Quality versus Quantity: Rethinking Jewish Engagement
By Rabbi Jonathan Leener
When I was in high school I continually found myself in debate with my English teachers. “Why does my paper need to be five pages if I can write it in three?” I would argue. I remember feeling so frustrated and unable to comprehend why my teachers valued the quantity of pages over the quality of my work. Strangely enough, I still find myself wrestling with the tension of quality and quantity as a young rabbi charged with engaging millennial Jews as many judge success solely on attendance as compared to how many people actually had a meaningful or impactful experience.
Besides needing a paradigm shift in how we measure “success” it raises bigger questions in how we perceive the work of Jewish engagement. If we see Judaism as a product and participants as consumers than bigger is absolutely better, but if we imagine Judaism as a lifestyle and participants as unique individuals than smaller is certainly better. If Jewish institutions want to begin seeing a reversal in trends of disengagement among young Jews we must begin to believe that less is often more and bigger is not necessarily better.
Within the world of education, smaller class sizes inevitably leads to deeper and more impactful learning, as students receive more individual attention from their teachers, build lasting relationships with their fellow classmates, and benefit from teachers customizing lessons around the needs and wants of students. Can you imagine if we applied this educational model across other Jewish mediums?
Just as an example, according to Ron Wolfson in “Relational Judaism: Using the Power of Relationships to Transform the Jewish Community,” rabbis only met one-one-one with about 10-15 percent of congregants in a year. Listening to a sermon is important but having the space to ask challenging questions, explore personal religious issue, or a listening ear to share disappointing news is even more valuable.
So why are we not applying this model across other Jewish mediums? I must admit that I too am tempted by the “numbers game,” having a crowd gives a feeling of validation and pride. Recently I was lured in and hosted a Shabbat dinner twice the size of our average Shabbat dinners. The results? Underwhelming. Yes, more seats were filled but something intangible was lost in the process as I reduced Shabbat to an event. We need to get back to the basics, creating meaningful relationships and facilitating impactful experiences and less in the event planning business. Relegating Jewish engagement to happy hours and oversized meals will only perpetuate a consumer mentality in how they relate to Jewish life.
The sages also struggled with the proper balance between quality and quantity. Yossei the son of Yochanan of Jerusalem would say: “Let your home be wide open” (Ethics of the Fathers 1:5), while the Rambam demanded a maximum of 25 students under one teacher (Laws of Talmud Torah 2:5). And in general, Rabbi Yosef Caro stated, “It is better to say a small amount of supplications with intention than to recite many without” (Shulchan Aruch 1:4). With the data from the now infamous Pew Survey on American Jewish Life the time has come to radically rethink how we go about engaging Jews, since our previous methods have been unsuccessful. “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different outcomes” said Einstein. Let’s start by measuring success less by how many people we engage and more by the quality of those we interact with
Jon Leener a co-founder of Base Hillel and is the rabbi at Base BKLYN in Williamsburg. He received his rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Chovevei Torah and his B.A. in Film from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.