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Measuring the Crisis Transcript

The following is a transcript of Episode 187 of the Identity/Crisis Podcast. Note: This is a lightly edited transcript of a conversation, please excuse any errors.

Yehuda: Hi everyone, welcome to Identity/Crisis, a show from the Shalom Hartman Institute, creating better conversations about the issues facing contemporary Jewish life. I’m Yehuda Kurtzer, we’re recording on Friday, May 24th, 2024. 

Since October 7th, I’ve struggled to figure out where the line is between mourning, on one hand, or being overwhelmed, or just trying to hold it together, and then, on the other hand, starting to plan again, to look forward again. When do you move from one to the other?

I know I’m not alone on this front. I think a lot of Israelis were jolted into war mode but have not actually left shock mode all at the same time. There’s mounting pressure in Israel against Prime Minister Netanyahu not only for failing to prevent the tragedy and failing to get back the hostages, but most vexingly for lacking any sort of future plan for the war or for the hostages or certainly for the people of Gaza. The problem is that even among Prime Minister Netanyahu’s critics, for better or worse, not many of them have a clear plan for the future either. They just increasingly distrust the fact that the sitting prime minister seems as lost as they are. 

I think in general, it’s hard for people in positions of leadership to know the balance between resources we allocate towards getting through the present and resources we allocate towards planning for the future. I can tell you that in my organization, the Shalom Hartman Institute, I vastly prefer the future work a lot more than the triage work. The deepest compliment we sometimes get from our stakeholders is that we can help people through our educational programs or through ideas see around the corner to do what classical rabbis call, lirot et hanolad, to visualize or to see that which is being born, that which is coming down the path. 

In the world of Torah, a life of thinking about the future rather than thinking about the present or about the past frees you from living defensively or getting stuck in a rut. Focusing on the future can make you into an optimist, or maybe not necessarily an optimist as though you think things in the future will necessarily be better, but at least it makes you believe that the important work is to at least try to make the future better than it is now. 

For what it’s worth, I think there are some leaders who actually like being present-tense leaders. Some of them, I think there are leaders who thrive on crisis. If you want to be cynical, you can say it’s because they know how to exploit crisis. If you want to be generous, you acknowledge that it’s genuinely a necessary skill to help communities weather those crises without the distraction or the annoyance of talking about the future. There is actually important and holy work in managing the present, even if it’s not the preferred work for all of us. 

For eight months now, I would say even many of us who would prefer to be future-oriented leaders have been stuck in triage and crisis mode. I found out that my leadership and the work of our organization are better at crisis than we like to admit. Much of the content we’ve produced for the past eight months has been an attempt to interpret the present much more than trying to anticipate, much less plan for, a wildly uncertain future that has opened up both in Israel and for Jews around the world. There’s enough work to do right now in the space of current, real-time explaining and interpreting. We know that, as an organization, because we get a lot of affirmation from a lot of you listeners about the value of what we’re producing. 

But I’d be lying if I told you it isn’t creating some internal anxiety and tension between folks on our faculty who want us to stay in the trenches with the people and those who want us to challenge and those that want to challenge us to get back to the work of trying to vision and build towards a better future. 

I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t personally struggling with the challenge of trying to get back to the helm of the ship, to the lookout, as opposed to the work of these past eight months, helping out getting people into the lifeboats. 

At our programs in Israel this summer for lay leaders and rabbis, we’re going to be working through this exact story from the lessons we’ve taken away from the catastrophe of October 7th through all the ramifications of the ensuing war for Israeli society and for our own values. And then, in the second half of our programs, trying to raise our field of vision, to imagine the Israel of tomorrow. We know that that’s the work we have to get back to doing, and I can’t tell you that it’s super easy to do right now. 

The whole business of futuring is something that I think the organized Jewish community struggles to do well. I’m not faulting anyone. Trying to predict and then game the future is hard and it’s risky. Anyway, Jews have a baked-in, hard-earned skepticism of prophets. We’re not supposed to believe them. Scenario planning? Well, if you look back 200 years in the Jewish past and try to do scenario planning 50 years out, any predictions at any point of the way that you would have made about where the Jewish people would have been 50 years hence would have been terribly wrong. 

At the same time, Jewish communal leaders are always scared of falling behind the trends and the behaviors and the demographics. We also have a baked-in and hard-earned fear of becoming obsolete. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, as the Jewish institutional landscape has faced a blistering pace of change in who Jews are and how they believe and who they marry and how they behave and how they belong, our leaders have come to recognize that our institutions are under constant pressure to change or to die. How do we do this? What kind of data or information can help us predict or at least anticipate the future of our community? 

