A New Vision for American Jewry

by Ben Avraham

Rabbi Jonathan Saks is currently devoting his weekly divrei Torah on the issue of leadership. He speaks about Abraham’s quality, as an Ivri, literarily on the other side. While everyone was rushing to be in the center of Mesopotamia, the heart of civilization, Avraham was going in the opposite direction. Since the Pew Study was released, I have yet to see a leader advocate that we should go in the opposite direction, but that is what is need right now.

The Pew study confirms that we are in a post-denominational Judaism, most Jews have no religion, and even those non-Orthodox that identify with a denomination, aren’t Temple or Synagogue members. It is time for radical change. We need a bold proposal to move us forward that is counter-cultural and represents the Ivri of Abraham.

It is time to have only one non-Orthodox denomination. There should be one rabbinical school and one college, with campuses on both coasts. We need to close down most synagogues and Temples, and create mega synagogues and Temples with multiple services. A leadership team in each community, led by the local Federation, should evaluate the most lucrative properties to sell, and begin to strategically close down institutions within the next five years.

I believe that if we were to sell all the excess real estate of the rabbinical schools and synagogues and Temples around the country, we probably could net over a trillion dollars. I am proposing that those monies be put into endowments of local Federations to create a mega fund. A portion of the mega fund from larger communities will be put into a national pool to help smaller communities. The mega fund will have two purposes; one is to provide severance for all of the unemployed staff from these institutions, until they can find other employment. The primary use of the mega fund will be for the creation and maintenance of Jewish primary and secondary schools across North America.

In South America, and in all the commonwealth countries, including Canada, most Jews attend a Jewish day school. The schools provide the best secular education with a Jewish education. The models for these schools exist, and we can easily replicate them and establish schools throughout North America. We can adapt their curriculum for our students, and bring in experts from those countries to guide their establishment on our shores.

We need to create a cultural shift, closing down the religious schools that are now part of most congregations, and creating an affordable and excellent primary and secondary school for Jewish youth. The new cultural shift will make attendance in a Jewish primary and secondary school normative for every Jewish child.

I would propose that in communities, with Orthodox day schools of less than 150 students, that those schools close as well, and the students will be part of the new primary school with their own Judaic track. This model is currently working at the Hyman Brand Jewish Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. These efficiencies will net even more dollars for the mega fund.

These mega funds should provide ongoing, yearly funding to ensure a quality education with very low tuition for these schools. There should be excess funding to support existing Orthodox day schools with more than 150 students in each large community, reducing tuition dramatically. In smaller communities, I envision regional schools serving a few communities.

These new schools, as evidenced by the new Jewish high schools that have opened in the last 20 years throughout North America, will restore Jewish literacy to the American Jewish community. They can make our students proficient Hebrew speakers, allowing them to converse and interact with the Israeli community. Our schools can inculcate our youth with Judaism, as an ancient religion with modern sensibilities. Our schools can embrace everyone, whether they are born Jewish or choose to become a part of the Jewish community. Most importantly, with a focus on education, we can reverse the current downward trajectory of American Judaism.

Now where is the Avraham HaIvri of this generation, ready us to lead us in a new direction?

Ben Avraham is a Jewish Communal professional with over 25 years of experience. After rising through the ranks to a senior position at a Jewish Federation, he is now employed by a national Jewish organization.

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Comments

  1. Melissa Andelman says

    As a former president of a small congregation in an area where there is great variety of Jewish Expression, I’d like to say that this is not what we need at all. We need acceptance of our diversity, a diversity that embraces life long learning, that embraces but does not shut out those who have not been able to afford or commute to a day school. This vision of mega-unified organization is outdated and inappropriate for moving forward. We need support for small–for opportunitites to create a wide variety of communities and networks.

  2. Steve - NYC says

    There is much wisdom in Tip O’Neil’s oft quoted quip “all politics are local.” A national system would swallow up what makes each community unique, and from where most of the congregants’ values spring. It would be a tragic mistake to follow the suggested model. The Pew study demonstrates that “national leadership” is out of step with the majority of Jews. So why increase their power?

    There is also a certain arrogance in the article — fine to have more than one Orthodox denomination, but all the others are really just the same or should be.

  3. Jerry Isaak-Shapiro says

    Kol hakavod for at least beginning the conversation. My fear though is that too many will hyper-focus on one or two aspects with which they disagree, completely missing even the potential of the forest for the sake not of trees, but of branches and leaves. Clearly this is only a one-page non-proposal; there are no studies or focus group findings supporting it. While due diligence – especially when addressing something on such an enormous scale – is of course essential; getting mired in process cannot be the excuse for non-action or even worse, non-consideration.

    I’ll have very dear friends and colleagues, in synagogues and in schools, who’ll disagree vehemently about the tactics he suggests. But what about the strategies and longer-term goals? IF we truly believe that serious, sophisticated Jewish Day School education is one of the primary ways to address the issues raised in the Pew study; and if even the best examples of successful day school education are only making incremental steps forward in terms of real numbers and in innovation; then it’s time to consider something that some might call radical (while others might just see it as logical).

    In terms of schools, it’s bad enough that we can’t compete with the marble-staircase independent schools – and on so many levels we don’t have to and we shouldn’t even try. But worse is our competing with each other – and for the facade of “diversity” we waste Jewish dollars and time and attention – and in the end, abrogate our responsibility to Jewish children and families. Where’s it written that diversity can’t be achieved under one, large, inclusive roof? Synagogue or school, we could design structures and programs not to “accommodate” different hashkafot and backgrounds and practices; we would be able to offer opportunities that celebrate commonalities and differences.

    Absolutely there are flaws in what he proposes, and there will be plenty of institutional and personal oxen gored along the way toward anything on this large of a scale. But incremental change and progress – when there is progress – just isn’t enough. Fiddling while Rome burns is a painful and ironically non-Jewish metaphor. Better we should reach for a quintessential Jewish allusion, and build tents large enough for the entire Jewish People.

  4. Dorit says

    A logical solution to a big problem. Thank you for articulating what many of us have been thinking and speaking about behind closed doors. It’s time for the different factions of the Jewish community to put their differences aside and unite to salvage the Jewish future. Day schools are the best solution we have in our arsenal. And I would not limit this project to the non-Orthodox. The modern Orthodox are important partners and have a stake in this program as well.

  5. JP says

    While the efficiencies gained by such a proposal may be very attractive, I am not comfortable at all by anything else.
    1. Different congregations have different personalities and this serve the needs to a broader more diverse group of people.
    2. Would reduce opportunities for people to get involved in leadership positions at the temple and in youth groups.
    3. Would reduce opportunities for experimentation and innovation.
    4. It is often harder to maintain a personal communal relationship with a larger organization that is more likely to feel impersonal and inadvertently make the member feel insignificant.
    5. Not in favor to self-imposed segregation/isolation as a means to preservation.
    6. While I think every parent must make her and his own decision, I think it is a horrendous idea (beside being impractical in most smaller communities) for it to be the norm for Jewish children to attend Jewish primary and secondary schools. As Jews and as a minority, we should put very high value on our democracy and the religious freedom it affords us. And we should understand how important a strong public education is to that democracy and we should be actively supporting that public education by participating in it. It is good for our children to understand the larger community in which they live during their formative years, it is good for the non-Jewish children for them to be around Jews in their formative years and it is good for us as Jews that non-Jews are learning with us. I am quite concerned about the number of articles I have seen as of late that are using the Pew study as an excuse to advocate withdrawing from public schools to Jewish parochial schools as a means to isolate and preserve Judaism. I want my children to choose to be Jewish as adults and to raise their kids to be Jewish not because it is what they were raised with or because they know it better than anything else, but because when they look and understand all the other alternatives, they think that being Jewish and being part of a Jewish community has value to them at least if not more value than not.

