No Excuses – Time for Action

To foster Jewish commitment and patterns of Jewish living we need to raise competent, inspired and literate Jews; not Jews who simply identify as Jewish with little or no understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people.

by Steve Freedman

The New York Times summed up the recent Pew survey: Portrait of Jewish Americans like this, “[Among Jewish Americans, there has been] a significant rise in those who are not religious, marry outside the faith and are not raising their children Jewish.”

Not surprisingly, the study prompted many despairing articles, and the blogosphere lit up with opinions about the Jewish future and all that has gone wrong. The only thing that surprises me is why people were so surprised.

As far back as the 1960s and 1970s research was emerging indicating the relationship between Jewish education and Jewish identity. In the 1970s researchers like S.M. Cohen, Howard Shapiro and Arnold Dashefsky conducted studies that connected Jewish education to identity. In his 1975 research, sociologist Milton Himmelfarb concluded that a minimum of 3,000 hours of Jewish education (religious instruction) are needed before it has a positive impact. Himmelfarb concluded back in 1975 that for 80% of Jewish children, their Jewish education had been a waste of time. In 1981, researchers Sigal, August and Beltempo were already establishing that full-time Jewish education through adolescence had a positive impact on Jewish identity.

The 2000 National Jewish Population Study and other later studies reported that day school graduates were more likely to be involved in all things Jewish and that the intermarriage rate was lowest among day school graduates. This study and others in the past two decades also report the positive impact of day school education in combination with Jewish summer camp and informal Jewish experiences, such as USY or BBYO. Synagogue/temple religious school education, in isolation, has not been as effective.

It is evident that over the past two decades many of our synagogues and temples lost their way. In spite of the need for meaningful, effective educational experiences for our children, synagogues and temples have reduced the number of hours for their programs; further, USY and other youth programs have been considerably weakened across the US, while millions of dollars continue to be poured into failed programs.

To foster Jewish commitment and patterns of Jewish living we need to raise competent, inspired and literate Jews; not Jews who simply identify as Jewish with little or no understanding of what it means to be part of the Jewish people. As Mark Kramer, the executive director of RAVSAK, recently stated, “It takes a great deal of fuel to power Jewish literacy, especially when Jewish literacy and Hebrew literacy are intertwined (as I believe it must be). The engines of Jewish literacy – engines that drive Jewish citizenship, peoplehood, spiritual meaning, ethical living and intellectualism – … [cannot be fueled] from Sunday school and summer camp (only).”

As such, day schools truly need to become a top priority for the Jewish community. That means adequate funding to make them more affordable and to train teachers to provide the necessary and effectual education for this century. Equally important is funding for Jewish camps and for meaningful informal Jewish experiences. Our rabbis and community leaders need to step up and lead the charge to promote serious formal and informal learning experiences that engage and challenge. Too many of our rabbis give tepid support at best, and sadly, many of our community leaders fail to see the value and critical importance of a day school education for their own children. If we keep doing the same things and our leaders keep making the same decisions, why would we expect different results?

Our full energy and commitment must be focused on these three areas; day schools, summer camps, and rich informal Jewish experiences. As a realist, I recognize that the majority of Jewish children will not attend day schools any time soon; as an optimist, I can always have that as a goal. Until that day, we need to admit that “the Emperor has no clothes”, that supplementary religious education in its current, diluted state, does not work to produce committed, involved Jews; we need to change this.

It is time for synagogues and temples to increase the hours of supplementary religious school education, to create meaningful and purposeful curriculum and to train teachers to be effective so that the increased hours are impactful. Equally important we must bring back and strengthen opportunities for informal education in the synagogues and temples. And if the synagogues and temples will not do it, the day schools should step up and create meaningful supplementary programs, both formal and informal, for those children not in the day schools.

We like to tell ourselves that Judaism is just another consumer product, but really it isn’t. And the fact that most Jews today view Judaism as a choice makes it that much more important that we remind ourselves, our leaders and our families why it matters to be an active and committed member of the Jewish people and why it is worth the time and effort.

It will take courage and effort for our rabbis and community leaders to step up and actually make this happen – to go against the conventional wisdom and the majority culture. As Jews, we are counter-cultural, and we should embrace and celebrate it.

We can keep lamenting the trends and the causes for another forty years, or we can come together as leaders, focus our resources, and build a generation of literate, committed and active Jews who live comfortably and meaningfully in both worlds: our larger secular world and our rich Jewish world.

Steve Freedman is Head of School at Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit.