Editorial: Sum of the Parts

The Jewish population of St. Louis, if assumed to be in the 50-60,000 range, falls well below that of Montreal, listed as having the 24th largest core Jewish population of world cities.  Yet if the Gateway City and environs were a freestanding country, we would have the 13th largest national Jewish population in the world, behind South Africa and ahead of Hungary.

What an utterly strange duality.  Yet it points to the essential nature of the Israeli and North American Jewish metro areas to the future of our people. Of the 24 biggest Jewish population cities, only Paris, London, Buenos Aires and Moscow lie outside Israel or North America. We and our sister American communities must not only survive, but flourish, to ensure a bright Jewish future.

Beth Shalom Cemetery ad

As we look forward to 2012 and reflect on our December Can We Talk? installment on the changing face of St. Louis Jewry, we wonder how our community will fare through the Teens decade.  Perhaps more to the point, how will we remain a community at all, given trends pervading Jewish institutional life and the funding that accompanies those changes?

Jewish communities are subject to the same demographic and sociological trends as others, and the Era of Micromarketing is staking its claim on us as with the general population.  Appeals to specific strands rather than the whole are the theme of the day, some with great success, others less so. Grabbing the attention of specified participants and funders requires a substantial focus on programming that appeals to subsets and can be proven quantitatively to have a positive impact.

Taglit-Birthright Israel, not only in St. Louis but elsewhere across North America, is shown to create a significant impact on teens and young adults, utilizing life-changing Israel experiences to build Jewish connections (or “brand loyalty” from a more market-driven perspective). Special places like Next Dor sit alongside synagogues to offer a new and different kind of portal, allowing NextGen Jews to create effective social and self-defined connections.  

Funders get this, and many of them like it, as they can see proven results from their dollars and can be associated with initiatives that make incremental positive change. The Jewish Federation of St. Louis, through both its strategic planning and funding emphasis, is joining in the action with more pronounced efforts to identify, encourage and both raise and devote funds to innovative programmatic efforts.

This is nothing controversial, and in fact, the local Federation trend follows more dramatic shifts elsewhere, as some local umbrellas have morphed almost entirely to programmatic funding, and away from core allocations to agencies.

The question we have isn’t about whether the Federation needed to try something new in the face of declining campaign revenues. As the Light itself indicated when we adopted a subscription model, keeping the status quo would have caused serious financial peril down the road.  Change is in fact essential to growth and prosperity.

The more foreboding question to us is this: As more focus is put on individual threads and less on the woven fabric, how do we continue to build an overarching community welcoming and accessible to all Jews? If the fibers are strong, does that by definition make the finished product equally strong?

Well, we say yes and no. Equivocal, perhaps, but we see this programmatic trend as one of only three parts necessary to maximize the potential for communal success.

By strengthening the building blocks we no doubt provide part of the essential core.  Strong programs that resonate with constituencies within the broader population will help Jews touch the community in a variety of places. In today’s world, at least, that element is absolutely necessary.

Second, the existence of agencies and synagogues with high-level professional competencies is equally critical. Those who devote their skill sets and experience to Jewish concerns on a daily basis, in substantive areas such as education, social service and congregation are uniquely suited to plan, implement and evaluate a wide swath of meaningful quality programs.

The final piece is community-wide connectivity. Perhaps we at the Light are biased because we live in this space, but bringing Jews together into a broader whole can make the difference between a bunch of parallel programs and agencies acting independently and a vibrant community in which all who self-identify as Jews feel welcome. Through collaborations, community-wide initiatives, and places open and encouraging to all, we can follow our streams as they blend into a mighty river.

There’s lots more that’s not so much within our grasp that will define success-St. Louis’ economy, job availability, other cultural phenomena. But if we can recognize both the trees and the forest, and be mindful that neither can exist without the other, we’ll be ably equipped to help ensure the meaning and prosperity of St. Louis Judaism well into the future.