That anxiety about the present and therefore the future helps explain why the dominant ideas industry in the Jewish community for decades now has been the field of sociology, which, by the way, breeds a lot of resentment from those of us who are in the business of history or philosophy. I guess the theory is that the closest you can get to seeing the future is seeing the present. At best, we can take stock of who we are, how we’re behaving, comparing it to what was happening before, and then maybe building some predictive models. In practice, by the time you do the work to frame the questions, build the study, and then do the study and get to the point where you’re analyzing the data, you do often find yourself studying yesterday’s data. But I guess it’s better that our community strives to make data-driven decisions than the alternative. 

We contemporary Jewish leaders now have the misfortune of living through at least two and maybe three generational moments. I think that includes the rise of Trump with the domestic threats to American democracy, the pandemic, and now the aftermath of October 7th. In all three of these moments, it has felt, sitting in a position of communal leadership and friends with a lot of other people who do as well, that we and our community are on the precipice of significant transformation and the hard work has been to figure out which of those transformations we should embrace and which we’re supposed to resist. 

Early in the pandemic, now four years ago, I wrote that it was going to be an accelerant of a whole bunch of organizational changes that were already underway in the ecosystem. Some of that actually did come to pass, but on a bunch of other fronts it’s still too soon to tell. Now again it feels as though, post-October 7th, there’s some pretty significant behavioral and communal and attitudinal shifts taking place throughout the Jewish world, although many of us are responding to stimuli rooted in personal relationships and anecdotes.

It’s hard to tell what’s changing right now that’s real and what is an illusion. Mimi Kravetz is the Chief Impact and Growth Officer for JFNA, Jewish Federations of North America, which is the umbrella organization for the Federation system. JFNA commissioned a significant study, actually several studies that we’ll talk about today, on American Jewish attitudes after October 7th. I will say I don’t have the technical skills to weigh in on the study’s methodologies, its margins of error, any of its blind spots, but there are really some notable results, which are clearly now beginning to drive Jewish communal decision-making. 

I invited Mimi to come on the show today to talk about both ends of this conversation, both what it means to seek data towards communal decision-making, the ways that that is obvious and the way that it’s fraught, but also about the urgencies for our community right now, and this particular data as it experiences this pronounced wave of change. 

Mimi, thanks for coming on the show. I think you’re in the class of long-time listeners, first-time callers. So thank you for coming on Identity/Crisis. And I’m going to first ask you to just explain what is the role of a chief impact and growth officer for JFNA. What is the scope of that work? And what do you and your team seek to do in that role?

Mimi: Absolutely. Great, Yehuda, thanks so much for having me on. First, I’ll share what JFNA does really briefly that connects to my role, which is we really see Jewish Federations of North America as in the position of supporting our 146 federations and nearly 300 small network communities throughout North America and building flourishing Jewish communities. And the unique role that my team plays in that, is trying to make sure that at any given moment communities have data and information about what’s happening in the local Jewish communities and amongst peers in our communities so that we can make good decisions about where to invest and how to support all of the Jewish communal institutions locally.

Yehuda: I’m curious, as you’re describing this, I know that for decades, there’s a whole industry that’s actually grown up around population studies that are for local communities. I know that it’s been done. There’s kind of a rite of passage where communities do local population studies. They bring in one of only a handful of researchers who come and does these population studies. Does your role involve any sort of aggregation of that data? Is there an effort to kind of federalize the process by which communities are studying themselves, or are you doing kind of national work versus the local work? How does that play out, the business of data for particular Jewish communities in North America?

Mimi: So we do both of these things. First, we support communities in doing their own community studies and making sure that they’re applying best practices. We also have been doing a lot of work to aggregate those studies and to try and ensure that there are some consistent questions across the studies so that we can really connect them with each other and understand what they’re telling us. 

For example, we recently worked with the Cohen Center and the Weinberg Foundation to aggregate a whole set of community studies and come up with learnings about financial vulnerability across Jewish communities. 

In addition, we’ve over the last few years made a significant investment in our data infrastructure and our research methodologies to try and give local communities tools that allow them to much more frequently and rapidly get information about both their community demographics and the attitudes of their local communities. And we’ve been using these for snapshots of local feedback that aren’t as in-depth as the robust community studies that you’re talking about but can give communities a sense of how people are feeling on a whole variety of different issues and a much more frequent understanding of what’s changing. Because like you said, in the world that we live in, things are changing very quickly. So even if you could do a community study every decade, which, even there, it’s the largest communities that are doing that, a lot changes in a decade. A lot has changed in the last five years. And so we wanna make sure that every community can have information on who’s living there and how people are feeling at any given time.

Yehuda: It sounds a little bit like the equivalent of a pulse survey for an organization. We do these several times a year just to keep track of where our employees are. Have you seen any leadership behaviors change because of these kinds of new methods of gathering faster data? Have you seen communities capable of pivoting more quickly towards change? Because I know sometimes large organizations like federations, it’s like turning a ship. So in what ways does the speed by which they’re actually getting data actually influence leadership behavior in communities as you’ve seen so far?

