It’s Time for Truly Disruptive Jewish Education

By Jack Wertheimer

Observers of American Jewish life are divided about many issues, but there seems to be a solid consensus that Jewish religious life today differs radically from the past. On the one hand, rising numbers of Jews, like many of their Christian neighbors, eschew any religious identification, counting themselves among the “Nones.” Larger proportions of non-Orthodox Jews attend synagogue services only infrequently, if at all, a development that is all the more consequential because for many Jews, Judaism is largely absent from their homes. Ours, moreover, is an age of do-It-yourself religion, one in which individuals personalize their practices, often with no connection to any Jewish community, to the point where some celebrate major holiday landmarks such as Yom Kippur or the Passover seder on a date that fits their busy schedules, rather than in accordance with the dictates of the Jewish calendar and when Jews around the world mark those days.

On the other hand, declining or idiosyncratic religious participation in some quarters is partially offset by thriving pockets of Jewish religious renewal. Many synagogues of all denominations have rethought the music and choreography of religious services, offering attendees a more spirited prayer experience and more opportunities for active participation during tefillah. An explosion in the number of programs by Orthodox outreach professionals is drawing Jews of all ages into Jewish religious settings, even if only a small minority become fully observant. And a broad range of new minyanim, start-up religious programs, and “engagement” initiatives have sprung up to draw in younger Jews.

The assumption undergirding many of these efforts is a shared perception that the cause for religious decline is traceable to the failure of existing institutions to offer stimulating religious experiences. The remedy, many argue, is to package Judaism differently. Put in the crude terminology of the marketplace, synagogues, Jewish religious schools, and other Jewish settings are offering a product or experience that is “out of touch” with the actual lives of ordinary Jews. The solution, therefore, is to curate in accordance with the wants of consumers: if you build an enjoyable program, they will come.

This consumer orientation to Judaism can pose serious challenges to Jewish educators. To be sure, there is nothing wrong, per se, with packaging educational programs more enticingly or attending to the varied styles of learners or evincing sensitivity for the social and emotional dimensions of student’s lives. On the contrary, attunement to learners has brought many benefits to students and educators alike.

But it is problematic when the primary focus is on process, the “how” of Jewish education, sidestepping the “why” and “what” questions. What does it mean to be an educated Jew in 21st-century America? What should the content of a Jewish education be? And why is the chosen content important in shaping the next generation of Jews? To return to the language of the marketplace, it’s not enough to consider how an educational program will prove enticing to learners without also asking what today’s learners need to master in order to become active participants in Jewish life.

No doubt Jews of different outlooks will answer these questions in varied ways. My view begins with the conviction that Jewish education must state explicitly that to be Jewish is countercultural. Conveying this truth is necessary on pragmatic grounds: if being Jewish is simply a pale imitation of the prevailing culture, learners will rightfully wonder why they ought to bother with the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, so much of Jewish education today stresses how consonant the Jewish tradition is with everything that students already hold dear, and then tags on that Judaism promoted the proper values first – not a particularly compelling reason to live as a Jew.

On a deeper level, if we remove our blinders it is obvious that Jewish commitments are hardly in sync with the prevailing culture. To cite but a few examples, Jewish literacy is not the same as what passes for American cultural literacy. The Jewish New Year ushers in a period unlike New Year commemorations of other cultures. Jewish religious education is not about DIY religion, but a system of externally imposed commandments. Prayer is not a fun exercise but a discipline. Indeed, organized religion itself is held in contempt by the “woke.” And a commitment to the Jewish people and to Israel is no longer a feel-good enterprise, but one that is increasingly contested as “tribal,” if not worse. A Jewish education that avoids confronting the tensions between Jewish commitments and the outlook of the wider culture therefore will fail to prepare learners for the dissonance they will encounter.

If we focus the conversation around what Jews need in order to become active participants in Jewish religious and communal life, rather than what they may think they want, we will inevitably spark conversations about expectations and what kinds of literacy an active Jew requires. Our liturgy and formative texts of Jewish life are in Hebrew and these texts emerged in an environment entirely different from contemporary America. To make sense of such an alien religious culture requires knowledge. For this reason, recent trends in religious education that focus on positive experiences and/or social action activities dare not downgrade the acquisition of language and conceptual skills necessary to live as a Jew. There are, of course, more and less stimulating ways of teaching, and it is important to engage students in active learning. Yet if Jews are to live a religious life (however broadly defined), they will need to be knowledgeable about their religious tradition.

This means that a sufficient Jewish education cannot be acquired in a few hours a week over three years prior to a bar/bat mitzvah. Jewish learning is a lifelong enterprise, starting in early childhood and continuing over the course of adolescence and beyond. The time invested in Jewish activities also matters. If “doing Jewish” is limited to a few occasional acts, it won’t get much traction and it also will be very difficult to transmit to the next generation. Frequency of participation in Jewish life matters, as does the “thickness” of Jewish culture experienced in the home and settings of worship and communal gathering.

For these reasons, Jewish education can succeed only if individuals and families practice Judaism meaningfully in the home and support what educational programs aim to attain. Except in unusual cases, schools, camps, and other settings alone cannot make up for the absence of Jewish life in the home. Winning over parents as allies and positive role models in the education of their children is an indispensable responsibility of educators.

Beyond the home, Jewish communal institutions reinforce identification with other Jews across the generations (synchronically) and in their current habitations around the globe (diachronically). A connection to generations past serves to anchor Jews in an ongoing historical trajectory they know will also continue after them; linking oneself to this chain of tradition provides a form of transcendence. And identification with Jewish people in other communities adds both to the cultural richness and diversity of Jewish civilization, and also inspires Jews to embrace a mission to aid kinfolk. Achieving a healthy balance between concern for universal causes and a commitment to Jewish particularistic ones is one of the great challenges confronting Jewish education in our time. For much of the past century, Jewish educators have understood the power of Jewish peoplehood to ground young people. They would do well to reject the voices falsely claiming that doing so is “tribal.”

The orientation outlined here applies equally to Jewish funders as it does to educators. Philanthropists who focus on the next generation of Jewish life must not solely ask the question, “What do consumers – students and parents – want?” Or, “How can our educational program create a fun atmosphere that will bring people back for more?” The task of funders and educators, indeed of all Jewish leaders, is to ask what the coming generation of Jews needs to experience and learn – what skills, sets of knowledge, and competencies – in order to internalize that Judaism is meaningful, and thus become active participants in Jewish life. In an age yearning for innovation, what could be more disruptive?

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at JTS. His most recent book The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today was awarded a National Jewish Book award.

This article was originally published in Gleanings, the ejournal of the Leadership Commons of The William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of JTS; reprinted with permission.