No Excuses – Time for Action

To foster Jewish commitment and patterns of Jewish living we need to raise competent, inspired and literate Jews; not Jews who simply identify as Jewish with little or no understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

by Steve Freedman

The New York Times summed up the recent Pew survey: Portrait of Jewish Americans like this, “[Among Jewish Americans, there has been] a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

Not surprisingly, the study prompted many despairing articles, and the blogosphere lit up with opinions about the Jewish future and all that has gone wrong. The only thing that surprises me is why people were so surprised.

As far back as the 1960s and 1970s research was emerging indicating the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identity. In the 1970s researchers like S.M. Cohen, Howard Shapiro and Arnold Dashefsky conducted studies that connected Jewish education to identity. In his 1975 research, sociologist Milton Himmelfarb concluded that a minimum of 3,000 hours of Jewish education (religious instruction) are needed before it has a positive impact. Himmelfarb concluded back in 1975 that for 80% of Jewish children, their Jewish education had been a waste of time. In 1981, researchers Sigal, August and Beltempo were already establishing that full-time Jewish education through adolescence had a positive impact on Jewish identity.

The 2000 National Jewish Population Study and other later studies reported that day school graduates were more likely to be involved in all things Jewish and that the intermarriage rate was lowest among day school graduates. This study and others in the past two decades also report the positive impact of day school education in combination with Jewish summer camp and informal Jewish experiences, such as USY or BBYO. Synagogue/temple religious school education, in isolation, has not been as effective.

It is evident that over the past two decades many of our synagogues and temples lost their way. In spite of the need for meaningful, effective educational experiences for our children, synagogues and temples have reduced the number of hours for their programs; further, USY and other youth programs have been considerably weakened across the US, while millions of dollars continue to be poured into failed programs.

To foster Jewish commitment and patterns of Jewish living we need to raise competent, inspired and literate Jews; not Jews who simply identify as Jewish with little or no understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. As Mark Kramer, the executive director of RAVSAK, recently stated, “It takes a great deal of fuel to power Jewish literacy, especially when Jewish literacy and Hebrew literacy are intertwined (as I believe it must be). The engines of Jewish literacy – engines that drive Jewish citizenship, peoplehood, spiritual meaning, ethical living and intellectualism – … [cannot be fueled] from Sunday school and summer camp (only).”

As such, day schools truly need to become a top priority for the Jewish community. That means adequate funding to make them more affordable and to train teachers to provide the necessary and effectual education for this century. Equally important is funding for Jewish camps and for meaningful informal Jewish experiences. Our rabbis and community leaders need to step up and lead the charge to promote serious formal and informal learning experiences that engage and challenge. Too many of our rabbis give tepid support at best, and sadly, many of our community leaders fail to see the value and critical importance of a day school education for their own children. If we keep doing the same things and our leaders keep making the same decisions, why would we expect different results?

Our full energy and commitment must be focused on these three areas; day schools, summer camps, and rich informal Jewish experiences. As a realist, I recognize that the majority of Jewish children will not attend day schools any time soon; as an optimist, I can always have that as a goal. Until that day, we need to admit that “the Emperor has no clothes”, that supplementary religious education in its current, diluted state, does not work to produce committed, involved Jews; we need to change this.

It is time for synagogues and temples to increase the hours of supplementary religious school education, to create meaningful and purposeful curriculum and to train teachers to be effective so that the increased hours are impactful. Equally important we must bring back and strengthen opportunities for informal education in the synagogues and temples. And if the synagogues and temples will not do it, the day schools should step up and create meaningful supplementary programs, both formal and informal, for those children not in the day schools.

We like to tell ourselves that Judaism is just another consumer product, but really it isn’t. And the fact that most Jews today view Judaism as a choice makes it that much more important that we remind ourselves, our leaders and our families why it matters to be an active and committed member of the Jewish people and why it is worth the time and effort.

It will take courage and effort for our rabbis and community leaders to step up and actually make this happen – to go against the conventional wisdom and the majority culture. As Jews, we are counter-cultural, and we should embrace and celebrate it.

We can keep lamenting the trends and the causes for another forty years, or we can come together as leaders, focus our resources, and build a generation of literate, committed and active Jews who live comfortably and meaningfully in both worlds: our larger secular world and our rich Jewish world.