Mimi: What I think is consistent and long-term is the exercise of leadership that’s about visioning for the future and building frameworks. And that doesn’t change quickly in institutions, but I find that this kind of data allows people to make rapid, real-time decisions about the things that are most quickly changing. So if they see that there’s a particular portion of their community that they’re not reaching, or they see that there’s a rising mental health need that’s unaddressed, getting this data can help them immediately talk to the major funders in their community about that urgent need and address it within the framework of their vision and their current structures.

Yehuda: So it won’t necessarily alter the five and 10-year strategic plan, but it can have the potential to create some amount of rapid response around things that feel like they are present-tense crises that may over time become baked into the larger scale planning processes in these communities.

Mimi: Yes, absolutely. And people are doing that.

Yehuda: Okay, yeah. I know you spent time in Silicon Valley adjacent to your work in the Jewish community as a professional, and I’m reminded of this, the story when Josh Foer and Brett Lockspeiser were starting Sefaria, and they went to funders in the Jewish community, and they described what they wanted to do, which is digitize the Jewish bookshelf, and Jewish communal funders were like, that’s too big of a project, it’s impossible, and Brett responded by saying, I work at Google, we’re digitizing enormous things, this is actually a small project. And it was a good reminder of the kind of, you know, like a little bit of the blindness of the Jewish community, which has small projects relative to larger projects. 

I’m curious, like, whether you think that data collection processes have caught up to the data mining and data surveillance that’s actually prevalent outside of the Jewish community, or whether you think there’s single you think we’re still in the same place and I’m responding, in particular, Ari Kelman, in our latest issue of our Sources journal, writes about data, that data in the world is a massive surveillance project where oftentimes we are actually surrendering much more data much more honest data about ourselves than we would if somebody calls you and asks you a survey. You know, the footprints that we’re leaving everywhere is massive. And you have to like find the right person to ask them the right question to get the right information. 

So I’m wondering, and when I was thinking about like, wow, that actually is true. Are our methods of collecting data in the Jewish community relatively antiquated? I wonder if you have a take on that.

Mimi: Look, so I worked both at American Express and at Google, and both of those companies have an unbelievable amount of data on all of us. And it’s not because we’ve answered a survey. It’s because they watch where we spend our money, and they’re able, not as individuals, but in aggregate, and look at online behavior. So do we have that kind of data about the Jewish community? No. We don’t have that kind of data. And we don’t have the systems.

If we were all one system and every interaction you had with Jewish communal life throughout your life cycle was tracked and shared, we’d have a lot more information, but we have disaggregated information. 

So I haven’t made it my goal that the Jewish community has the kind of big data that we would have had at American Express or Google, but I have tried to make sure that like these companies, we’re able to get data on a frequent basis for the things that we need it for most, to make really good decisions about people, about how the people in our communities are thinking and feeling. 

And so we’ve made a lot of progress, right? The data that’s actually behind the survey that we recently conducted, the way that we do this is through getting data from a source that aggregates, machine learning from all different kinds of sources, including political polling data and online behavior in order to identify the people to reach out to in the Jewish community so that we can run this kind of survey. 

So we really are trying through our data infrastructure and our updated research methodologies at Jewish Federations to bring us towards the kind of data systems that you can see in the corporate world in a way that gives us the right information to benefit the Jewish community.

Yehuda: Yeah, I mean, I’m not sure I want the data collection that we have in the Jewish community to be as massive, you know, I say that, I’m completely complicit in leaving a massive online footprint and not really caring about it, and then not being surprised when anything I Google once then shows up in all sorts of coded ways to get me to buy it somewhere else. 

So I’m not sure I want it, although I’m kind of intrigued by the thought experiment of like, what if the system knew what time and when I showed up to services? What if the system knew, like, you know, what kind of Jewish conversations I was part of? Like, how would that change our capacity as a Jewish community to have the level of intimacy, of knowledge of our people that our leadership institutions could actually be responding to them? As terrifying as that is.

Mimi: Hm. Right. So if you like this, you might really like this other organization, experience, text, et cetera. Yeah.

Yehuda: Yeah, something like that. Anyway, I have more questions about this, but I want to go specifically to the particular study that we wanted to talk about today, which is Jewish communal attitudes and behaviors following October 7th. And the big line that I want to start with is this statistic around what you call the surge of, where, I think it was something like 83% of Jewish adults are somewhat or very disengaged from Jewish life, you can correct the terminology, of that 83%, 40% of them are more interested or more engaged post-October 7th, and that winds up totaling something like 30% of all Jewish adults. 

