Jewish leaders and philanthropists are currently engaged in an intense and crucial debate. There is growing concern that Jews, particularly the next generation, are disconnecting from their Jewish heritage and from the state of Israel.
The now infamous Pew Study, titled “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found that approximately two-thirds of American Jewish millennials do not feel a strong connection to Israel. In another recent study, published by Brandeis University, fewer than half of Jewish college students could correctly answer even the most basic questions about Israel.
In the face of these trends, how can we invest our philanthropic dollars more effectively to strengthen the US-Israel alliance, and ensure that future Jewish generations maintain their special affinity with Israel?
To respond to this challenge, there are two important principles that we must embrace.
First, we must better understand our target audience.
Millions of philanthropic dollars are currently invested under the assumption that today’s Jewish community is the same one that existed 40 years ago.
Changing this mindset begins with recognizing that there is not a single, homogeneous American Jewish community — but rather a cluster of communities that have changed rapidly over the past 40 years because of three big trends: assimilation, intermarriage and immigration.
Furthermore, we have seen significant waves of Jewish immigration from Israel, Iran and Russia. These people are not properly represented in recent studies of the Jewish community.
Interestingly, the declining number of people who identify as Jewish by religion is correlated with the declining affinity to Israel. Among those who say that they are Jewish by culture, 55 percent say they aren’t very attached to Israel (and only 12% say that they are very attached to Israel). For those who have completely left the faith, these numbers are much lower.
By contrast, among those who say they are Jewish by religion, 86% feel somewhat or very attached to Israel.
So, what should we do with this information? How can we use these insights about our changing Jewish community to make more strategic decisions about where to invest our limited resources?
This question brings me to my second principle: We need to look for low-hanging fruit, and invest in programs most likely to reach those who will be receptive to our message.
Here are some criteria that we should consider as we allocate resources:
- Age: We’ll have the most success influencing the minds’ of younger audiences. Moreover, by increasing the Jewish knowledge and connection to Israel among the younger generation, we can reach not only these individuals, but also their children and grandchildren.
- Affiliation: The data shows that those who define themselves as Jewish by religion are more likely to have a strong connection to Israel. But the Orthodox community already has many structures in place to engage its members on Israel. We need to focus on innovative programs to connect non-Orthodox Jews with Israel.
- Support for Israel as the state of the Jewish people: We should seek to identify those people who support Israel, but who are not religiously engaged. It is important to attract Jews who have a marginal connection to Israel, but it is even more important to reach those with a deep passion for Israel, and help them become and remain involved with Judaism.
- American Jewish immigrant communities: We should reach out to Jewish immigrants, specifically Russians, Iranians and Israeli-Americans. These groups are already committed Zionists, but they are new to the American diaspora, and as a result, don’t always have the tools to pass on their Jewish and pro-Israel values to their children. Each dollar invested in them can go a long way.
To see how this might work in practice, let’s examine the work of the Israeli-American Council (IAC), which has shown how investing funds in Israeli-Americans can unleash an extraordinary untapped resource to strengthen the US-Israel relationship.
By systematically identifying and investing in target groups that are uniquely suited to advance our philanthropic priorities, we can make progress on a wide range of issues, such as Israel advocacy, global diplomacy and Jewish education.
Our Jewish community faces rapid changes, enormous challenges and exciting opportunities. To overcome the obstacles in our path and realize our full potential as a people, we need to invest smarter.
The return on our investment will be nothing less than a vibrant Jewish future.
The author is an Israeli-American philanthropist, national chairman of the Israeli-American Council, real estate entrepreneur and president of the Adam and Gila Milstein Family Foundation. A version of this article was originally published by The Jerusalem Post.