by Ira J. Wise, R.J.E.
Taking A Year Off
This past fall many Jewish educators encountered a newish phenomenon. Some families in our religious schools were “taking a year off” from Religious School and in some cases synagogue membership. If these were families whose youngest child recently became Bar or Bat Mitzvah, we might wring our hands and say “Ri-i-i-ight. Taking the year off. We’ll look for you next fall.”
But most of these families in my synagogue and in those of colleagues who have told me they have encountered the same conversations have children who are much younger. They tend to be in Gan (K) through Kitah Gimel (3rd). In fact, our enrollment from Kitah Chet (8th) through Kitah Yud Bet (12th) is at an all time high. If pushed, some parents will say it is a temporary economic decision. They indicated the economic realities of the fall of 2010 and a belief that their child’s Jewish identity will not be irreparably damaged by a break in their studies. And they absolutely did not want to discuss financial aid – either they were too uncomfortable with the topic or they didn’t feel things were that bad. They promised to come back. And in some of the conversations I am beginning to have with these hiatus families, they are telling me that they are absolutely coming back. From their mouths …
Linchpin: Are You Indispensible?
I am nearly finished with a book call Linchpin by Seth Godin.I am a Godin Junkie. I first met Seth’s work in the pages of Fast Company, another of my addictions. Both are from the world of business, not Jewish education. Both have taught me so many things about how to make Jewish education happen. I cannot recommend them enough. I could write ten articles about this book, beginning with how it was marketed. I am reading it with a small moleskine notebook next to me so I can take notes. Yes, it is that engaging.
At the heart of the book is a redefining of the American Dream: “Be remarkable. Be generous. Create Art. Make Judgment Calls. Connect people and ideas. And we will have no choice but to reward you.” He challenges the reader, regardless of your field, to be an artist, which he defines as “someone who changes everything, who makes dreams come true … someone who can see the reality of today and describe a better tomorrow … a linchpin.”
A linchpin. The pshat or plain meaning is the piece of metal that slides through the axle that keeps the wheel from falling off the wagon, or through the arm and the hitch to keep the trailer attached. It is a simple device yet it keeps things together and makes their proper function possible. Godin suggests that in our work, each of us needs to be a linchpin, someone who is indispensible to their company. Not a line-worker or a rule-follower, but an artist – someone who stretches possibilities to allow growth and change. He gives great examples.
Al Tifrosh Min Hatzibur – Do Not Separate Yourself From the Community
So why am I bringing this up while talking about the interrupted life of our students? I believe we need to do a better job of making the school and the synagogue (and the Jewish educator) linchpins in the lives of our families. I think that twenty years ago, no one would have considered “taking a year off.” That generation might have considered the financial ramifications when joining a synagogue. Once in, though, I am convinced that like their predecessors, they would not consider leaving – at least not before the youngest child’s Bar/Bat Mitzvah. I think that we have witnessed evidence of a paradigm shift in the mind of some of our parents. And because the synagogue is no longer a linchpin for some, they are making choices we have not seen before.
Much has been written about what needs to happen to make the synagogue and formal Jewish education more relevant. And some of it may be right on target. But before we go exploding all of our existing institutions, I have a thought. We need to be linchpins. By “we” I mean the synagogue, the school, the clergy, the directors of education/lifelong learning/early childhood/family education/programming/fill-in-the-blank, the teachers and the lay leadership.
In 1989 United Airlines ran a television commercial showing a conference room. “A manager announces they have just lost a major long-time client, one too many. It’s time for a “face-to-face” policy, in other words, not just call the customer, but also meet him. He starts handing out plane tickets to the other employees …”.
They had the idea exactly right. We need to focus our energy on each adult, one family at a time. It’s not an easy task, given the size of some of our congregations. It is not a one-person job. I intend to become an evangelist, recruiting those who already feel that being a part of a congregation – learning, praying and coming together for ma’asim tovim (good works) and for fun – is not something to be weighed against other household expenses and youth activities. We need to get them join us in reaching out, one family at a time, and helping those families come to the same conclusion. We have to lose the model whereby the educator focuses on the children and that leads to families becoming more connected.
Put Your Own Mask On First …
Finally, I want to share the teaching of Harlene Winnick Appelman, the director of The Covenant Foundation. Harlene was one of the first winners of the Covenant Award, and was one of the first people to take the idea of family education and develop it into something more comprehensive than a special program on a Sunday morning. Her sessions at CAJE conferences were a must-attend for those who wanted to be on the cutting edge.
She reminded us of the safety speech that flight attendants used to give before takeoff (now it is usually on a video). They would say that in case of a sudden loss of cabin pressure, oxygen masks would drop from the ceiling. After instructing us how to put it on and start the flow of oxygen, they would tell us that passengers traveling with young children should put their own mask on first and then help their children. Harlene taught us what should have been (and should still be) obvious: If you put the child’s mask on first, we might not be able to breathe well enough to take care of ourselves. And what if our children need us after getting the mask on?
We need to get the parents to put on their Jewish learning and living masks. Otherwise we will have a generation of adults with the Jewish identity and connection of at best a thirteen year old. We need to get them to understand that they need to belong to a synagogue and send their children to religious school (or day school) because that is something that is vitally important to them. And we can only do that through personal relationships. We need to be artists.
Ira J. Wise, R.J.E. is director of education at Congregation B’nai Israel in Bridgeport, CT.
This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.