In last week’s edition of the Journal (March 23), we broke the news that Barry Shrage had announced his intention to step down as CEO and president of Combined Jewish Philanthropies in the summer of 2018. In an interview last week to explain the decision, the first question we asked Barry had to do with his plans for retirement – what were the unfulfilled possibilities that he wanted to explore after being released from his responsibilities running Boston’s hugely successful federation? Barry’s first answer ran on for about five minutes, making Shrage sound not one bit like someone prepared to sit around in his bathrobe taking all morning to read the paper. Here is some of that answer, with nary a pause taken for a breath, proving that despite his retirement plans, Barry’s passion still burns strong.
Jewish Journal: What is your fantasy about retirement?
Barry Shrage: To be able to do some of the things that I want to do and care deeply about. Being president and CEO of CJP is a very very very full-time job – I love doing it and have always loved doing it, but at some point you start thinking about “what does the next step look like? What are the things that you could do if you weren’t acting primarily as the CEO of CJP.”
There are issues that, as some might be aware, I’ve been obsessed with most of my adult life – issues of Jewish identity, issues of inclusion, issues of adult learning, follow up for birthright – all of those things are primary concerns of mine. We’ve done great work, not me but me with our community
When we started ME’AH and when we began our strong push for adult learning, we found that everything improved – there were more kids going to day school, there was a greater interest in day school, there was a greater interest in strengthening afternoon school education. This is all because once adults see the beauty of Jewish learning – the reality is that most adults in our community had pretty poor Jewish education – they see that the beauty of Jewish learning is at least the equivalent in our interest in Western civilization, in Shakespeare, in great music and great art, which is the fruit of western civilization. The truth is that we have that and we have more in our Jewish literary inheritance and we have a responsibility to pass that on to our kids but you have to see the beauty in it first. ME’AH was incredibly important in doing that, and we’re working with Hebrew College and others to revitalize it, and we believe that there could be a national interest in this strategy.
In addition, in North America we have 35 or 40,000 young adults coming back each year, maybe for the first time, with a strong interest in their Jewish learning, they can be engaged in their intensive forms of Jewish involvement. That’s why we created the IACT program, that’s why we work so closely with young adults. But there could be/should be a national interest in this, there should be national foundations that would also want to join together to strengthen the commitment to these forms of Jewish education, and in particular, they left follow-up entirely to the Birthright Foundation. Following up and engaging people who’ve been to Israel is a local community responsibility, this can’t be managed from a national headquarters someplace. But what I always wonder is, why can’t every local federation, every local dayschool, every local organization, they’re all interested in the next generation. The next generation is flooding out of Israel and into our local communities, and we need to keep offering them opportunity of deepening their engagement with Jewish life. We’ve done this very successfully on campus with IACT, and now it’s time for many foundations, for many federations, to ask where are we this year, where are we going? And I think that by creating space as part of CJP but also in conjunction with other organizations, perhaps with an academic institution, we can really turn this around.
JJ: So there’s not a stamp collection waiting?
Shrage: No offense to anyone, but I do not play golf, I do not play bridge. My reading interest, my intellectual interest, my passion is all about Jewish life and the Jewish future and the connection between that and the wider world that we’re in conversation with as a Jewish people. One of the points of my tenure at CJP has been the notion that our particularity, our engagement with the next generation around Jewish ideas is essential, but that is not in any conflict with our universal commitment to making a better world for all of our citizens, for all Americans and for the world.