  6. JP says

    Jerry,
    I sincerely hope that we truly don’t “believe that serious, sophisticated Jewish Day School education is one of the primary ways to address the issues raised in the Pew study ”

    It is not bad. “In terms of schools, it’s bad enough that we can’t compete with the marble-staircase independent schools.” It is a good thing. We don’t need to waste our money in teaching math, science, history and English, we can focus our funds on more affordable supplemental Jewish education through high school graduation which I had growing up but can not provide fully for my children.

    As you said “and on so many levels we don’t have to and we shouldn’t even try.” I would just say on all levels.

  7. Bob Hyfler says

    With all due respect to a colleague I have reservations in regard to this article:

    A child centered Judaism is…a child centered Judaism. But that is not the totality of what we are. Jewish life is a special treasure for Jews of all ages and must be actively lived and celebrated by the young and the old in the present even as we plan thoughtfully for the future. We are not the generation of Noah that must be wiped out and sacrificed so a new more schooled generation will take our place. Selling off the diversity of our current assets to purchase the “gold bars” of increased day school enrollment is the stuff of talk radio not rational communal planning.

    In addition, I am increasingly uncomfortable with an implicit premise that that the American Jewish experience has been an unmitigated disaster leading to an ever downward spiral. There is more Jewish learning and scholarship in America than ever there was in the old world; more choice and more freedom; more publishing, more diversity of Jewish innovation and experimentation; greater global Jewish connections and more dollars expended on creating a vibrant Jewish future.

    I am reminded of the midrash of Moses being transported to the yeshiva of Rabbi Akiba and after expressing total perplexity of what he sees being told that they are studying the torah as taught by Moses at Sinai. American Jewish life may not look like the “world of our fathers” but it is our world, the world of our sisters and brothers, children and grandchildren. And I have great faith that it will continue. Zeh hayom asah hashem, nagilah v’nismachah bah.

  8. Howard says

    Did I misread? More than a trillion dollars being saved? Lets see – with 6 million American Jews we would each reap about 150 million each. Methinks someone is cooking the books, having wild fantasies or smoking an illegal substance. Change may very well be needed but it has to be change I can believe in.

  9. Dan Ab says

    @Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, There’s no need to disagree with one or two things here. The author builds a completely unrealistic world on a top-to-bottom misunderstanding of the modern Jewish institutional landscape. I don’t think there’s a single good idea that can be salvaged from this piece.

    “The Pew study confirms that we are in a post-denominational Judaism, most Jews have no religion, and even those non-Orthodox that identify with a denomination, aren’t Temple or Synagogue members.” Wrong. 22% of Jews identified with no religion and I hope “aren’t synagogue members” was meant as hyperbole.

    Jews are moving away from denominations to more diversity and the solution is to make one denomination (with no mention of what that denomination should stand for or do)? Similarly, more rabbinical schools are opening and Rabbis are using their skills in more diverse professions and we should arbitrarily cut this off?! We should create more megasynagogues to minimize the number of Jews who are in walking distance to communal worship at a time when more active Jews are forming small, adaptable, and affordable minyanim near their homes?! We should put massive monetary authority to shut down long-running institutions in the hands of a few people (which I assume with include the author)?! This will give us more than $1 trillion because the author said it would.

    An then, we get to why we should do all these insane and unrealistic things. We should do them to subsidize day schools (and try to convince most Jews to abandon public school) when it’s unclear how many more families would send their kids to Jewish day schools even if they were free. Seriously?! Even his supporting facts are wrong, last time I checked, 30-35% of Jews in Toronto attend day schools. This is more than the US, but not much more. Also, this is all built on the assumption that day school are uniquely poised to change individuals’ Jewish commitment, which is not supported by any serious studies.

    If that wasn’t enough, the author wants to close down even successful day schools if he deems them too small (<150 kids) and essentially force families in small towns to ship their kids away for their schooling.

    The most shocking part of this piece is that someone with this faulty logic and flawed vision has had senior positions in Jewish organizations.

  10. Ben Avraham says

    I want to thank those who have commented on my new vision for American Jewry. I want to respond to some of the comments, and add some clarifying points. Pew tells us that among Jews who say they are synagogue members, 39% identify with Reform Judaism, 29% with Conservative Judaism. Of these Jews only 39% of 29% of Conservative Jews and 17% of the 39% of Reform Jews attend services on at least a monthly basis. The data says clearly we have under-utilized building.I know more Jews come once a year, we can rent appropriate space at a very reasonable cost for those services. We don’t need the current infrastructure for two or three days a year. I am advocating a radical rethinking of the synagogue. I think we need one or two, (or possibly more in larger cities) mega synagogues, with multiple services, a big tent. There can be services that are currently called Conservative, and services currently called Reform, and maybe even an independent minyan. There can be a wide variety of experimentation. Imagine that in one building instead of 100 people on a Shabbat, there were was the entire community coming together following their own services for a kiddush on Friday night, and Saturday morning. It would invigorate everyone, and strengthen the committed core.

    Secondly, I don’t know what this non denominational movement should be called, but I think Pew clearly says we don’t need two denominations. We need to have one Rabbinical school that is training Rabbis for this generation, many of them may be “Rabbis without Borders.” It is a waste of communal resources at this time to have multiple colleges and Rabbinical schools. That model is outdated and needs to be retooled for our times.

    I don’t know if its billions of dollars, or a trillion, but I believe we have a lot of big sprawling synagogues, that could be sold and the proceeds could be put into a mega endowment fund. I am not advocating for a national system, but a local controlled system for the sale of buildings and the creation of an endowment fund.

    I also believe that Pew has shown that we can no longer carry on the belief that educating our children in the public school with a supplementary Jewish education will maintain their Jewish identity. Yes they are proud they are Jewish, but they little attachment to Judaism. The only denomination maintaining its youth is the Orthodox, they abandoned the religious school model in the late 1960s and advocated day school. It’s worked for them, and I believe strongly it will work for the remaining committed Jews. I think with an affordable strong Jewish education, Jews can know proudly who they are, and be a part of the larger society. I know its a radical shift, and its counter cultural but it is necessary.

    I welcome the conversation, and I trust that by thinking seriously about this, we can create a vibrant and thriving Jewish community.

  11. says

    “Pew tells us that among Jews who say they are synagogue members, 39% identify with Reform Judaism, 29% with Conservative Judaism. Of these Jews only 39% of 29% of Conservative Jews and 17% of the 39% of Reform Jews attend services on at least a monthly basis.”

    The statement “39% of synagogue members identify as Reform” is not equivalent to the statement “39% of Reform-identified Jews are synagogue members”. This innumeracy is another argument against day school education.

  12. says

    “I also believe that Pew has shown that we can no longer carry on the belief that educating our children in the public school with a supplementary Jewish education will maintain their Jewish identity. Yes they are proud they are Jewish, but they little attachment to Judaism. The only denomination maintaining its youth is the Orthodox, they abandoned the religious school model in the late 1960s and advocated day school. It’s worked for them, and I believe strongly it will work for the remaining committed Jews.”

    Since these conversations are always based on the axiom that correlation equals causation, I’ll point out that kapores is even more effective than day school. Jews who do kapores have much stronger Jewish identities than Jews who don’t do kapores. Therefore, the solution is for the Jewish community to invest in making sure every Jew does kapores.

  13. Avramele says

    Arguing over the long term implications of the Pew report is like arguing over the bankruptcy of social security – it’s many years off and a lot can happen in the interim. So here’s my scenario: we know that there is some movement from orthodoxy leftward and we know that the Haredi community and many non orthodox are good breeders. The economics of the Haredi community is totally unsustainable as is their rear guard action to shelter their young from the freedom of the Internet age. It is very likely that meaningful percentage, perhaps a third, perhaps more will move leftward to reinvigorate the mainstream of Jewish life through their Torah background. Off the derech Frum Jews may be a blessing to us all just as the first from the shtetls and yeshiva Jews (think Erich Fromm) were a gift to a more liberal world.
    And my compliments to BZ for creatively taking the chicken’s way out.