Steve Freedman is Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.

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Comments

  1. David Posner says:

    In an ideal world, what you write makes sense. Education has always been a central aspect to ingorming Jewish identity and leading an undeniably Jewish lifestyle. But the resources required for the type of investment in formal Jewish education anywhere outside of Israel would bankrupt a Jewish community even if members of that community wanted it, which they do not.

    Jewish life requires a highly-educated core of Jewishly knowledgable and lifestyle committed individuals surrounded by a much, much larger group of Jewishly familar individuals for whom Judaism and Jewish life is an important, if not the central tenet of their lives. What that balance is is hard to say, but the lack of investment in that larger group is what is contributing to the current demise. And the sad fact is that we know what the answers are, that investments in summer camp experiences, teen trips to Israel, and year-round informal Jewish youth groups provide enough of a push to turning Jewish adolescents in highly committed adults, even in the absence of formal Jewish education. And they’re much more cost effective as well.

    We need to recognize the larger sociological currents at play that influence our youth, and develop strategies that work with those currents, rather than offer up solutions that seek to isolate our children from those currents. That is a losing proposition and wasteful as well

  2. There is so much here that I agree with …

    “…makes it that much more important that we remind ourselves, our leaders and our families why it matters to be an active and committed member of the Jewish people and why it is worth the time and effort… It is time for synagogues and temples to increase the hours of supplementary religious school education, to create meaningful and purposeful curriculum and to train teachers to be effective so that the increased hours are impactful. Equally important we must bring back and strengthen opportunities for informal education in the synagogues and temples. ”

    However, I completely disagree about the role of the Jewish day school as part of the solution and I think the author as the Head of a Jewish Day School may be self-serving and biased to suggest so. That being said, I would defend the choice of any parent to choose to send their child to what ever Jewish/parochial school she/he feels is best for her/his child and family as long as she/he can afford to pay for it without any subsidy from me, the government or any institution to which I supply financial resources.

    I believe as an American, but particularly as a Jewish American it is my duty to support and to send my children to public schools which I believe serve as the backbone to our democracy which in turn protects my right to practice my faith as I see fit. Additionally, I think it is vital to the health and well-being of my children to be immersed in the public education with it secular lens and more diverse study body. I believe it is to the benefit of the Jewish community that other non-Jewish children are in the same schools with my Jewish children. I believe that Jewish/parochial schools serve to weaken public schools because those that are not invested in the public schools by sending their children there are least likely to support increased funding and support for them, and a weaker public school system is a threat to our democracy. Those are my beliefs shaped perhaps by the fact I was the lone Jewish kid in my public school until I was in high school (and there we represented less than 1%) and that I was the one that exposed my classmates to what Chanukah and Passover mean and that Jewish people did not actually have horns and dispelled the stereotypes to which obviously did not apply to me.

    We probably do not need a study to tell us that increasing social connections among young Jews while decreasing them with non-Jews is likely to decrease intermarriage rate. We just need to look at the orthodox communities today or the ghettos and isolation of old. I want my children to want to find a Jewish mate and then to actually find that mate. I want them to have Jewish friends and to be well connected to the Jewish community. I also want them to be well integrated into the American community at large. I want their decisions to be Jews and to choose Jewish mates to be their conscious decision because they independently choose that these are important choices and not ones that happens by default. My sister, my best childhood friend, his two brothers, and I all made those choices with a good meaningful Jewish education (K-12th grade via our temple’s religious school) and parents that made that a top priority (above childhood parties, participation in sports, and just about any other secular event) while being immersed in two secular public school systems (no Jewish day school needed) where we were very much the only Jews. Judaism should not survive because our children have more exposure to Jews than to non-Jews. Judaism should survive because our children even when they are completely integrated into our non-Jewish secular community make the conscious choice that Judaism is important and meaningful to them and that for that reason they want to pass it down to their children.

    Again I do support the rights of parents in making the personal decision of sending their children to Jewish/parochial school. However, as a solution to the preservation of Judaism we need to do better than Jewish day schools and self-imposed isolation. Jewish education that Jewish day schools provide is important but can and needs to be administered through other medium. I would have to rethink my affiliation with any Jewish institution which diverted any of my donations toward subsidizing Jewish/parochial day schools.

