Jewish Literacy, part 2

Mark Schellhase via Wikimedia Commons

By Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene
Part 2

Part 1 can be found here.

It is very difficult to deal with a plague. A plague affects everyone and cannot be eradicated unless every part of the affected population takes corrective measures once the source of the disease is identified. The plague of Jewish illiteracy affects all Jews. It may not bother the non-observant Jewish community as much now, but eventually it will be felt there when assimilation and intermarriage take their toll.

We are fortunate to live in a country where we can practice authentic Judaism, build our institutions and schools and for the most part be free from discrimination. It is no longer unusual to see kippot wearers in every professional field and Mincha minyanim in offices abound. Even the late, lamented Senator John McCain knew about Shabbat elevators and kashrut. We are indeed blessed in a way our forebears could not imagine.

However this exercise of religious freedom comes with a price tag. The freedom to observe Judaism in America comes with the freedom to opt out as well. For all of the positive aspects of living in America, there is very little in contemporary American culture that promotes or supports traditional Jewish values. Freedom covers many activities. Most are positive. Others not so – from a traditional Jewish perspective. Most behaviors always existed, but now they are in your face everywhere you turn – newspapers, movies, television, billboards, computer screens, telephone apps, videos, etc. Once an image is seen or a comment heard it cannot be easily undone. We are bombarded by vulgarity. The ubiquitous obscenity in language, clothing, sex, dance, (what passes for) music, misogyny, racial slurs, entertainment, advertising, etc. that confronts us daily is a by-product of freedom. I am not advocating a New Square approach but an approach that prioritizes a Torah perspective, primarily in how we spend our non-working time.

I suggest a three pronged approach to support Jewish literacy: personal, communal and institutional. Those who are fortunate enough to have had 12 years of intensive Jewish education, and perhaps even some time post high school studying in Israel, have the tools to continue their learning in many settings. All that is necessary is to make the choice, among all the choices available, to study Torah. More important than what this time commitment can accomplish is the impact it will have on one’s children to see their parents engaged in Torah study, even for a few hours a week. The notion that time is set aside for this pursuit is a most powerful lesson. Beyond that, invite a neighbor to a Shabbat meal. You cannot imagine how many lives have been changed at the Shabbat table.

There are many Jewish communal institutions dedicated to outreach. They are doing great work, each in their own way. JSU, NCSY, JLI, BCHSJS, Melton, Aish, NJOP, JEP, Partners in Torah, Moishe House, Oorah and many other groups bring together non-affiliated Jews and expose them to the riches of our tradition. Their work ought to be supported. In Israel, there is the phenomenon of the open kollel in which Talmud is studied by people from all walks of life. There too, organizations such as Gesher, Hartman’s and even the Ministry of Education (depending on the party in power) sometimes try to bridge the gap between being a secular Israeli and a Jew. We need more efforts here by the UJA and the JCCs to encourage serious study instead of superficial lectures. Studying actual Jewish sources instead of talking about these materials may be more challenging but will also be more rewarding. We’re not talking about religious observance being promoted by these organizations. If the goal is to promote the continuity of the Jewish community, then promoting Jewish literacy falls within that definition, more so perhaps than Jewish basketball or the shvitz.

Traditionally our synagogues offer classes mainly for their membership. That needs to change. When there was a large influx of Jews to our community from the FSU, Rabbi Benjamin Yudin, of Congregation Shomrei Torah in Fair Lawn, offered classes, special beginners’ services, Passover sedarim, etc. Now, years later, many of those families still attend classes and have joined the synagogue as members. Schools, as well, ought to reach out into the community. Inspirational teachers and rabbis should be shared. There are large numbers of unaffiliated Jews, Israelis and Russians that we still have not been able to reach. In the same way that we have an obligation to return a lost object, so too is there an obligation to return the Torah to those who may have lost it or been lost from it. Rabbinic organizations should not only be concerned with kashrut and cemeteries. They too, as a group, can sponsor learning programs outside their zone of comfort.

A number of years ago, I was part of a group of educators trying to develop a masoret curriculum for the mamlachti (i.e. public) schools in Israel. The goal was to put together a source book to be team taught by a secular and a religious teacher. As part of our research, we visited schools and met with students and teachers. In one junior high school students were asked “What makes you Jewish?” The answers were: We live in Israel; We serve in the IDF; We eat falafel; We speak Hebrew. Thus began a discussion about the difference between being an Israeli and being Jewish. What answers would the typical non-affiliated Jew give?

For a number of years, I was able to arrange for students at the Nehar Deah hesder yeshiva in Nahariya to come in once a week to several mamlachti schools to teach the parsha. It became the most popular event of the week. So too did we meet with success when we offered a Melton class to faculty and parents. If presented properly it will be like “milk and honey under the tongue” (Shir HaShirim 4:11).

Let this be our New Year’s resolution. We owe it to our future.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the Director of Jewish Educational Services for Northern New Jersey, principal of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, and founded the Sinai Schools.