  14. Dan Ab says

    @Ben Avraham,
    The percentage of Jews who attend synagogue services monthly is not a marker of efficient building utilization. My current synagogue fits your 1/3 percentage fairly well. On a typical Shabbat, 150-250 people attend (add another 20-30 for an indy-minyan that rents space every other week). On Rosh Hashana & Yom Kippur, they get 600-700 people. The space isn’t wasted the rest of the year. The main sanctuary has fewer empty seats & the room that is usually used for lunch/receptions is turned into a second service. Nearly every inch of the building is use year-round (including several rentals) but the uses vary depending on event. Based on your logic, this medium sized shul should shut down and tell all the people who currently walk to it to go to some megashul. I’m proud of my community, but with regard to space/resource usage, it’s not that unique. It doesn’t require the forced creation of megashuls to intelligently use local communal spaces. It would also cost more in the short and long term to shut down and move successful community synagogues.

    More generally, is there any example of where the megashul model has worked besides in cities with very large Jewish communities (and quite a few other options too)? You’re trying to act like a big thinker by proposing something radical, but that doesn’t work unless you also explain what problems your radical change solves.

    There are obviously synagogues that are no longer sustaining themselves. Unsustainable synagogues will shut down without any centralized edicts, but there is definitely more of a role for centralized organizations to facilitate this process.

    Similarly, it’s not clear what your mega-rabbinical school solves either. Do we say that multiple colleges are inefficient so all the colleges & university in New York City should join together to save money. Like many non-profits in a weak economic period, rabbinical schools aren’t at their financially healthiest right now, but you haven’t explained why merging the 8+ non-Orthodox rabbinical schools in the US would solve anything? If philosophical differences don’t matter, why not merge Orthodox & non-Orthodox together too. It would obviously save even more money.

    You don’t know if your idea would earn $ billions or a trillion?!?!? As the central premise of your idea, wouldn’t that be useful to think harder about? Here’s some quick math. Take a synagogue that has zero savings except for a building. Once you remove the Jewish ritual objects, lets overestimate and say that the average dying synagogue can sell its building for $2million. Lets again overestimate and say there are 2000 such synagogues across the US (Note: the Conservative movement has 620 affiliated synagogues total). That would net $2 billion in land sales ignoring the cost of building the new megashuls. AVI CHAI’s “Talking Dollars and Sense about Jewish Education” report says that it would cost an extra $2 billion PER YEAR to increase day school enrollment by 100K kids. That increase would also require $1.35 in construction costs and $250million in to train more teachers. These numbers are all in 2001 dollars when day schools spent $10K per kid. Even then, this 100K increase in students would be only an approximately 10% increase in the number of Jews enrolled in day schools (You can read this report at: http://avichai.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Dollars-Sense.pdf ). Your radical vision would barely, if at all, pay for this.

    “I also believe that Pew has shown that we can no longer carry on the belief that educating our children in the public school with a supplementary Jewish education will maintain their Jewish identity.” BZ already ridiculed this one, but it’s worth noting that EVERY survey has shown quite a few kids educated in public school + supplemental ed to maintained their Jewish identity and that a kid who goes to Hebrew school, Jewish Summer camp, & youth group has barely distinguishable outcomes to someone who just goes to a day school. There is a huge correlation/causation issue here, but it’s one way of showing that common paths to continued Jewish observance exist without requiring day schools.

  15. hophmi says

    Actually, day school has not worked so well. That’s a bit of a myth. Modern Orthodox day schools, which are mostly staffed by haredi rabbis, are pulling kids to the extremes – some to the right, some to the left.

