A Modest Proposal
A concerned citizen of American Jewry offers
a 10-point plan for saving a shrinking community.
Scott Shay is a worried optimist. He believes American Jewry to be a light to the nation in the greatest sense, and he sees a community whose numbers are on a downward spiral. In a new book, Getting Our Groove Back: How to Energize American Jewry (Devora Publishing), he presents his vision for renewed community, using its wealth and resources to advance the Jewish people, the nation and the world.
While there have been many books by scholars, rabbis, statisticians and Jewish professionals about the future of American Jewish life, this book is unusual in that its the work of a self-described concerned citizen of American Jewry an observer and involved participant in Jewish life in his daily life and as a leader in communal organizations. Shays a professional in the world of finance, and brings a business strategists view to the crisis he sees facing the community as its numbers are diminishing.
Shay never expected to write a book, he told The Jewish Week in an interview in his Manhattan office at Signature Bank of New York, where he serves as chairman of the board.
I really felt that no one had put together a list of key questions and possible solutions in a comprehensive way. Id frequently read articles with great ideas, but they were untethered to any other great ideas. And usually the financial consequences were not calculated, or maybe they were incalculable. I thought that we needed a comprehensive and comprehensible blueprint to the future of American Jewry.
He also felt that various elements of the community were making their own Shabbat, as it were that people involved in Israel advocacy or Jewish education or religious life were involved exclusively in their own pursuits, while cooperation and understanding might advance the causes of all.
Shay has done his homework, analyzing the studies, reading key books and engaging a lot of people in discussion. The book is structured like a political candidates manifesto; he presents 10 proposals, or planks, that outline his plan in practical terms. He recognizes that theres much to discuss and argue with all that he proposes, and he welcomes that.
He begins with stark numbers: In 1980 there were 5.9 million Jews and today there are a reported 5.2 million, with 2.6 million of them somewhat committed, and at least one million non-committed Jews on the permanent exit lane from the Jewish people. If current demographic trends continue, he writes, the American Jewish population will drop as low as 2.5 million in 2030. In other words, we will have lost more than 3 million American Jews in 50 years and within the lifetime of most people reading this book.
Shay proposes dramatically improving Hebrew schools and supplementing education with camping, youth groups and family engagement in Jewish life; increasing day schools enrollment while overhauling their financing; and enlarging the notion of trips to Israel for young people.
He also calls for a Jewish baby boom; redirecting generosity of American Jews toward critical Jewish-focused giving; modifying patrilineal descent; instituting a new custom of bar/bat mitzvah affirmations every 18 years; re-imagining the Conservative movement as a broad spectrum association based on practice, not theology; building coalitions to fight anti-Semitism, particularly radical Islam; promoting social action built on Jewish values, ethical behavior and giving increased amounts of tzedakah.
In his discussion of day school funding, he suggests that an egalitarian tuition plan be instituted, with tuition lowered for all. Every family would be required to send a financial statement to an independent firm that would use a formula determined by the school to allocate an additional cost based on income and the number of children in the school and he suggests working to make that a tax-deductible cost.
Hes very direct in urging Jews to marry sooner and have more children. Additionally, he advocates for single woman approaching the end of their childbearing years to consider having children on their own, and calls for the community to support such decisions. Also, he encourages conversion to integrate the children of Jewish fathers (and non-Jewish mothers) into the community.
On an organizational level, he suggests that inefficiencies and overlap be seriously cut, that once every decade, Jewish organizations conduct an internal evaluation of effectiveness to see if they are truly advancing the Jewish people or not.
As for the denominations, he pays the most attention to the Conservative movement, which he sees in existential crisis.
The movement is losing the equivalent of 2,000 Jews a month, and thats not sustainable, he says.
Hed like to see the Conservative movement reinvent itself in a post-denominational mode, with more than one law committee making decisions. As he writes, the new leadership of the revitalized Conservative Movement can demonstrate that there is not just one meaningful and acceptable ideological stance between Reform and Orthodoxy, but an abundance of comfortable places along the spectrum.
When asked about his own denominational affiliation, Shay, a member of Kehilath Jeshurun, which is Modern Orthodox, says, I place myself as a solid Jew, using a physics analogy as he does through the book. A solid Jew, he continues, is a fully committed Jew, grounded in being part of the Jewish people, who links his or her fate to the Jewish people.
Shay, whose father survived the Holocaust, grew up in Chicago, and speaks with the sounds of that city, only slightly faded. As a teenager, he was active in USY, the Conservative youth movement, and attended public schools. He attended a Hebrew high school that held classes at Ida Crown Jewish Academy, an Orthodox school. There, he was inspired by a great teacher, who, without saying so, he made me realize how much I didnt know, how much I could learn. Shay then took the unusual route of switching schools in his junior year, when he could barely read Hebrew.
Other decisive moments in his own Jewish journey include his year of study at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, participating in the Wexner Foundations fellowship program, and being married and raising kids. He and his wife have four children, ranging in age from 8 to 18; the oldest is studying in Israel and the others attend day schools.
Shay, whos active in private equity investments, including investments in Israel, is a philanthropist who backs up his convictions with financial resources and time. He serves as a board member of the UJA-Federation of New York, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education and the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is immediate past chair of the Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal of UJA-Federation and is also a member of the birthright israel steering committee. With his wife Susan, he founded Jewish Youth Connection, an after-school program for Jewish children not enrolled in day schools that began with four children and now serves 75.
One of the planks that Shay sees as most creative is his suggestion of a new American rite to promote Jewish identity and learning: that each Jew affirm his or her bar/bat mitzvah every 18 years after the age of 13 to punctuate the passage of each persons lifetime. This might be done through a course of study, a chesed project, a social action pursuit or some other Jewish endeavor, culminating in being called to the Torah or participating in some other communal ritual event, at the stages of young adulthood, mid-life, retirement and at age 85 a time of reflection and legacy.
He sees a dramatic increase in Jewish learning and action as an outcome.
Recently, Shay celebrated his own 49th birthday and the 36th anniversary
of his bar mitzvah on the weekend of his daughters bat mitzvah.
This book was part of his project.