So let’s lean into that for a moment. What are your hypotheses about what this is about? And how are we meant to interpret an affective shift? Like, I want more? Like, what do we think that actually means in terms of what people want?

Mimi: Okay, so what I think this is about is that what I think is behind the surge in Jewish life is a lot of the things that are concerning us about Jewish life, right? So on October 7th, the Jewish community started to feel more vulnerable, more concerned and connected about Israel, much more concerned about antisemitism in North America. And we know that people feel more comfortable talking to others in the Jewish community and in their family about how they’re feeling about Israel and antisemitism and less comfortable in secular spaces. And that is hard. 

At the same time, we know that while there’s a huge emotional toll during this moment and what people are looking for is community, they’re looking for a group of people to be around them in community in this moment, that they’re feeling all of this pressure. And that’s powerful. And when you ask what they’re looking for, so there are a few things we know they’re seeking and some things we know they’re already doing. 

We know that they’re seeking friends. They wanna talk to other people and know other people like them. And we know that the people in the search are much less likely to have Jewish friends today. And they want to show up in Jewish spaces to do everything from learn about Israel and anti-Semitism and do advocacy about the concerns that they’re having about the way things are landing in schools and city councils and otherwise, and they want to show up socially, and yet they don’t have friends. So what they want is friends. 

They also want learning about Israel and Judaism, which is amazing. And it’s something we have to offer them. And what they’re already doing, therefore, is actively showing up in community in exactly the kinds of programs that we’ve built for them. And to me, the most upsetting or startling fact is that when they’re doing that, they tell us that they feel lonelier than they did before. Because I think often in this moment, when they’re showing up, we’re not necessarily noticing or engaging these folks who haven’t been there before. 

So the opportunity for our industry and sector that has been for so long enamored with prioritizing this idea of engaging people who are on the periphery of Jewish life is to make sure that when people are showing up in this moment for whatever they’re showing up for, that we see them and that we engage them and that we use all the best practices that have been developed in relationship-based engagement to really make them part of and belonging to our communities.

Yehuda: By the way, one of the reasons though, just to have a little rachmanis on the people who are not doing the welcoming, is, and then we’ll let it go. One of the reasons for that though is I think like when I went to shul on October 14th, on Shabbat morning, October 14th, and I didn’t go to pray because I couldn’t really pray, I went to just be with other people, which is exactly what your data is basically saying. People are seeking experiences to be with other people. And I definitely noticed that there were way more people there than they usually were. But what I needed in that moment was to basically stand by myself crying, but in a group of people. It would have been a weird responsibility to say, now go welcome people over, invite them to your house for Shabbat, or signal that they’re here. 

So I think part of the strange thing about this moment is there is a huge opportunity as people are coming into the Jewish community, but what your surveys also call the core, those who are already in Jewish life, are also craving something emotionally that cannot simply be set aside in order to accommodate the influx of the surge.

Mimi: Absolutely. So people in the core, we are also showing up a lot more and need more. And people in the core, they already have community, but the emotional toll is even higher on this group. They’re watching things even more closely. It’s everything that’s going on in the world around them. 

So I do, I have a lot of empathy for people in the core. We are in a different place than we were at the end of October, we as a community. And I do think in that moment, in the immediate aftermath of the trauma, it may have been very difficult to notice. And by the way, there were very few people in that survey that we took at the end of October that told us they wanted to socialize and make friends. People were in too much pain, the numbers were tiny. 

But at this point, I think the combination of the distance from the immediate event, while still feeling the heavy emotional toll of what’s happening in Israel and with rising antisemitism, people are looking for those connections. And I think we’re in a space where, if not the core members of the community, always certainly some level of professional and lay leadership can take responsibility for really noticing who’s there and making sure that in this moment, people who haven’t been there before are having their needs met and are being connected with other people like them.

Yehuda: I want to dwell a little bit on the significance of that number, because I think, I’ve been around enough studies and surveys to know that if you saw like a 5% change in attitudes in a six-month period, you’d be like, wow, that’s a big deal. So to see like a, 30% numbers are really quite significant. 

How do we know what is ultimately going to be short-term and what is not? I mean, what’s the best tools that we have available to us? You know, I was talking to, there were all these trends around the workplace that were connected to COVID. And everybody said, okay, that’s the future of the workplace is permanently changed. It turns out like, no, some ways, yes, but in a lot of ways, no. And there’s a whole bunch of reversion back to the mean. 

What would be the way, maybe with, what are the other data sources that we could use to know whether what we’re experiencing in this kind of attitudinal shift is as close as we can imagine to permanent as opposed to a trendy?

Mimi: I’m not sure how to know the future. As you pointed out, the data is giving us a snapshot of a moment in the past. So when I think about it, I also think of COVID when we all said, we’re never going back. We’re never going back to life the way it was before. And in many ways, we went back. 

