Education is destiny

The Boston Community Study - making the difference for Jewish continuity.

Boston's new Jewish Community Study, conducted by researchers at the Steinhardt Institute of Brandeis university, has provoked widespread debate since its public release on November 9. The finding that 60 percent of Boston's interfaith families were raising their children as Jews has functioned as a kind or Rorschach Test, with readers projecting their view of the cause onto the actual data. Within hours of the study's release, outreach advocates Edmund Case and Kathy Kahn wrote an op-ed declaring the study proves that outreach transforms interfaith families into environments that raise Jewish children (The Forward). "By spending just 1 % of its allocations" on outreach, they asserted, "Combined Jewish Philanthropies has achieved dramatic results." Unfortunately, their "interpretation" did not in fact grow out of the data, but reflected instead their own concerns as president of and director of the Union for Reform Judaism's Department of Outreach, respectively. As the study's authors, Leonard Saxe, Charles Kadushin and Benjamin Phillips, emphasized in a subsequent article, while "welcoming" interfaith families may play a role in explaining the Boston results, far more important is that the community has an elaborate network of synagogues and Jewish education resources. What is clear, according to the authors, is that Boston has created a Jewish community that Jews want to be part of - whether they are inmarried, intermarried or unmarried. In national studies, Jewish educational density has emerged as the most important communal influence. Boston is exceptional in the range, diversity and excellence of its educational programming. Over the past decades, the Boston community has initiated a full range of specifically targeted, inviting programs. Under-served groups have been targeted, including pre-school children and their often culturally illiterate and under-affiliated parents (Ikarim), teenagers (Prozdor), and single young adults (The Riverway Project). ADULT EDUCATION is a critical part of this equation. Under the inspired leadership of CJP's Barry Shrage - who realized that most competent American Jewish adults want rigor and excellence in their programs but also don't want to be made to feel incompetent - Boston has created exciting, successful, well-attended adult educational programs. Me'ah - referring to its 100 hours of instruction - has been described by its enthusiastic Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist participants as challenging intellectually, and very compelling. Indeed, many participants opt to continue with yet another course of rigorous study - the Ve'od Me'ah (another 100 hours) program. Moreover, as the Brandeis researchers point out, Boston has brought education to the people by supporting programs both inside and outside synagogue settings. Rather than seeing synagogues as their competitors and enemies, as happens in some communities, CJP has supported innovative synagogue programs as natural gateways to much of the Jewish community. For the substantial portion of the Jewish population that is unaffiliated, neutral turf locations are provided. The second reason for the Boston difference is its Israel connection. Boston leadership has made constant engagement with Israel - in particular Haifa, Boston's sister city - a critical part of the city's synagogue, communal and educational Jewish culture. Frequent Israel trips, and ongoing interactions between individual families, schools, and other institutions, have contributed to the peoplehood profile of Boston Jewry. As Israeli sociologist David Mittelberg (The Israel Connection and American Jews) asserts, both Israeli and American Jewish identity are enhanced by reciprocal relationships between the two societies. NOT LEAST, the Boston study highlights the critical importance of gender: Within intermarried families raising their children as Jews, the vast majority were families with a Jewish mother. Jewish mothers are the group most likely to insist on raising Jewish children, to provide them with Jewish education, to encourage Jewish friendship circles for themselves and their children, and to create Jewish rituals and Jewish memories in the home. Educational activities that open the doorway to Jewish connections transform the lives of both inmarried and intermarried families. No one is against outreach programs - that stance would be sheer foolishness - but it is critical to recognize that outreach is not a panacea. Earlier Brandeis evaluations conducted for the Reform movement's outreach program planners showed that intermarried families themselves said they prefer mainstream educational programs, rather than outreach programs created specifically for them. For intermarried as well as inmarried families, providing a rich educational environment makes all the difference. In a very real and practical sense, Talmud Torah (Judaic study) facilitates the rest of Jewish life. The writer, professor of contemporary Jewish life at Brandeis University and co-director of the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, is a faculty affiliate of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies and served on the Advisory Committee of Boston's 2005 Jewish Community Study. Her latest book is The Way into the Varieties of Jewishness.