By Dr. Barry W. Holtz
Many people in today’s Jewish world might find it hard to believe that there was a time in which Jewish education was not high on the community’s list of funding priorities. But almost 50 years ago, things were very different. In 1969, at the annual General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations (the predecessor of today’s JFNA, Jewish Federations of North America), a group of students marched in protest in order to call for greater communal support for Jewish education. At the time, education was low on the totem pole of communal concerns, and despite some lip service paid in response to the protesters, it would take a generation before anything resembling significant financial support for Jewish education would emerge in the community.
In the article “A Time to Act: The Report of the Commission on Jewish Education in North America,” historian Jonathan Krasner tells the story of the rise of Jewish education in the eyes of Jewish communal leaders. Krasner notes that it was not until the publication of “A Time to Act” in 1990 that the link between philanthropic funding and Jewish continuity came to be highlighted in the community. The Mandel Commission (as it came to be known) called for, among other things, “raising Jewish education to the top of the communal agenda … and providing substantially increased funding from federations, private foundations and other sources.”
The Mandel Commission turned the term “continuity” into common parlance in Jewish communal life. “Continuity commissions” began springing up in federations across North America. And although a few individuals (Samuel Melton, for example) had been financial supporters of Jewish education, the early 1990s and the years that followed saw enormous growth for Jewish education from private philanthropists, foundations, and federations. The Jim Joseph Foundation; Edgar and Charles Bronfman’s Foundations; The AVI CHAI Foundation; the Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life; and the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Foundation, among many others, became major forces in promoting a variety of initiatives in the field of Jewish education, having an impact on Jewish summer camps, day schools, Hillel, and Israel education programs. Federations in key communities such as Cleveland, New York, and Boston became models for communal engagement in funding Jewish education.
Appearing at almost the same time as the publication of “A Time to Act,” results of the National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) of 1990 were widely disseminated in the media. The most avidly discussed finding was the fateful and somewhat controversial discovery that 52 percent of all marriages that occurred among Jews were intermarriages. Although later analysis adjusted the figure somewhat downward, the number struck fear in the hearts of the Jewish community’s leadership. Although the Mandel Commission’s work was completely independent from that of NJPS, its recommendations were seen by many as a kind of response to the findings of the research survey.
First, “A Time to Act” stated that “a substantial number of Jews no longer seem to believe that Judaism has a role to play in their search for personal fulfillment and communality” (p. 25). Second, it pointed out that in “our uniquely pluralistic society … there are so many philosophies and ideologies competing for attention … [that] the pursuit of Judaism increasingly involves a conscious choice … [and] the burden of preparation for such a decision resides with education” (p. 26). And finally, the report states that Jewish education must be so “compelling” that Jews will decide “to remain engaged” and connected to Jewish values and Jewish life (Ibid.).
For Jewish educators, seeing a report of a national commission of Jewish leaders that put such a strong emphasis on support for Jewish education was a surprising turn of events. Long the neglected child of Jewish communal life, education became the darling of funders and communal leaders. Krasner writes, “For Jewish educators, the turn to identity and continuity was fortuitous in that it propelled Jewish education from a marginal concern to a priority on the communal agenda” (p. 93). Funds came into Jewish education in amounts that were unimaginable before. In a talk at JTS in the mid-1990s, Professor Seymour Fox, the intellectual architect of the Mandel Commission, told education students that they were living in the “golden age of Jewish education” in America. At no time before, he said, was there such support for the field of education.
At the same time Jewish educators themselves were mixed about the analysis that led to this new interest from funders. Educators understood that new sources of funding could lead to better professional preparation programs, in-service education, working conditions, and recruitment techniques, but they rarely spoke about delivering on the larger expectations. Would improved Jewish education truly lead to deep Jewish commitment? Everyone knew that the pluralistic American landscape education was only one of many influences on the life choices of the young.
WHERE WE ARE TODAY
So what exactly is the situation we find ourselves in now, in the light of many new initiatives and an increase in philanthropic support for Jewish education? One need only look at the landscape of Jewish education today to see the remarkable changes: developments in academic training programs for Jewish educators in a variety of settings, initiatives in Israel education, Jewish summer camping, and in-service training of day school teachers and leaders, as well as programs for early childhood educators and Jewish community center staff that didn’t exist before 1990. There are direct service programs for young people, such as the Bronfman Youth Fellowship and Birthright Israel.
In today’s world, however, a good deal remains unclear and questions abound. First, do the measures that we have used to correlate time spent in Jewish education with classic markers of Jewish identification such as “marrying in” still apply in contemporary American society? Marrying within the community was seen in the past as a powerful indicator of Jewish identification at a time in which “marrying out” was by and large a statement of rejecting one’s connection to being Jewish. But the emphasis in our community on that one measure may be misunderstanding the way young Jews think about things in our time. Perhaps an antipathy toward tribalism is something that characterizes millennials and that antagonism goes hand in hand with seeing intermarriage as something acceptable. Or, to put this in terms relevant to Jewish education in particular: A child can have a great Jewish education – intensive and creative with wonderful educators leading the programs – and still not see intermarriage as something unacceptable for themselves or for others. Perhaps for this generation intermarriage does not necessarily mean a loss of Jewish connection, and if this is true, how will we find ways to nurture those connections in these unfolding versions of “Jewish families”?
Finally, an even deeper question is relevant. Jewish education, like all education, is essentially in the knowledge and skills business. That is, we are committed to transmitting a body of knowledge and related skills – broadly defined – to our students. That knowledge may be at the level of a set of facts (Who was Moses Maimonides? When did the Second Temple fall?), or it may be more abstract, exploring the great ideas of Judaism (What is meant by “covenant”? What does it mean to be created “in God’s image”?), or it may be focused on the very practical level of specific skills (reading Hebrew, leading birkat hamazon, engaging in tzedakah). But the relationship between learning and feeling or doing is complicated and unpredictable. Learning how to lead birkat hamazon does not guarantee that I will want say birkat hamazon after I eat. Gaining a good deal of Jewish knowledge does not mean that I will become an engaged Jew. And even experiential education, with its focus on lived experiences, does not guarantee that the students will want to change the way they lead their lives.
SO WHAT SHOULD OUR OUTCOMES BE?
First, Jewish learning is an end in itself. Our tradition values education as one of the most essential aspects of being a Jew. About that there is no question, no matter what its impact may be on later Jewish identity. Second, giving young people the best possible Jewish education increases the likelihood that being Jewish will speak to them in their personal lives. It can become a source of values and ideas, some of which will run counter to the weaknesses of the culture in which we live. We want to cultivate those dispositions in the people that we educate, and we believe as educators that Judaism as a religion and Jewish culture in its broadest sense offers a tradition of wisdom and practice that can make a difference in an individual’s life and in bettering the state of the world.
In order to maintain the continuity of the Jewish people, the only intervention over which we have any control as a community is that of education. We can’t legislate who will marry whom. We can’t dictate where people will live and who their friends will be. But we can work toward the goal that education will have an impact on the lives of learners.
THE ROLE OF PHILANTHROPY
Finally, we can wonder about the evolution of Jewish philanthropy in the years ahead. Will Jewish education remain high on the list of philanthropic concerns if it can’t be seen as moving the needle on intermarriage? Will Jewish foundations and local federations still invest in education? Indeed, will community federations – now more than a century old – continue to play a central role in collecting and allocating Jewish charitable dollars? If so, which institutions and programs will be favored with support? We do know that Jewish education will have a role to play in defining the future, even if that future ends up looking very different from the world we live in today. How great a role it will play may depend on what counts as an important outcome to foundations and community funders and their willingness to envision a vital role for Jewish education.
Dr. Barry W. Holtz is the Theodore and Florence Baumritter Professor of Jewish Education at The Jewish Theological Seminary. From 2008 to 2013 he served as dean of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS. He leads courses in teaching classical texts, professional development for teachers, philosophy of Jewish education, and current issues confronting Jewish education.
This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. The following are responses to Dr. Holtz’s viewpoint:
“Purposeful and Powerful Outcomes-Driven Jewish Education“
Dr. Susan Kardos
“Judaism . . . A Deeply Nourishing Source of Human Flourishing“
Dr. Chip Edelsberg
“Learners Matter Most: The Rest Is Commentary“
Dr. David Bryfman