An American Jewish communal necessity

A free Jewish education to the children of all members of the Jewish polity.

reform jews 224.88 aj (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
reform jews 224.88 aj
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Crises require strategic and not tactical responses. To react tactically actually worsens matters because we think we have addressed the threat when, in truth, our condition continues to deteriorate undeterred. The unabated hemorrhaging of the American Jewish community - the freest, wealthiest and most influential ever - due to intermarriage surely jeopardizes its long-term vitality. Currently 31 percent of all married Jews are intermarried and only 66% of the children in Jewish households (defined as having at least one adult Jew) are halachically Jewish. With an out-marriage rate of 47% and only a dwindling minority of American Jews expressing pain at the prospect of their children marrying a non-Jew and only 8% of the children of intermarried families identifying as Jews, there is little likelihood of stanching the massive attraction from the Jewish community with tactical measures. The trouble with most approaches to the intermarriage crisis is that they are designed to intervene after the fact when the die is cast. Moreover, in the spirit of American consumerism, they blithely assume that religion can be packaged and peddled like all other commodities. But converting is not identical to buying. It is rather the outcome of an existential journey that originated in the recesses of the spiritual psyche of the convert. That is precisely why Jews by choice are such a religious asset. TO BE effective, intervention must occur long before the fact. Over the last decade, a plethora of research has converged to demonstrate that serious Jewish education, both formal and informal, plays a vital role in the identity formation of young Jews. Indeed, to shore up Diaspora Jewry as well as to promote aliya, the Israeli government has begun to invest heavily in serious Jewish education abroad. Birthright, the 10-day organized free trip to Israel launched in 1999 for young adults between the ages of 18 and 26 who had never been to Israel, mocked its critics by quickly emerging as a transformative experience for a large majority of its participants. It is that irrefutable impact of Jewish education that moves me to make the strategic proposal that the organized Jewish community in America guarantee a free Jewish education to the children of all members of the Jewish polity. I do so against the backdrop of a 20-year effort to position Jewish education as the top priority of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative movement, in consequence of which a powerful panoply of new and invigorated institutions has made Jewish education the growth sector of the movement and the guarantor of its future. I would define citizenship as membership in a synagogue or a Jewish community center, the great aquifers of the organized Jewish community and the source of its social capital. The entitlement program should encourage unaffiliated Jews to join in order to qualify, thus enhancing both synagogues and JCCs. Parents would be allowed to choose the educational track most suitable to their circumstances - a day school, congregational school or Jewish summer camp. The Jewish community would fund their preference (limited to one track), maximally from first through 12th grade, minimally as long as the parents wish. The entitlement would include the children of patrilineal families up to the age of bat or bar mitzva, at which point they would be expected to undergo a rite of conversion. In short, the entitlement program would be administered on the basis of parity across the denominational spectrum. The proposal, I believe, is commensurate with the challenge we face. It envisions a monumental investment in a proven remedy that is preventive rather than curative and that would build on an already existing partnership uniting federations, schools, synagogues, JCCs and summer camps in a common front against extinction. Sobriety leaves us no option. According to the 2000-2001 National Jewish Population Survey, only 21% of potential Jewish donors contributed to federation campaigns. Without a big idea to stem the tide of attrition, the erosion in support will continue ineluctably. American Jews have at their disposal the wealth to affect the wrenching shift in priorities called for. Literacy has always been the key to Jewish survival. The crown of Torah can't be worn without it. To provide our children with access to their spiritual heritage is a supreme communal responsibility because it is an urgent communal necessity. The writer is the outgoing chancellor of New York's Jewish Theological Seminary.