By Nathan J. Vaughan
To signers of the recent e-Jewish Philanthropy article “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action,”
Thank you for your years of service to the American Jewish community. I have been privileged to call many of you my teachers and colleagues. I’ve read your books, your articles, your academic papers, even watched your ELI talks. The plan you propose is thoughtful, with measurable outcomes based on past research. It provides a future direction for the American Jewish community. But I’m upset with the assumptions you make about who should be included in this future, and how you call our community to action in realizing this future. Plans are made stronger by including a range of voices. I’m a not-yet-30 Jewish professional, and I’d like to think that I am a part of your “Jewish Middle.”
You’re right, Jewish education is expensive. According to JData, in 2013-2014 the average tuition for 4 weeks at overnight camp was about $4,000. For someone earning $75,000 a year, that’s about 20 days’ worth of work – before taxes. Hebrew school is more affordable (5 days’ worth of work based on an $860 North American average in 2013-2014), but research shows part-time school is more effective when combined with overnight camp. Yes, more than half of overnight campers paid reduced tuition in 2013-2014, but the average financial aid award was about $1,100. So our friend earning $75,000 a year still needs to budget two weeks’ salary (before taxes!) to send one child to overnight camp. For families with two or more children, overnight Jewish summer camp may simply be inaccessible. How many of these families already fall into categories (like interfaith, interracial, single-parent, so-called ‘non-traditional’ families) that already place them on the fringes of Jewish community? Does making Jewish education cheaper, by itself, do enough to draw these families deeper into our community?
I was raised in an interfaith household. My non-Jewish father regularly drove our family to synagogue for Hebrew school, youth group events, and Shabbat services. He is as much a part of my Jewish community as my Jewish mother and my Jewish brother, but he does not and never has had any interest in converting to Judaism. As an adult I realize the lengths my parents went to searching for a community where my father felt comfortable and even accepted in his non-Jewish status. Pressuring non-Jewish partners to convert may only alienate Jewish families like mine from the community. We lose the added richness these families can provide to our community, we lose their unique perspective on what Judaism is and what Judaism can be. If this is truly a moment of existential crisis for the American Jewish community, can we afford to alienate these Jewish families?
My generation’s non-marriage and late-marriage rates should not alarm the Jewish community. Women are marrying later, and so are men. Men are having babies later in life, and so are women. Men are starting families with men, and yes, women are starting families with women. You’re right, the non-Orthodox birthrate is below the replacement rate, but let’s not lay that at the feet of non-Orthodox Jewish women, as if it were a burden they alone should pick up and bear. I don’t know when I’m going to get married, or when I’m going to have children. I don’t need a community that pressures me to make these sacred commitments or a community that pressures my female partner, as if birthing Jewish babies were her responsibility alone.
In a world of endlessly free choice and free expression, dictating what Judaism is and should be will only drive millennials further away and hasten the demise of American Jewish life. Millennials are just now settling down, and yes, we’ve taken longer to do that. We’re making choices about where to live, what our families will look like, and where Judaism fits into our lives. We should encourage people to find their place in the American Jewish community. Now is the time to include as many people as possible in an ever-widening Jewish circle.
Nathan J. Vaughan is a Jewish educator and social scientist from small-town southern Kentucky. Nathan currently resides in Boston, MA where he researches Jewish education in North America. He is an advocate for greater inclusion in the American Jewish community and increased appreciation of small-town American Jewish life. Nathan is currently Principal at Navon Consulting, where he assists Jewish non-profits in collecting and analyzing data that can drive their strategic planning processes. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter, @Granola613.