The First Word: Make Judaism competitive

The future can only be built on the foundation of realism about the state of Jewish education.

immigrans to judaism 88 (photo credit: courtesy)
immigrans to judaism 88
(photo credit: courtesy)
I am often approached by rabbis and program directors who boast of new educational initiatives. With sincerity, they claim that their programs result in unprecedented rates of learning, engagement and retention among formerly unaffiliated Jews. I wonder, with all these stories of success, are there no failed programs? And if these programs are so successful, why are only a minority of Jews involved in Jewish life? Many claim that the moderate growth of day schools is a sign of revitalization in American Jewish education. After all, day schools currently educate 200,000 students. But what is this number in real terms? Only 30 percent of school-age children. In other words, after a generation of universally-trumpeted growth in day school enrollment, 70% of our children still do not attend such schools. That is hardly a cause for celebration. Furthermore, this percentage itself is skewed by the Orthodox. Ninety-plus percent of Orthodox children go to day school, whereas less than 10% of their Reform counterparts attend. The impact of day schools is further vitiated by the very steep decline in enrollment after elementary school. The overwhelming majority leave after eighth grade, when they're still undeveloped socially, unfixed in values, and intellectually immature. As a result, these students are most vulnerable to having their values and commitments undermined when they enter college. THE COMMUNITY has not invested sufficient funds on any count - not to improve the quality, not to upgrade the image so that day schools will be attractive to non-Orthodox families, not even to meet current demand. Meanwhile, we treat our educators with the same respect we treat babysitters. Full-time Jewish early childhood educators in the United States make, on average, $9.66 an hour, with few if any benefits. Day school teachers make less than their public school counterparts, and usually less than other private school teachers. How have we, the People of the Book, descended so far from our ideals that we degrade the dignity of those responsible for shaping our children's minds and values systems? Until the Jewish community accords teaching the highest possible esteem and, of course, compensation, our schools will fail to achieve a level of systematic excellence. UNFORTUNATELY, the majority of our children are going to Hebrew schools, an institution that has turned off more Jews than any other in the history of Jewish civilization, and in America has raised several generations of remarkably ignorant Jews. Recently, there has been considerable enthusiasm for the potential of informal Jewish education: Camping, Hillel, Israel travel. However, fewer than 62,000 children are enrolled in nonprofit Jewish resident camps - less than 13% of the cohort between 8 and 17 years old. And again, the figure is meaningfully skewed by Orthodox numbers, not to mention the wide range of quality of the camps. Or take Hillel. After its much-touted generation of growth, Hillel claims to now reach 25-30% of Jewish students on campus. Most of these come just for socializing and not for study. But even if they are reaching the full 30%, it means that 70% of Jewish college students are not touched by Hillel in any way. Again, the Hillel attendees come overwhelmingly from affiliated families. AND THEN there is birthright israel. I am thrilled with the effect of birthright on young adults. Having said that, we are sending 20,000 people per year out of a worldwide cohort of as many as 80,000 eligible young adults. While it is overwhelmingly better than anything we have accomplished in the past, we have a waiting list longer than those actually on trips. It has been difficult so far to close the gap by at least sending those on the waiting lists, or increasing the number of participants per year to 30,000 or 40,000. But the other truth is that the struggle to send just the current number of participants has been so exhausting that follow-up education for birthright alumni has been starved organizationally and financially. Although there is presently some follow up, it's nothing near the level we need to have if we are to turn a unique 10-day experience into an ongoing experience of Jewish life. This is a major missed opportunity. Participants come back turned on and opened up to Jewish activities, and upon their return, we fail them. In all of these areas, we are short of quantity: we need greater enrollment in our day schools, camps, Hillel and Israel trips. We must increase our cadres of quality teachers, and compensate them handsomely. Wherever applicable, we need to make formal education more affordable to the majority of Jews. BUT I would argue that the greatest obstacle to a revivified education system is not a structural or financial issue but rather a matter of educational philosophy. We have failed to develop a world outlook that is truly credible in the contemporary scene. Contemporary Jewish education is overwhelmingly tradition-based at a time when Jews are more secular than ever. We are pouring most of our energy into teachings and philosophies that simply are not credible to the majority of Jews. When Hebrew schools emphasize rote recitation of Bible stories that nobody can relate to, and when context is rarely applied, is it any wonder that Jewish education is in crisis? This isn't to let liberals off the hook. I am troubled by the trend of knee-jerk Jewish liberalism, which conflates tikkun olam with the political agenda of the left-wing of the Democratic party. It is disturbing when Jewish ethics become identified with a single party line without regard to the complexity of the political and economic issues at play, not to mention the complexity of Jewish tradition, which includes some traditionally conservative elements that tend to be neglected. Instead, liberalism has become the dogma and the content of American Jewish religion. For most, then, the content of Jewish education seems hollow, unconvincing, and unable to compete in the free marketplace of ideas. IF I sound pessimistic, it is because I am. Close to 90 years ago, Bertrand Russell concluded that the traditional belief in God and in a messianic future were hopelessly out of synch with the world as described by science and physics. He called for a new way of thinking bound not by illusions but by empirical reality. "Only within the scaffolding of these truths," he wrote, "only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul's habitation henceforth be safely built." I submit that the future of the Jewish people can only be built on the foundation of unyielding realism and sober despair about the current state of Jewish education. In order to effect a massive improvement of Jewish learning - formal and informal - we are working on creating a Fund for Our Jewish Future, a new $100 million fund to be matched by communities for a total, hopefully, of up to half a billion dollars. The fund would be spent now to transform the state of Jewish education in America. The Fund will be the first peace-time, non-crisis drive of this magnitude, signaling the community's fundamental embrace of Jewish education. Most of all, we hope that it will generate sweeping new ideas and programs that are truly transformative. AT THE same time, we must urgently focus on the spirit, ideas and values that motivate a Common Judaism that speaks to our shared values but is also resonant in contemporary society. Common Judaism seeks to go back and look at our heritage and identify those values that still speak to us today. Let it be clear, I do not argue against the belief in God. I understand that it was helpful to most Jews throughout history (and remains so to many today). But it doesn't apply to our contemporary lives the way it applied to the lives of our ancestors. The challenge is to locate and articulate the elements that continue to resonate with Jews across all lines. Making Judaism competitive with the best of secular culture is the great challenge of our day. I should emphasize that education focusing on Jewish joy, as opposed to victimization and suffering, is the best way to ensure loyalty among generations for whom the Holocaust (while never to be forgotten or minimized) is inevitably becoming a distant chapter in history. I believe joy can serve as the bedrock of a code of Jewish ideals that will inspire our people, regardless of geography, ideology or denomination. After all, Jews of the future will no longer determine Jewishness by lineality but by choice. Whether a person lays tefillin or keeps kosher matters less than whether they throw their lot in with the Jewish people in an age of competing cultures and religious fads. By acting now to build a revitalized education system that serves the needs of today's Jews, we can ensure a joyous Renaissance of Jewish life that will be a model for communities throughout the world. The writer is Chairman of Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation.