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The American Jewish community might not be able to sustain itself in the 21st century if it does not regain a sense of its collective mission, a top Jewish communal leader warned a conference of 1,200 Jewish educators here Sunday night.
The high and inequitable price of day schools, low parental involvement and lack of Jewish moral education need to be rectified, Scott Shay told the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) to open the organization's 32nd annual conference. It is the largest yearly gathering of Jewish educators in the world, and includes professionals from America, Israel, Russia and other countries, as well as hundreds of additional lay leaders and volunteers.
Shay, cofounder of the Jewish Youth Connection and author of Getting Our Groove Back, challenged the audience to find ways to bring down the cost of Jewish day schools, tuition for which can run upwards of $15,000 a year, and of helping lower and middle class families.
He rejected the "private school model" of charging soaring tuition and then offering scholarships to poorer families, many of whom feel uncomfortable accepting the help.
"It is not a Jewish model," he assessed, because it doesn't square with Jews' traditional framework of paying for schools communally so that all can attend.
He also admonished parents whose participation in Jewish education amounts to dropping their kids off at Hebrew school while they head to the gym.
"Parents cannot subcontract their children's Jewish education to Hebrew schools," he stressed.
Shay also urged teachers to incorporate Jewish values into their lessons and activities, noting, "It's easier to be in favor of world peace than make changes in our daily lives that will bring that day closer."
Without these kinds of changes, the American Jewish community - with its high rates of intermarriage and low levels of affiliation - could stop growing just as British Jewry has, Shay warned.
"As a community we are deeply troubled," he concluded. "We must regain our sense of wholeness and purpose."
CAJE executive director Jeffrey Lasday said the speech set out some of the major challenges Jewish educators needed to address.
"We wanted to kick off the conference with someone who was going to raise some issues," he said, "and get people thinking."
But at least one participant felt the keynote address sent the wrong message.
"A conference like this should be looking at a glass which is half-full instead of half-empty," he said. "The climate is actually ripe now for positive change rather than continued doom and gloom."
He added that if the point was to examine the problems facing Jewish educators, the focus should be on the demographics of the population - predominantly older women - rather than the issues Shay raised.
"If you're looking for an active role model for your kid, it's not going to be a 47-year-old female," said the participant, who asked that his name not be used. He was willing to be identified as a 35-year-old, saying, "Here, that's really young."
Lasday agreed that the "graying of the members" of CAJE was one of the major challenges the organization and the field it represents needed to address.
He pointed to the conference's theme - "Engaging 21st Century Jewish Learners" - as largely aimed at finding ways to engage younger Jews and communicate with them using the new language of technology which they often speak more fluently than their teachers.
Several Jewish college and graduate students are attending the conference at a reduced rate as a form of outreach. In addition, many of the 400 or so sessions of the weeklong meeting will focus on using technology inside and outside of the classroom, and for the first time the conference will have a "virtual" component with blogging, posted sessions and on-line forums.
"That's where the next generation is and unless we're there, we don't have a chance," Lasday said.
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