At the same time, I think the opportunity is to figure out what we don’t want to go back. And the shifts that happened in the workplace post-COVID and in our ability to connect via technology, a lot of them haven’t gone back because they were on the brink. And in some ways, the pandemic ripened to them. I, by the way, worked remotely before the pandemic. The technology was there and I was finding it very effective, but our society wasn’t yet ready for that and it ripened. 

With that mindset, I would say we only know what’s happening now and we can have a vision for the future. 

And if our vision for the future has always been that more people who are on the periphery of Jewish life, you know, should have their needs met, should feel like they belong, should deeply connect with these experiences, and we know that right now they’re showing up for those experiences and they’re not just showing up, they’re telling us that they’re willing to and interested in doing more. A quarter of the people who are not members of synagogues today are expressing interest in joining a synagogue. That is a traditional activity that we’ve always had available to them. We’ve been looking for people to want to do that. 

And so we have to utilize this moment to say, on the one hand, we want you to be comfortable in all the environments you’re in. And so I don’t want to leave aside that desire, but we have to say there’s a group of people who are saying, I’m interested in synagogue membership. I’m considering moving my kids. I’m worried about my children right now, and in this moment, I’m considering moving my kids to Jewish summer camps and day schools. And we should talk to them about what’s always been powerful and meaningful about these experiences that we can offer them in the moment. So maybe in a positive way, we can influence the trajectory of the future.

Yehuda: Got it. In other words, you’re less interested in the question of what’s permanent, what’s not permanent. It’s much more interested in the question of how do you coach communal leaders to take notice of a window of opportunity so that they can actually take advantage of that window. 

I’m curious whether there’s any way to know whether what’s taking place represents anything by way of a larger ideological shift. The two most obvious possibilities are that some percentage of American Jews are rethinking and renegotiating the way they thought about the relationship between Jews and Gentiles, which has been, throughout the 20th and through the first half of the 21st century, entirely in one direction, a kind of total breakdown of boundaries between Jews and Gentiles. I’m wondering whether there’s any of that that’s being rethought. 

And the other is there are some who hypothesize that this is a kind of moment like the New York-intellectuals moment of the 60s, of a kind of backlash against the overreaches of certain forms of identity, politics-based liberalism, the birth of neoconservatism. Certainly watching what’s happening on campus, you see kind of conservatives being born every day on college campuses as a result of this. I’m wondering whether you think that there’s any correlation between this surge and those kinds of ideological shifts, or A, we don’t know, B, we don’t have the right methods yet to get to that.

Mimi: Okay, the first question first is if something’s being renegotiated in our relationship with people who are not Jewish. I don’t know that on all issues, but we did ask people who they feel most comfortable speaking with now. And certainly, Jews report feeling a lot more comfortable speaking to Jewish family and friends right now about how they’re feeling about Israel and anti-Semitism than they do talking to non-Jews. And we do also know that Jews feel less comfortable in secular environments than they do in Jewish environments. That’s sort of what’s behind the surge. 

I don’t know whether that lasts long term. We want Jews to be in relationship with non-Jews, in secular spaces, and by the way, really importantly, because we also surveyed the general public, we also know that non-Jews in our community see and are concerned about rising anti-Semitism, that many, many of them, half of them fully, are standing by Israel in this war, with many of them not knowing but seeing lots of the positives about Israel. So we do want Jews to be in relationship, and they are in relationship with, and there’s lots of allies in the broader American public.

Yehuda: So first of all, that’s very, that’s wild data. That is significant, that when people in our community are saying things like, I’m more comfortable talking to Jews than non-Jews about this, or I feel more comfortable in community, that’s really wild, because that has been trending away from that story of a kind of intimacy with particularism. I can, these are my people. That is the opposite of a trend line that has run one direction for a century.

Mimi: Absolutely. And like you said earlier, the size of these changes are significant, right? Most people continue to do the same thing and feel the same way they have. And so even small changes are noticeable and meaningful. And we are looking at huge percentages of the Jewish population that feel very differently today than they did in last summer and in early fall.

Yehuda: So the second half would be, what about the possibility that there’s also a political conversion or transformation taking place? You know, partly in response to the kind of overreaches on campus, to the perception that parts of the left have been, you know, overtly pro-Hamas. You know, American Jews have been, you know, 75% Democratic Party for a long time. Are there any indicators that there are some statistically significant political conversions taking place by American Jews?

Mimi: I’m not sure about political conversion, that the political information that I know that is relevant is actually that most people report being moderate or liberal rather than progressive or conservative, meaning I actually think there’s a really thick middle politically and that that thick middle tends to support Israel in general and in this moment. That’s something that we’ve seen in the data that I find compelling because I hear all the time people being nervous about those movements on the periphery, which is in many cases where we also see, you know, lack of support for Israel or rising anti-Semitism. And we do see that actually still most people consider themselves part of that middle.

