Towards a renewed Zionist education

Without renewed Jewish identity, Jews from the free world will have no reason to consider making a life in Israel.

Haredim 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Haredim 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
How are we to explain the survival of the Jewish people over thousands of years? Why are we still here? In this era of unprecedented challenges to Israel, Zionism and Jewish identity both in Israel and in the West, that timeless question is worth asking again and again. And what will it take for Judaism to remain sustainable in a rapidly changing world? With the leadership of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) meeting in Jerusalem this week, we have an opportunity to reflect on the sorts of bold initiatives and creative thinking from which the Jewish world could learn a great deal.
Judaism was always characterized by a devotion to tradition, to a way of life that until modernity, most Jews believed had been divinely ordained by divine command.
But despite whatever theological certainty Jews of old (like many Jews today) may have had, they did not leave the survival of the Jewish people to God. They understood that Jewish sustainability would require that education be the central focus of all Jewish communities, for the intellectual and spiritual richness of the Jewish tradition could not be transmitted without substantive Jewish literacy.
They also understood that what would work in one generation was not what would suffice in another. A Jewish community that did not adapt to changing times, our forebears knew well, was a community that would not long be around to tell its story.
In times of dramatic change, those of us who wax nostalgic for the instincts of the past and for the successes of past generations are often inclined to insist that now is not the moment to change. “Too much is changing,” it is tempting to say. “Now is the time to bank on the tried and true methods that have gotten us this far.”
But Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai knew better. Overwhelmed by the destruction of Jerusalem, he might well have wished that he could rebuild the city, and with it Jewish life as it had been. Yet he had the wisdom to understand that the former era was gone. If he were to play a role in the preservation of Jewish life, an entirely new system of education and leadership-making would be needed. He therefore asked the Romans, “Give me Yavneh and its scholars.” Give me the opportunity to fashion a new way of Jewish life and Jewish education that might prove sustainable in an era in which the world as I knew it no longer exists.
What emerged was rabbinic Judaism as we know it.
TODAY’S JEWISH world faces challenges no less daunting than those of Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai’s era. Many of us still recall “Jerusalem before the fall,” but though it’s painful, we must acknowledge that that Jewish world is largely gone. An unprecedented number of American Jewish families now have non-Jewish members – a fact that has changed the very face of Jewish celebration, worship and identity. Because Jewish communities are populated by so many people who are not Jewish, the notion of “peoplehood” has gradually given way to the idea that Judaism is “simply” a religion. And religion implies choice; what works for me may not work for you, and it would be wrong for me to suggest that your way is less compelling than mine.
Jewish literacy has also changed dramatically. The great irony of American Jewish life is that the wealthiest and most secularly educated Jewish Diaspora community ever to exist has created the most illiterate Jewish community our people has ever known. Of course there are thousands of exceptions; graduates of day schools, yeshivot and summer camps abound, as do Jewish autodidacts.
But on the whole, the change is dramatic. The average American Jewish college student today knows far too little to engage in any meaningful Jewish conversation. And if that is the case, why should they care about the future of Judaism, or even the survival of Israel? The challenge is not to debate whether the change has taken place. We know that it has.
The question is what we should do.
Ought we sit at the proverbial banks of the rivers of Babylon, weeping for what is gone? Or should we, like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, take bold steps and build new opportunities for the engagement of a young generation of Jews that is very different than we were? The leadership of the Jewish Agency will gather in Jerusalem this week to further JAFI’s version of such a dramatic transformation. For decades, JAFI focused on, among other issues, aliya; it sought to bring as many Jews to live in Israel as it possibly could. But most of the Jews from oppressive countries who wish to be in Israel are already here. To get others to come, to attract Jews from countries where they are thriving economically, socially, intellectually and politically, no longer can we simply say “come and join the Jewish people in its national rebirth.”
We must first kindle a sense of yearning, an identity so deeply Jewish that they will thirst for some je ne sais quoi that even the riches and security of the Diaspora cannot provide.
That is the genius behind the dramatic and courageous reconfiguring of the agency now being led by Natan Sharansky.
Sharansky, a genuine Jewish hero who had the courage to stand up to the Soviets (and who thus quips that he’s the Israeli politician who went to jail before he was elected to office), is also a profound thinker. In his book, Defending Identity, Sharansky showed how national, ethnic or religious identities are the most powerful motivators of significant human lives. He and his colleagues are therefore now wisely putting identity, not simple aliya, at the core of the agency’s work. They understand that without renewed Jewish identity, Jews from the free world will have no reason even to consider making a life in Israel.
We would do well to take a page from JAFI’s courageous self-transformation.
Across America, Israel and the rest of the Jewish world, the time has come to seek more than greater efficiencies or slightly modified curricula. This is the time to ask not what is working, but what is not, and to reconfigure with courage our educational systems so that they might address the needs of an unprecedented dawning era we are just beginning to understand and to embrace.
The writer is senior vice president and senior fellow at the Shalem Center in Jerusalem. His latest book, Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War that May Never End (Wiley), won the 2009 National Jewish Book Award. He is now writing a book on the defense of Israel and the nation-state idea.