Mitchell Bard 
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© Mitchell Bard 2016

From Survive to Thrive: Creating Super Jews

Since at least the 1990 Jewish population survey, the overriding concern of the American Jewish community has been that assimilation and intermarriage could lead to a catastrophic decline in the number of Jews in the United States. With each new X, Y, Z generation, Jewish organizations lament young Jews’ lack of affiliation with synagogues, their weak connection with Israel, and their generally tenuous Jewish identity. For all the good work the alphabet soup of Jewish organizations are doing, they are largely preoccupied with survival. This is a mistake.

The approach toward students, for example, is that in the age of iPod young Jews function like computers with multiple windows open on their desktop and, while older generations might have made Israel their home page, the goal today is just to get students to put Judaism and Israel in one of the many windows they have open at any one time.

Social justice groups want Jews to care about their fellow humans, and are less concerned with their connection to Israel than their performance of good deeds.

The political Zionists are interested only in promoting involvement in the political process and working to strengthen the U.S.-Israel relationship.

The outreach groups seek ways to keep the parents and children of mixed marriages affiliated with Judaism.

All of these approaches have a similar minimalist agenda that essentially boils down to the plea, “Please God, help us insure the next generation is Jewish.”

It’s time to change the focus and raise the bar from this seemingly desperate effort to survive to socially engineering Jews to thrive. We should not just be seeking to hold onto Jews; we should be trying to produce super Jews.

What is a super Jew? Some of the characteristics include affiliation with, and support of the local synagogue and community, participation in social justice programs, involvement in pro-Israel politics, a passion for Jewish learning, and a willingness and ability to inspire others to similar engagement. Super Jews need not be rich, though it helps, but they do give what time, energy and funds they do have available to Jewish organizations and activities.

And young Jews recognize super Jews when they see them and want to emulate them. For example, when the new President of Hillel asked students who they wanted to be like, they didn't pick any celebrities or Jewish professionals, they said Lynn Schusterman, a person who fulfills all the criteria mentioned above.

I spoke to a group of day school parents in New York the other day and mentioned the apathy of most Jewish college students. By contrast, however, three young people also spoke that night and they were examples of the type of passionate, articulate Jews we should be lavishing our attention on and seeking to reproduce.

How do you produce such super Jews, especially given the view that we have a hard enough time just maintaining the survival agenda?

The answer is in building mutually reinforcing structures that will direct young Jews toward our goal.

For example, take young Jews who have an interest in journalism. It is great that funding has been made available to allow the creation of Israel journals at several universities. This gets students talking and writing about Israel, and the theory is that this will not only stimulate education and discussion about Israel, but inspire the journal writers to a lifelong commitment to Israel.

We need to do more.

What if money was available to send these journalists to Israel to do research, to meet Israeli journalists and to report from there? What if Jewish publications had affiliations with the student journals and provided internships and mentoring programs for the students? What if scholarships were available to support those who want to get graduate degrees in journalism? What if the graduates of these programs were given entrée to Jewish publishers so they could get jobs after graduation?

Wouldn’t such a support system be more likely to produce professional journalists with Jewish values and an interest in Israel, and perhaps a greater interest in affiliating with the community, than the current system whereby a bunch of students get excited enough to produce a journal and the money they get to publish it is the last contact the community has with them?

What about the social justice programs that direct young Jews who want to do good to build houses for the poor in Latin America or American inner cities? These programs bring people together for a good cause, one reflecting Jewish values, but how does it connect them to the community and to Israel? What if during the program there is some discussion and education about Israel, both its political history and its current social problems? What if the participants were invited after they complete their projects to go to Israel to perform some similar services for citizens there? What if the leaders of Federation social justice programs were given the names of participants and reached out to see if they would be interested in continuing their work under the community umbrella?

These are just two examples of a model that can be applied to a range of activities that young Jews could participate in. Of course, the typical Jewish response is to say it’s already being done, and to some degree it is, but not to the extent required to move the community from surviving to thriving.