How to Rebalance the Jewish Ecosystem

By Rachel Raz

In 2018, my daughter helped lead two Birthright trips from the USA to Israel. When she returned from the first one, on our way back from the airport I asked her if anything surprised her in this experience. She thought for a minute and said that when they explained to the group their plans for Shabbat, one of the participants asked, “What is Shabbat?” The question surprised her, and it made her realize that some of the participants had never experienced Shabbat in their lives or had never even heard of it. Of course, this realization led her to ask herself what other things about being Jewish they might not be familiar with.

This and other encounters led to conversations during their 10-day journey about the participants’ upbringing and Jewish experiences. On this particular trip, the majority of participants came from interfaith families. Some had no Jewish experiences and weak to no Jewish identity; some families had chosen to avoid any religious traditions to make their marriage work for them. Participants from those families avoiding religious practice felt that they were missing out on something, and that they were missing some roots and connections. Others raised in interfaith families had parents who had chosen to raise them to be Jewish, but very often they felt that their extended family did not like this approach, and even saw it as a betrayal of their own upbringing and traditions. For many of the participants on this Birthright trip, this was the first time they felt that they had met people like themselves, peers who felt the same way they do: confused and conflicted, without a sense of belonging. Through this shared Birthright experience, for the first time in their lives, they felt that they belonged to a group!

I then asked my daughter if she experienced any powerful moments, and she immediately said, “Yes.” In the southern part of Israel, they stayed overnight at a Bedouin tent. To their surprise, three other Birthright groups were in the tent, coming from Belarus, Ukraine and Argentina. There was a magical feeling at that moment; they all felt that they were part of something bigger – part of a large family, part of a people. Again, this is something that many had never experienced before.

There is no doubt that Birthright is a very successful program. Since it started in 1999, it has impacted over 650,000 young adults from 67 countries. In Hebrew the program is called, Taglit, which means, “discovery.” The participants surely discover many things about themselves, their roots, Jewish people and traditions.

The big question that came to my mind, however, was: why is it that only at the age of 18, 22 or 26, did these participants have their first experience of Shabbat, Israel, a sense of belonging to a family, and the Jewish people? What happened up until then? Why did they not experience it at the age of 3,5, or 10? How did we get to the point that a program like Birthright is so needed? And what will happen after the 10-day experience? Who will help them continue their Jewish journey?

Something is off balance in the Jewish ecosystem if we need to invest so much in a program like Birthright Israel. For over two decades, I have been interacting with and observing the American Jewish ecosystem. By American Jewish ecosystem, I mean all of the formal and informal organizations and programs that we as American Jews interact with and participate in, such as all affiliations of synagogues, federations and foundations, day schools, supplementary/complementary schools, Jewish camps, early childhood centers, JCCs, Hillels, the Israeli American Council, and all of the creative programs and initiatives like PJ Library, Limmud, Kveler, Bim-Bam and My Jewish Learning.

Currently, there are several weak parts of the Jewish ecosystem that need improvement, and here are some of them:

  1. Programs to engage and connect young children and their families: In many cases, this is the entry point to the Jewish community and Jewish choices. There is some work around the country, but not enough. This population has been neglected for too long and needs immediate attention.
  2. Supplementary/complementary/Hebrew/religious/Israeli schools: We need to update the approaches and curricula to make it more meaningful and applicable to this era. Many still use the same methods, goals and mindset from several decades ago, that are no longer relevant to the contemporary community.
  3. Dayschools, preschools and other daily intensive programs: These programs can ensure that some of the Jewish population will have deeper Jewish knowledge and experiences.
  4. Programs to engage and connect young adults: We need to maintain our connection to our young adults throughout their college and university years and then afterwards as well. The time after our youth graduate from college and disengage with Hillel centers is a time when their connection to an organized Jewish community is the most fragile and tenuous. We need to create more opportunities for young adults to connect with one another after their college years, since these can also be crucial years to find partners.
  5. Collaboration within the ecosystem: There are many opportunities to leverage resources by forming collaborations between organizations. These collaborations can also enrich Jewish experiences and have a lasting impact. Some potential collaborative partners are:a. the Jewish American community, and the Israeli American community (with help of IAC, Israeli American Council)
    b. the Jewish American community, and organizations in Israel such as the Ministry of Education – to translate and make relevant curriculum available
    c. young adults who finish Birthright, with the Jewish American community, through work with preschools, supplementary schools and summer camps.

There are several other weak components of the ecosystem, but one thing they all have in common is that in many cases, we do not have enough of the right people on the ground to do the work. We have a severe shortage of educators and professionals who can teach, engage, inspire and influence this generation and our contemporary Jewish population. We do not have the right workforce and we need to invest more in building up a highly qualitied workforce to run our American Jewish ecosystem.

In his book, “A Passion for a People,” (2017) Avraham Infeld beautifully describes how to connect with this generation and form strong connections between them and the Jewish people, Jewish traditions, and the Land and State of Israel. He also shared a list of people who have influenced him over his life and helped him develop into the person and leader he has become. We are blessed that Avraham, like many leaders in the Jewish world, had good role models and educators over the years, but we do not have enough of those educators today in all programs. Some organizations, such as Hillel International, iCenter, colleges and seminaries, federations, foundations, and large and small communities, are trying to do more, but it is not enough. We need investment on a larger scale, and we need to elevate the profession of education into a prestigious one with corresponding salaries and benefits. The workforce of today is very weak in both quality and quantity. We need thousands of highly qualified knowledgeable, inspiring educators who can support the Jewish ecosystem.

Birthright is doing great work, but we should not expect in 10 days for Birthright to do all the work that is required to connect young adults to the Jewish people, Jewish tradition and the State of Israel, and then to also dive deeply into the details of the Israeli-Palestinians conflict. It cannot all be done in 10 days! Let us work together to ensure a healthier and stronger Jewish ecosystem that can work holistically and steadily to establish stronger Jewish identity and education for all members of our community, at every stage of our lives.

Rachel Raz, Director of the Early Childhood Institute of the Shoolman Graduate School of Jewish Education of Hebrew College (rraz@hebrewcollege.edu). She is a consultant and has extensive experience in education with all age groups and many organizations. In 2016, at Hebrew College, she hosted the first national symposium of the “Jewish Early Engagement Forum,” JEEF, the symposium designed to map the field, and share challenges and opportunities with all organizations, to inform and lead to strategic investment in the field and beyond. https://jeefnews.blogspot.com