From Scalability to Depth: Back to the Sources

By Yaffa Epstein and Leon Morris

This week, Jewish foundations and philanthropists convened in San Francisco for the annual conference of the Jewish Funders Network. These thoughtful leaders play increasingly important roles in determining the priorities of American Jewish life by virtue of deciding where philanthropic dollars are invested. In our shrinking Jewish community with limited resources, decisions about grant-making are analyzed carefully, and metrics are often one of the key considerations. A concern with a return on investment is certainly warranted and wise. However, there is a danger in relying solely on quantifiable metrics. Decisions based largely on a broad market and on a project’s scalability make sense in many areas, yet we run the risk of utilizing those criteria to the diminishment of depth and content in Jewish life.

With so many Jews completely disengaged or alienated from Jewish life, the desire to bring thousands closer to Jewish involvement is righteous and responsive. With this, the kind of Jewish experiences that are believed to be an effective form of outreach to those on the periphery of Jewish life, run the risk of not being the sorts of experiences that will take that newly kindled interest further. From a first encounter with Jewish life and texts, we need to be sure that we can offer programs that provide deep engagement and continued commitment.

There are currently many wonderful short term immersion offerings in the Jewish community, which can be important and meaningful experiences. Yet, with the limited time and resources they can’t take participants far enough. Short-term immersion into Jewish learning can “teach about,” but absent of a “deep-dive” into the experience of a Beit Midrash, proficiency and literacy will not be possible. If all of our Jewish educational investments were made solely to projects and experiences that could affect the greatest number of participants, there would be no acquisition of the basic skills of how to read a text, of learning the language of Jewish life (metaphorically as well as literally), of coming to appreciate the a particular Jewish lens on the world, of experiencing first-hand the roots of constructive disagreement in Jewish culture.

Numbers are vital to the sustainability of Jewish life. But that breadth cannot come at the cost of depth. In our desire to reach far greater numbers of young Jews, are we watering down Jewish education? Are we afraid of highlighting how very much there is to learn? How can and should we be equipping young Jews with deep, immersive and empowering Jewish experiences that are content rich? How can we allow them to create a Jewish life that is authentic to their own values, and yet rich enough so they do not feel like impostors in their own Jewish stories?

Hayim Nahman Bialik used the metaphor of flowers and fruit in his seminal essay of 1917, “Halakha and Aggada.” He accused his generation of a desire to pluck all the beautiful flowers of Jewish life but not to care for the fruit. He warned: “In the end, not even flowers will reward him; for without fruit there is no seed, and if there is no seed, where is the flower to come from?”

Our desire to reach large numbers of Jews belies an urgent need to address the crisis of a lack of deep Jewish knowledge. While we encourage innovation, experimentation, and peer engagement, we are not providing young people with the tools to allow for that creativity to authentically emerge from Jewish sources. We are not sufficiently anchoring Jewish wisdom and Jewish values in the texts that give them depth and allow them to be applied broadly and thoughtfully. A Jewish life that is transformative and a source of meaning must be grounded in Torah – however interpreted and applied. That has always been what has sustained the Jewish people and is the key to our vibrant future.

We have seen over and over again that rigorous and relevant learning empowers and invites people in to the Jewish conversation. It motivates them and helps them feel like insiders. When people feel that they are truly part of the community, they invest their time, their energy and their resources.

Immersive and intensive may always attract far more limited numbers. But those few can deepen the conversation and enrich Jewish life for all of us. When we invest in a relatively small numbers of future Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, and allow them to develop expertise in reading the classic texts of Jewish life, their impact will redefine the very notion of scalability – because it will promulgate meaning, depth and creativity for the entire Jewish community.

Rabba Yaffa Epstein is Director of Education, North America, and Rabbi Leon A. Morris is President of the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies.