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
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
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
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 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
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
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.