Yehuda: That’s also a wild piece of data because one of the things that I’ve increasingly felt, and I don’t even know how to account for it because I’m, well, I’ll say this: There seems to be a huge divide based on the data that you’re collecting about American Jewish attitudes towards Israel, there’s a huge gap between the actual people and the very online people. If you’re very online, if you’re on Twitter, you would come to the conclusion, that American Jews are divided down the middle between pro-Israel and quote-unquote anti-Israel, between what the left calls the pro-genocide and the anti-genocide. That actually the marginal positions of or represented by organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and If Not Now take up a huge percentage of American Jews. This data essentially puts that to rest.

Mimi: I think that’s right. So in general, it’s a very, very small percentage of the Jewish community and even of the general public that would consider themselves pro-Hamas. When we asked people, if you had to pick a side in this war, would you pick Israel, Hamas, or don’t know? And in the Jewish community writ large, over 90% say Israel, with most of the rest saying don’t know, and a tiny percentage, Hamas. Even when you cut that for young adults in the Jewish community who are more likely to be in that population you called “always online,” still over 80% say Israel, with a larger percentage saying don’t know, and some saying Hamas, but it’s small. And so we know that to be true. 

We also know that the people who are against Israel, who are going to pick Hamas, are much more comfortable talking about it. And so I think that’s part of the dynamic that you’re seeing, that it’s a much louder group relative to its size, but it is, as you said, a small population.

Yehuda: I’m gonna stay online for a moment, because another really interesting statistic that was in there was about, certainly many American Jews feel the rise of antisemitism or anxiety about the rise of antisemitism, and not a huge percentage have experienced antisemitism directly, except for the younger population in the studies, I think in the 20s and 30s, who have a high degree of exposure to antisemitism because it’s online antisemitism. 

And I don’t know, I’m worried about that statistic, partly because I don’t know what happens. Like I think it’s bad when people say bad things on the internet, but it’s not the same as the vandalizing of a synagogue. So when we have this system that imagines the encounter with antisemitism and we wind up flattening the distinction between actual social consequences of antisemitism and bad online encounters, I don’t know, there’s something very fuzzy about that whole thing.

Mimi: I understand that. We asked people if they had been the target of anti-Semitism in person or online. So had they actually been targeted, and then have they seen or experienced anti-Semitism? And we looked at it in person and online. And you are right that many fewer people have been the target of anti-Semitism, especially in person overall in the community, though there are certainly incidents, especially recently on campus, but many fewer than those who have seen or experienced it, especially online, which is the highest percentage. 

So there is a difference there and yet it’s all taking a huge emotional toll on our Jewish community. And if we go back to what that’s leading to, yes, it’s taking a huge emotional toll and people are concerned and they’re looking and seeking community right now as a result.

Yehuda: So you made three recommendations, you wrote a piece together with your colleagues Sarah Eisenman and David Manchester that was published in eJewishPhilanthropy, kind of like the trade publication for this field. You made three recommendations for the Jewish community based on this surge and core data. One, to increase belonging, the second, to invest in cornerstone Jewish experiences, and the third is cultivate community and friendships. 

What does that mean? I understand the words, but what are you actually hoping will happen on a local level, on a communal level, and most importantly, on a philanthropic level to make these kind of norms more serious?

Mimi: I’m hoping that more people get trained in the core skills of relationship-based engagement that have been fundamental to a lot of Jewish communal life and just raise their awareness in the professional and lay community about having to use those skills in this moment. And I think there’s just a huge opportunity for more people to have that mindset and to be intentionally building community in this moment.

I am hoping that we invest in marketing and outreach and even reducing the cost of core Jewish experiences like summer camp and day school and immersive experiences. And that is something that our team is working on with a group of funders to give people the opportunity to experience these things in this moment when they’re looking for them. And I think that’s essential.

And we’re also piloting new programs for specific subpopulations of those people who are showing up more right now. For example, the population that we call midlife that’s sort of, you know, 55-plus, people who are boomers. We knew even before October 7th that this was a population that was less engaged in Jewish life and particularly interested in engaging. And they are actually both part of the core and part of the surge, the people who haven’t been engaged and are showing up more now. So we’ve been focused at Jewish Federations of North America a lot on this population and how we can offer experiences to this group to become engaged in Jewish life amongst others.

Yehuda: Mimi, in our organization, we’re experiencing something very unusual. Almost every new staff that we’ve hired since October 7th has made reference to October 7th as one of the reasons that they’re now at our doorstep. It really increased the applicant pool to jobs and organizations. I’ve heard this anecdotally from a number of other organizations, including one organization that said they had a 55% increase in their applicant pool since October 7th, and it’s an engagement, Jewish engagement organization. 

