Jewish unity and trends that threaten to undermine it were the focus of the first meeting of a revamped program meant to develop local Jewish leaders.
Dr. Steven Bayme of the American Jewish Committee was the guest speaker at the Jan. 14 meeting of the “reimagined” Marion and Norman Tanzman Fellows program at the South River offices of the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey.
Bayme warned that the number of Jews engaged in the community nationally is declining, while splits are threatening the community’s unity and political influence on a range of issues.
“We’ve learned disunity weakens us,” said Bayme, the director of the Contemporary Jewish Life Department at AJC and its Koppelman Institute on American Jewish-Israeli Relations.
The Tanzman program, which aims to cultivate leaders already active in synagogues and other local Jewish institutions, had been part of the former Jewish Federation of Greater Middlesex County.
Following that organization’s merger last year with the former Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, the program’s eight fellows come from both counties. For the first time, all are women.
“Many women feel a special responsibility to ensure the continued growth and continuity of the Jewish community,” said federation executive vice president Susan Antman. “We wanted to tap this resource as we look to build a strong Jewish future in the Middlesex and Monmouth communities. We are grateful to the Tanzman Foundation for making this leadership development opportunity possible.”
The federation, said its director of community impact, Laura Safran, said it had made “a significant investment” in the current crop of fellows, although she declined to give a specific amount.
“When you have stronger leaders, the entity itself is stronger, and that adds to the vitality of the community,” she said.
Unlike the current group, Safran noted, the previous two cohorts in 2010 and 2011 all represented agencies, synagogues, or federation. The current fellows have no formal representation.
Also addressing the group was Ann Pava, immediate past president of National Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federations of North America.
Affiliated with Connecticut’s Greater Hartford federation, Pava spoke of her own involvement in federation, how it helps Jewish communities globally, and how a trip to Israel as a young woman transformed her.
Joining the women were Barbara and Eliot Spack of Edison, who helped develop and chair the fellows program along with Debbie Friedman of East Brunswick, herself a former Tanzman fellow.
Bayme offered statistics about high rates of intermarriage among non-Orthodox Jews, and the “disaffiliation” of two million of the country’s 7.2 million American-Jewish adults.
He cited studies showing that many have fewer Jewish social connections and a weaker sense of meaningful and compelling Judaism. Outside of Orthodoxy, Jewish “engagement” is in decline.
Bayme said that past generations prided themselves on taking care of their own and donated to their local federation even if they didn’t agree with every group and cause that federation supported.
“The assumption was that being part of the community was more important than individual things,” said Bayme.
After World War II, the community turned much of its focus to supporting Israel and other causes.
The relationship “began fraying” in 1993 after the Oslo accords between Israel and the PLO, which triggered the first “breaking of ranks,” which Bayme said has now “exploded” in the 21st century.
Compounding the challenge is “the shrinking middle” — that is, Jewishly engaged Reform and Conservative Jews, who have traditionally been the backbone of the organized Jewish community.
“While the middle is shrinking, the ends are growing,” said Bayme. “At one end, defying all predictions, is the resurgence of Orthodoxy.” At the other end are the “nones,” whom he described as those with little connection to Jewish institutions, denominations, or agencies.
Moreover, fervently Orthodox, or haredi, Jews — the fastest-growing segment due to their high birthrate — have traditionally shown little interest in the organized Jewish community.
“Orthodoxy is on the cusp of being the Jewish leadership,” said Bayme, but could only speculate what that would mean two or three generations down the road.
Tanzman fellow Marsha Cohen of Long Branch said she understood the challenges in finding common ground among different segments of the community because she herself is half Sephardi-Syrian and half Ashkenazi. Her own family includes haredi as well as less observant members. “I think we can learn from each other,” she said.
Charyn Atlas of Edison said she wanted to become a Tanzman fellow “especially because federation wanted to make an investment in women.”
“Women can really make a difference in the community, and I’m excited to be a part of this,” she said.
The other Tanzman fellows are Sandra Cohen of Manalapan; Cindy Gittleman, Princeton; Linda Gotlit, Metuchen; Bonnie Leff, Manalapan; Cheryl Minkoff, Highland Park; and Marcia Schwartz, Monmouth Junction.