27%) who claim no religion at all is virtually identical to the overall American population.
There are many rabbis that, as Pew documented, try to engage the disaffiliated Jews whether it be at bars, coffee shops, online or through innovative worship services. The problem is that, by and large, communal leaders have tried to reach the disaffiliated without fundamentally changing the institutions that many have avoided or fled. These rabbis still have their salaries paid for by members of their congregation who they have to devote most of their attention, even if their congregants are an ever-smaller percentage of the population. Foundations have funded a plethora of programs to reach the unaffiliated, but these tend to be uncoordinated efforts that are incremental to the existing infrastructure of American Judaism rather than an effective reallocation of core resources.
We recognized that we had to fundamentally change to address the challenges of the future. Our twenty-two-acre campus in Bel Air was too expensive to maintain and, especially in the post-COVID world of Zoom, simply not attracting enough students and visitors to justify the mortgage, facility, utilities, insurance and (increasing) security expenses. Our Board decided to put the campus on the market and in September 2022 we announced the sale to EF Education First, the largest privately owned educational company in the world.
After the sale, we will choose our facilities so that we can meet our audiences where they are rather than worry about how to attract our constituencies to a particular locale identified decades earlier in a very different world. This is especially important in the post-COVID era where it can no longer be assumed that people will travel for an informative program. The proceeds of the transaction, net of paying off our mortgage, will go to our endowment, providing a continuous source of funding for new initiatives. Many – but not all – of these initiatives will be digital. We will maintain real estate when it aligns with our mission, including our 2,700 acre campus in the Simi Valley that is home to a much loved summer camp and a variety of immersive programs that are tied to the land.
Leaving behind the old expense structure will allow us to be a vital enabler for the Jewish journeys of the emerging Jewish community. For instance, we will dramatically grow our Maas Center for Jewish Journeys that champions those too-often relegated to the periphery of Jewish life and that houses the Miller Introduction to Judaism program. The Intro program is the largest path to Jewish conversion in the world, having served thousands in southern California and, by supporting a nationwide series of affiliates, has its curriculum offered in more than one hundred locations across the country. It is also a pathway to re-connect to one’s Jewish identity or learn about one’s Judaism for the first time. We recently began teaching an Introduction to Judaism program in Spanish. We are also revising our curriculum to reach out to the increasing number of Jews of color and the many whose heritage and cultural orientation is toward the Middle East or the Iberian Peninsula. And we will continue to dramatically scale digital offerings so that anyone in the world interested in Judaism can take the Miller program.
Similarly, we are at the forefront of examining one of the most extraordinary phenomena of the modern Jewish experience: the millions of people who we call “distant relatives“ who now seek affinity with Jewish communities because genetic testing has revealed that they have Jewish ancestry. For the first time in 2,000 years, there are a large number of people throughout the world who are now seeking, or have the potential to seek, affinity with the Jewish people. This development has the potential to radically change the fight against antisemitism. Yet, neither the Jewish nor Israeli establishments know quite what to do with these potential new allies, a gap we hope to address.
By shedding our legacy costs, we can essentially act as a disrupter (even though the institution is 75 years old) and use our resources in innovative ways to address the Jews of today but also friends of Jews and those who have been marginalized because their affiliation is not formally recognized who want something that has yet to be offered. In this way, we, and other traditional institutions who are willing to make dramatic changes, can become the answer to the needs of the future Jewish community, rather than a spectator trapped in the past.
Jeffrey Herbst is president of American Jewish University.