Again, I’m curious, is there data around the leadership and the pipeline question? It’s another case where we’ve been worried about something for a long time, and now it seems to be trending in the other direction. Any thoughts on the data of that or whether or not this is a blip?

Mimi: I care deeply about this talent issue, both professional talent and lay talent, and so have also been intrigued by the kind of anecdotes that you’re sharing and looking for data on it. And mostly I have also information from particular programs. So I know a lot of Jewish organizations are sharing that they’re getting more job applicants and that they’re getting more job applicants for a thing they’ve always been sort of interested in, which is getting people from outside the sector. That’s something I’ve largely dismissed since I’ve come into Jewish communal life saying, no, we have unbelievable people working in this sector. That’s who you want. And I still think that’s true. 

And also it’s interesting that outside applicants who are doing other important things in the world are saying, gosh, I want in, I want to be part of this. And so I think meaningfully, we’re seeing people apply for jobs at higher rates.

What I’ve been even more interested in is that retention rates seem to be going up from my conversations. There’s been a concern about burnout and about people leaving. And certainly all my colleagues who I talk to, lots of them are exhausted and starting to feel burnt out as you would expect, but they’re not leaving, because I think people who do this work often are doing it because it’s deeply meaningful and even a calling for them. And if that’s the case, especially in this moment, you want to be here and serve. And so I wonder about the long-term impacts of that. 

The one other thing I’ll share is people are showing up as lay leaders in bigger ways. So our National Young Leadership Cabinet has grown immensely for this next class. The annual class last year we considered large at 80. That’s not the total number of people in cabinet, but the incoming class. And it’s 120 this year, right? 

We see more people showing up for leadership in all different kinds of ways. And I don’t know if that will sustain, but like we talked about with sustaining the surge in general, I certainly see it as information that we should use to inspire us to try and sustain some elements of this, while we also worry about the very real potential burnout of what’s happening in this moment.

Yehuda: I wanna tell you the thing that’s worrying me. You can tell me, don’t worry, this was short-lived. The only major investments I’ve seen so far, at least the ones that appear visible and public in response to October 7th, seem to be a significant spike in funding of the securitization of Jewish institutions. 

And I say that not that I want to be critical of it, I’m also grateful that my kids’ very prominent day school has really good security. I’m grateful for it. When we run our programs, that we could be in touch with local law enforcement, it’s all really important. It’s the most obvious and low-hanging fruit. And I’m genuinely frightened that partly because of the politics of this, because it’s the easiest thing to demonstrate, our leaders are responding to the rise in antisemitism, that we’re going to wind up seeing a lot of money there and a lot of rhetoric around belonging and experiences, without a similar kind of spike in investment? Tell me that I’m wrong about that fear. So far, I think I’m right.

Mimi: Well, first let me say this. Of course, security funding is important and Jewish Federations has spent a lot of time and energy making sure that we’re raising funds for the security of all the Jewish institutions. And in our study, we heard from people that over 90% of Jews said they feel much more safe when there is visible professional security outside of Jewish institutions. So we shouldn’t leave that aside. 

And I’m hopeful about funding in other areas in two ways. One, in our study when we asked people where they most wanted to direct funding right now, the number one issue was antisemitism. And there’s an effort that underway from Jewish Federations and in collaboration with our partners to make sure that we’re investing in combating antisemitism, not only through making sure there’s security, but the other piece of that is making sure that there are really strong community relations and government relations strategies. And in fact, a huge group of federation leaders were just in Washington, D.C., really working on this particular issue. And there seem to be funders that are interested in supporting this work around combating anti-Semitism. 

And then the second thing is we are in touch with a group of funders who are recognizing, and by the way, federations are recognizing, that our communal institutions still need us right now. Right, at a moment when you might say to yourself, you know what, let’s just like get all the money to our people in Israel who need it, and let’s secure our institutions here, I do think there’s a recognition that our communal institutions need even more right now, that there are more kids who are applying to day schools, that our institutions are crowded and need to be enabled to do what they’re doing. So I hope that people see that. 

And by the way, I hope that’s one of the impacts that this survey can have, is that we can point out that that’s needed and it’s both needed and an opportunity that we shouldn’t leave aside in this moment.

Yehuda: Yeah, I was very worried in the six weeks, eight weeks between October 7th and the end of the calendar year of 2023, for nonprofits in the Jewish community that do anything that’s not emergency relief work in Israel, whether they were gonna make their budgets because a lot of people who, you know, may have diversified their giving by the end of the year were digging deep to send money to Israel to buy socks for soldiers and to participate in Federations campaigns and raised hundreds of millions of dollars. And I think that was a little bit, I think nonprofits did okay. I thought the bottom was gonna fall out for a lot of non-crisis-based organizations. I still don’t know whether I’m optimistic about whether actually we’ll see a spike in local funding for day schools. 

