By Jennie Starr
Faced with Jewish flight from institutional affiliation and a modern interfaith marriage rate nearing 60 percent, we need new cultural entry-points to the Jewish community to inspire Jews to engage in Jewish life and educate the next generation. There are communities in the United States where the majority of the local Jewish population has opted out of organized Jewish life, and less than 10% of the Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish part-time or day schools. If we don’t engage the next generation they may do nothing to engage in Jewish life and that can’t be ok. We are told that Jewish programs do not support modern lifestyles, challenges, needs or interests. We need to listen and create desirable programs, and lower the barriers to entry, as flexibility, convenience and affordability may well be the key to inspiring modern Jewish journeys. If we create the building blocks, Jews today may form their larger Jewish identity as a result of these very tailored and specific ingredients.
Jewish Cultural Programs
With as many as 62% of American Jews reporting that “being Jewish is more about Culture and Ancestry than religion” many Jews seek cultural engagement for themselves and their children. Today, there are numerous examples of meaningful, cultural and educational entry points for both youth and adults with plenty of opportunity for more. Children build Jewish identity through music, history and tradition in HaZamir, Jewish youth choir and adults are inspired through LABA, a Laboratory for Jewish Culture, focusing on the creation of art, dialogue and study in a non-religious, open-minded setting. Hazon and Wilderness Torah provide vibrant outdoor, food and hands-on planting, harvesting and Jewish camping experiences in enriching outdoor settings. Sifriyat Pijama (PJ Library in Hebrew) and Tarbuton make a Jewish and Israel connection through Israeli art, music, food, literature and dance while Young Adults make their Israel connection through Birthright. Rich cultural experiences can pave a path towards lifelong Jewish learning, a rich Jewish upbringing for the next generation and a more united Jewish community, but only if they also tackle the logistical and financial challenges of modern life.
Affordable and Convenient
Finances, time and effort affect involvement in Jewish life and cannot be ignored. “Economics is a blind spot in our understanding of religion” says Professor Carmel Chiswick. “The trajectory of the Jewish community is one that points to an ever-smaller grouping of those most willing to invest in their Jewish human capital even at exorbitant costs […] economic analysis can help us examine the value in providing worthwhile Jewish experiences for those who’d otherwise walk away.” (“A Cost Benefit Analysis of Being Jewish,” Steven Weiss; The Atlantic, October 2014) Many of our Jewish families are in public schools and often enrolled in subsidized aftercare and enrichment on the school’s campus. It’s not just the money; it’s also the time, effort and convenience. The children stay in a familiar, safe environment with school friends for an affordable cost.
Knowing Jewish children were filling public school after school programs, we brought modern Hebrew to them, an alternative to free Christian “Good News club” aftercare offered on most campuses. We also learned public schools inconveniently closed half days weekly, so we piloted a half day Jewish program, Kesher, for Hebrew Language Charter School students, transporting children on their half day to a nearby Synagogue partner location with their Jewish friends for cultural Jewish camp like experiences. Working parents appreciate that we turn what would otherwise be an aftercare challenge into a Jewish education opportunity with friends near home while they work. We’d love to replicate this model with all our Synagogue Partners, located North, Central and South, working together on outreach, introducing families to the Rabbi and Synagogue programs, and providing Israeli cultural and Modern Hebrew enrichment for all through our joint programs for preschool, youth and adults.
Flexible and Accessible
We need to build entry points that are inviting and nonjudgmental. “Chabad reaches an enormous number of Jews by offering, among many other things, both one-off Jewish experiences as well as relaxed bar/bat mitzvah requirements making the experience more accessible for all.” (“Outreach Revolution,” Jack Wertheimer, Commentary Magazine, April 2013) Minimum hour requirements and rigid or limited schedules are all reasons Jewish families give for opting out of Jewish education. Jewish part-time schools operate on average with at least half of the school empty and families that do enroll tend to select Reform programs over Conservative choices which generally have fewer requirements. (JDATA 2011-2012 and 2012-2013) But, if we offer culturally appealing programs, flexible schedules and non rigid requirements many may make more time and happily, even hungrily, partake more in Jewish life. We see families enroll in synagogue Sunday schools or youth groups and supplement with enrichment hours in Tarbuton. We have reached unengaged, unaffiliated Jews with one hour weekly at first, we’ve then seen families engage in more immersive experiences, and in some cases, as families seek religious or spiritual engagement, we’ve seen some affiliate with synagogues as well. Young Jewish families have remained in our programs and partner programs on average four to six years with low attrition and adults also engage in culturally rich, social programs well beyond their children’s involvement strengthening our Jewish community. We also offer discounts for families enrolling in both synagogue and Tarbuton programs to encourage deeper engagement.
How It Works
Getting young families to enroll children in Jewish enrichment took heavy subsidies because the cost does matter. But when we offered cultural options and halved fees, enrollment doubled and when we offered two hours for nearly the same cost as one, young parents wanted more and made time for the extra hours. Cost and location matter for adults too, but they too engage, when programs introduce them to friends nearby and meet in locations near their homes so don’t have to travel far to make friends and enjoy cultural Jewish experiences. We can and should continue to support denominational and immersive programs while investing in the creation of new cultural programming and lowering the barriers to entry. Together we can do amazing outreach, build and reinvigorate Jewish life making it a win for all and uniting the Jewish community in brilliant and wonderful ways.
Jennie Starr is the Founder and Director of the Tarbuton in San Diego, CA. The Tarbuton was recognized in 2012 and 2014 by Slingshot as one of the most inspiring and innovative Jewish organizations in North America. Tarbuton is a member of Nitzan, The Jewish Education Projects Hebrew Charter After School Network and the North County Jewish Hub. Tarbuton receives generous support from the Leichtag Foundation, the Jewish Federation of San Diego County and the Israeli-American Council; and partners with the Ken Jewish Community, JCoSD, Temple Emanu-El, and Congregation Beth El. For more information please visit: www.tarbuton.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.