  3. David,
    I completely agree with your comment which is far more succinct than mine. (I did not see it at the time I had posted my far more verbose and rambling thoughts.)

  4. Jon A. Levisohn says:

    There is no question that Jewish day schools can be highly effective at cultivating a whole range of capacities and dispositions. But concluding that other forms of Jewish education are a “waste of time” is simply inaccurate.

    See, for example, Steve Cohen’s 2007 article, “The Differential Impact of Jewish Education on Adult Jewish Identity,” available here:
    http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=3052

    I am reminded of a comment at a conference in Israel recently, where someone – an Israeli – casually referred to the failure of American Jewish education as if it were an unassailable truth (based, of course, on no actual evidence).

    It is certainly true – and not surprising – that more intensive Jewish education yields stronger results in a range of areas. But we are not well served by casually dismissing the evidence of positive outcomes, based on Himmelfarb’s methodologically problematic studies from 40 years ago.

    Jon A. Levisohn
    Brandeis University

  5. Jon,
    Thank you for sharing the link. I found the study very interesting and most of the analysis made intuitive sense. The one element that did not was the negative correlation between in-marriage and Sunday school attendance (along with the implied causality). It reminds me to be careful when both collecting and interpreting statistics because unknown and uncontrolled variables may be biasing the results. Again thanks for sharing.

  6. I appreciate the feedback to my blog. I would like to briefly respond to those who commented. I assure you that I am not self-serving. I spent much of my career as a congregational educator responsible for the religious school, family education and adult education. I have ample experience in that setting and am aware of its strengths and challenges.

    In Jewish education, as in Jewish life – more is more. Day Schools do not negate the value and importance of public education, but that discussion is for another time.

    As for the Himmelfarb study of forty years ago, problematic or not, there have been a series of studies since that study that demonstrate the more impactful influence of day schools, as well as Jewish summer camps and Israel. I would suggest that the Pew study is simply the latest evidence of what happens when we deprive a generation of serious and meaningful opportunities to study and live Judaism.

    Finally, take another look at my blog. I realize that the majority of Jewish children will not be attending day schools any time soon. (I do continue to believe it should be a goal.) I advocate that we get serious in our temples and synagogues, “It is time for synagogues and temples to increase the hours of supplementary religious school education, to create meaningful and purposeful curriculum and to train teachers to be effective so that the increased hours are impactful. Equally important we must bring back and strengthen opportunities for informal education in the synagogues and temples. And if the synagogues and temples will not do it, the day schools should step up and create meaningful supplementary programs, both formal and informal, for those children not in the day schools.”

    While I continue to believe that the data supports focussing more of our attention and resources to day schools and Jewish summer camps, there is a lot of work to do, and I also believe there is a positive role for each; day schools, summer camps, informal programs and synagogues/temples. We all need to learn to work together for the greater good, shed our territorial defensiveness and join forces, supporting each other in helping our community find meaning and purpose in being a part of the Jewish people in this century.

  7. As noble as it may seem to send a child to Jewish day school, the realities of this (or any other private school) provide a stark contrast to the supposed benefits.

    A Jewish (private) school’s #1 goal is self sustenance via donations. This means that the core of their governance has to revolve around making donors happy. This would be fine if it were any other institution, but this means that children who do not have ‘donor parents’ get the short end of the stick. If a donor’s child is bullying a non donor’s child, do you really think that the school will risk angering the donor by enacting discipline?

    The values of chesed and tikkun olam are only lip service- making donors happy is the #1 goal. This is true in every private school. Public schools are under no obligation to prefer one parent or child over another, and can supply a far better and well rounded experience than any private school can. How can a child learn or practice Jewish values if they are solely among Jews? Its only as a ‘light unto the peoples’ when we practice what we preach are we at our best. Fighting through the donor-centric bureaucracy and social club nature of private schools does not yield a better Jewish identity.

    In today’s global society, a mix of Jewish identity building activities- education, religion, social, civic, practicing tzedakah, Israel, camp, and family will wind up being the best, most feasible, and most likely successful route towards building strong Jewish identities. Not the monolithic old world day school model.

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