    Supplemental Jewish education is not unworkable, but in its current form, where kids are going once a week in most cases, and being taught by teachers who know little and convey little passion, I agree that the current model does not work. It’s a matter of priorities – if supplemental education were four days a week for two hours a day, and reinforced in the home, it would work better. I remember my day school elementary and high school education, and I went to what was considered an excellent modern orthodox day school. The Judaic education was for the most part subpar, remote, and inefficient.

    The notion that Conservative and Reform Jews are the same thing and could survive with one rabbinical college between them, could only be written by someone not especially familiar with either community. There are stark differences. And the vaunted independent minyan movement, which is non-denominational, is, at least in New York, really mostly Conservative kids whose parents took an active interest in their Judaic upbringing and did things like send them to Camp Ramah.

    We have more than enough money in our community right now to provide a Jewish day school education to any kid who wants one at a reasonable cost, without selling off synagogues, though I have to agree that many non-orthodox synagogues are underutilized. It’s a matter of convincing the UJA and the Federations to make a priority out of it, and to commit ourselves to making sure that, unlike most day school today, that education is top notch. We should implement the 20% plan – no one pays more than 20% of after-tax income for day school education.

  16. says

    Hophmi writes:
    “And the vaunted independent minyan movement, which is non-denominational, is, at least in New York, really mostly Conservative kids whose parents took an active interest in their Judaic upbringing and did things like send them to Camp Ramah.”

    The 2007 Spiritual Communities Study found that 46% of independent minyan participants grew up identifying as Conservative. 46% is not “mostly”. Be careful about sample biases in generalizing from the people you know.

  17. JP says

    I apologize that this is somewhat repetitive but I think it is worth repeating as author repeated his apparent misunderstanding of the Pew study by mixing correlation with causation.
    He states:
    ” also believe that Pew has shown that we can no longer carry on the belief that educating our children in the public school with a supplementary Jewish education will maintain their Jewish identity….. ..the Orthodox, they abandoned the religious school model … and advocated day school. It’s worked for them, and I believe strongly it will work for the remaining committed Jews. I think with an affordable strong Jewish education, Jews can know proudly who they are, and be a part of the larger society.”

    I have seen it elsewhere as well but no matter how many times it is repeated the Pew study does not show any causation between Jewish day school attendance and maintaining a Jewish identity later in life. It does show a correlation. However, a correlation is not the same as causation. There are so many other variables that are not accounted for.
    a) Are Jewish day schools more likely located in areas where there are more Jews to begin with and therefore more Jewish connections to be made.
    b) Are parents that send their children to expensive Jewish day schools themselves more committed in passing along a Jewish identity which they do through their words and deeds.
    c) If Jewish day schools were free, would the correlation be lowered because Jews (and perhaps non-Jews) with little Jewish identity would be more likely to send their children there?
    And there are many more such questions we could ask along similar lines.
    I do know that my sister, my best friend and his two brothers and I never experienced a Jew day school, attended public schools and ended up raising Jewish families. We all attended the same hebrew school on Mon/Wed or Tue/Thu until our Bar/Bat Mitzvahs and Sunday school through 12th grade. Another family grew belonged to the same synagogue and all three boys ended up in non-Jewish families. Why? I think a big part was in the parents. The parents of those of us that ended up in a Jewish family made being Jewish a priority. It is not that we went to services all the time as we did not. But nothing trumped attending High Holiday services. We had to take off from school no matter what was going on and what would be missed and our parent always took off from work. No activity trumped attendance at religious school. Football games, soccer or baseball practice all came second. Even school projects, homework, or studying for exams did not get us out of religious school attendance. For those of us that did not end up in a Jewish family, it just was not a priority of the parents. Football practice was more important. Attendance in religious school was optional and something to do if there was nothing else going on. My guess is that for those that are willing to pay for expensive Jew day school establishing, a Jew identity for their children is important and a high priority. If true then perhaps the correlation between Jewish day school attendance and later Jewish identity is just that, a correlation, with no causation what so ever. In any case, whatever the cause for maintaining a Jewish identity or not maintaining one, a correlation analysis will neither prove the cause nor necessarily identify what the underlying causes are.