March 3, 2011

Fear is no recipe for Jewish continuity

Hypothetical: A philanthropist commits $100 million for Jewish summer camps to promote Jewish identity. She commissions a consultant to propose a curriculum, and the result offers four pillars; the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, Iran, and Palestinian terrorism.
The good news is, for several generations already, Jewish summer camps have been infusing their immersive environment with with positive, and mostly intrinsic, Jewish energy. For those who haven't been there and done that, a new study reports that adults who attended Jewish camp as children are 45% more likely to attend synagogue at least once a month, 55% more likely to feel very emotionally attached to Israel, 30% more likely to donate to the local Jewish Federation, etc. 
If Jewish camps can pull this off each summer without resorting to guilt, fear and paranoia, our community as a whole should reconsider our year-round messaging to young Jews across the board. Do we really expect that Jews who did not have the advantage of Jewish camp or other holistic identity-building will want to affiliate Jewishly if we love-bomb them with a legacy of persecution and imminent threats to Jewish existence? 
Any Jews who are moved to affiliate in response to such negative appeals -- and we all receive the letters each autumn and December warning us of imminent Jewish destruction if we don't send cash ASAP -- end up skewing our communal consensus of priorities and challenges once they're inside the tent. Honestly, the same goes for people who accept God's existence after realizing that every 50th letter of the Torah spells out some convenient formula uncovered by algorithms. 
If we're serious about Jewish continuity, we need to take some lessons from what works in the long run, not just what pulls in a few quick bucks or boosts attendance at a singles mixer. And if we're serious about a Jewish future, we need to think more seriously about how to make all this continuity worth the effort. Forcing our communal leaders to spend a summer in Jewish camp might be a good way to start. 

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