It was a fight, I know, in some communities to even get dollars from Federations for Israeli families that were relocated from Israel and were put into day schools. It is always a struggle to get funding towards the kinds of things that you’re talking about, engagement, especially to traditional Jewish organizations. 

I’ll give you a great story, Mimi. About a decade or so ago, there was an anti-Semitic incident on a major college campus, and I’m sitting in my office in New York and I got a call from a former funder of the Hartman Institute who said, and now probably will definitely be a former funder of the Institute, said something to the effect of, I’m following this story that’s taking place on this campus, I wanna help. I said, great. I know the Hillel director. The Hillel director probably needs help right now. He said, no, no, I don’t wanna do that. What I wanna do is I wanna hire a private investigator who’s gonna go to that campus and figure out what’s going on. And I was like, I don’t think that’s the right strategy. Anyway, it’s the last conversation we ever had. 

I’m watching now where Hillel directors are seeing exactly what you’re describing with the surge. They’ve fed more people at Shabbat dinners in the last six months than they ever had. But some of those campuses are doing okay around their fundraising. I wonder whether if they announced, you know, there’s a major anti-Semitism initiative, they would do better than simply, we just need to feed students and Shabbat dinner. So you look skeptical to my question.

Mimi: I have also seen that it is sometimes easier to raise money when you speak about a fire than it is when you speak about an opportunity. And so I’m not at all skeptical about what you’re saying. And I am still hopeful that people will fund the core of these institutions because, you know, in your Hillel example, the reason somebody is in relationship with the university, and the reason students have a place to go is because that Hillel is there. And that’s true of so many of our communal institutions. So, you know, maybe I’ll agree with you that it’s a concern and just express hope, that people see that, you know, that day school functioning all the time so that it could welcome new students when they needed a place to go. 

Certainly, that’s why the Federation system is here. I have to say that, you know, the Federation, we were able to close our annual campaigns even amidst an unbelievable Israel emergency campaign and to do the work to make sure that we sustain these core institutions, you know, so that they have, you know, the ongoing, so that they have the, I think we usually talk about, you know, you need a firehouse so that you can respond when there’s a fire. And so I hope that the funders, along with Federations, continue to maintain that infrastructure.

Yehuda: Yeah, let me ask you one last question and then you can go walk your dog, who made a cameo appearance, I think, on the podcast. Was that a dog? Yeah, I think it was.

Mimi: He did. Yes.

Yehuda: I guess the last question is this, and it’s a tricky one. You know, sometimes it’s the responsibility of leadership to do what they think is in the communal interest whether or not it’s what the community wants. And sometimes it’s the responsibility of communal leadership to follow the behavioral or ideological trends of the community itself. This is what our people want. So you have a unique case here where what the people seem to be wanting, JFNA definitely wants, stronger attachment towards Israel, stronger pursuit of Jewish communal bonds, the desire for engagement and deeper experiences. It’s also possible as the war prolongs, that data will shift towards antipathy. 

And I’m curious, your thoughts just as in general as someone who kind of is driving the data agenda, when do you, when you’re trying to use this information to shape communal policy, when are the moments when you say, well, the data is telling us this, but we don’t care. Our responsibility is to move the community towards the positions that we think they should hold, as opposed to, you know, they want this, therefore we’re going to change the communal agenda to be in their interests.

Mimi: I think it’s always our responsibility as leaders to have a vision for where we need to go and then to understand where people are. I think there are times where understanding where people are means that you go right there and meet their needs. And I think there are times where you understand where people are and that helps inform where you need to move them.

And by the way, that was true all the time when I worked in tech. We said, you know, focus on the user and all else will follow. And then we built something that people would never have articulated that they wanted or needed, but we thought that was where things were going and there was a huge opportunity. And we tried to figure out if this is where technology is going, if this is what’s needed, how do we make that important and relevant to our users and also in Jewish communal life? 

So I think we need to understand where people are. We need to understand what they want. And in some cases, we need to show up and meet that need. And right now, the needs they’re expressing, as you said, are right in line with what, not only the Jewish Federation, but so many of our communal institutions were designed to do.

Thanks for listening to our show. Special thanks to our guest this week, Mimi Kravetz. This episode of Identity/Crisis was produced by Tessa Zitter and me, M. Louis Gordon, with assistance from Sarina Shohet. It was edited by Gareth Hobbes at Silver Sound NYC, with music provided by Socalled. Our executive producer is Maital Friedman. 

Transcripts of our shows are now available on our website, typically a week after an episode airs. We’re always looking for ideas of what we should cover on future episodes, so if you have a topic you’d like to hear about, or if you have comments about this episode, you can write to us at [email protected]

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