Jewish Federations across the nation are scrambling to figure out how to respond to decreasing donations and support. In most communities over the last 50 years, major Jewish institutions such as synagogues, schools, JCCs, and membership organizations work together in what I’ll call “the Federation system” to share resources and coordinate activities.
Young people are not buying into the Federation system and their decisions are being felt on the bottom line. Some even question whether or not the Federation system is sustainable in a Jewish world increasingly moving away from centralization. The current growth of independent synagogues is one example of a widespread trend moving away from centralized Jewish life.
As a member of a Jewish community and a Board member of our local Jewish Federation I see the value of the Federation system and the real impact it has on local and international agencies.
Some suggest that to engage young people in Federation giving the process must be made more transparent, offer more choices and be made easier. All of these are good ideas and should be addressed. With charity dollars more scarce than ever, for example, people should know what percentage goes to which agencies and what percentage goes to overhead etc. Similarly, an easier and more choice oriented giving experience may have a positive impact. Perhaps people would be more willing to give via the Federation pipeline if they could have more choice as to what Federation supported agency to send their money to.
Having said that, these ideas do not address the root issue –fewer and fewer young people are committed to the Jewish community and supporting Jewish causes.
My suggestion is radically simple. It is radical in that it calls for an incentive system implemented by Jewish Federations and it is simple in that it incentivizes the only real solution to Jewish apathy.
Jewish Federations should increase funding, or in some cases begin to offer funds (the individual formula could be decided locally) to Jewish day schools based on the number of students who continue on to the next level of Jewish education. It is well know that the number of Jewish children enrolled in Jewish day school drastically decreases after middle school.
Here is how it would work. For every student who moves from a Jewish elementary school to a Jewish Middle school, the elementary school is rewarded with dollars. The same goes for moving from middle school to high school. High schools would be rewarded for every graduate who marries a Jew.
This will accomplish a number of goals:
1. Day schools will have an incentive to “beef up” their Judaic programs.
2. Jewish Federations will make an important statement that religious education is the priority of the Jewish community.
3. Families may benefit from reduced tuitions and which in turn would lead to increased enrollment.
4. Most importantly, Federations take the first step towards solving the problem of diminished participation and donations. This suggestion may not solve the short term problems in our community (and for those, Birthright and the Wexner program should be continued), but encouraging outcomes instead of processes is the only way to create an ongoing source of committed young Jews.
This model calls for moving away from an allocation model based on the number of students in the school. Such a model focuses on the children upon enrollment. A better measure of the success of the school is one founded on the choices the children and their families make upon commencement or graduation. Successful schools should be rewarded. Such a program will incentivize the schools and offer the larger Jewish community a chance of survival.
We have to start looking at the finished product.