Surveys Describe, Educators Prescribe

By Dr. Seymour Epstein

In response to the excellent article by Rhonda Lenton and Robert Brym and in appreciation of the enlightening and comprehensive 2018 Survey of Jews in Canada they completed together with Keith Neuman, I offer some commentary.

The survey was, to some degree, a response to the famous Pew survey of 2013. If Pew demonstrated new and revealing information about American Jews, how relevant were those data to the Canadian Jewish scene? Because of that question, the survey compares the Canadian Jewish data of 2018 to the Pew data of 2013. Whenever Canadians (Jews included) compare themselves to Americans, I get nervous about self-righteous silliness. That said, Lenton and Brym described the differences and the three major reasons for those differences effectively in their article. They do offer the suggestion that the Canadian community is less assimilated and more cohesive, but there is room for argument there. Intermarriage is not the only sign of assimilation. Jewish illiteracy and weak Jewish engagement are major factors in assimilation. For example, there is negligible intermarriage in Israel, yet a great deal of assimilation to western culture with massive Jewish illiteracy in certain sectors.

What is evident in both studies as pointed out by the authors is the shift from religious identification to cultural/ethnic/national identification. Some years back we used to differentiate between Israeli society and Diaspora Jews by stating in oversimplification that Israelis were either dati or hiloni, while Diaspora Jews were divided by religious denominations. That is so totally not true anymore, on both sides of the divide.

Herein lies the challenge to Jewish education. Of course, the Lenton-Brym daughters are actively Jewish. As secular as their parents are, they received a full Jewish education. That’s no insurance policy, but it is money in the bank. Unless we educators can begin to provide pluralist Jewish education of all forms (schools, camps, web-based, adult education, and new unheard of paths) to those masses of Jews who see their Jewishness as cultural or ethnic, we will cease to be responsive to the new majority. Yes, there are communities where the unconnected are already the majority.

As it happens, new forms of education are already developing. I live in Toronto where the Jewish Studies departments of the two major universities offer a rich variety of lectures and seminars to the public. Some of the synagogues and the JCCs offer lectures which appeal to Jews who are not seeking religious enlightenment; topics of general Jewish interest. But Israel has done much more than the Diaspora communities to reach out and teach Jewish literacy, values, and engagement to secular/ethnic/cultural /Zionist Jews, and we would be smart to study their models. Programs such as 929 which offers online a chapter of Tanach daily with a diverse variety of commentary, and institutions such as Mechon Hartman, Elul, Almah, Oranim, Ono College, and Pardes all should be studied to determine how they can be adopted and adapted to the various needs of Diaspora communities. The Tanach, the Talmud, and centuries of Jewish literature and history do not belong exclusively to religious Jews. Since most Jewish educators come from the centre of Jewish life and are both literate and engaged, we will need to re-train ourselves to work outside of denominational Judaism and on the periphery. We need “Jewish Educators Without Borders.”

Can ethnic/cultural Judaism survive without religious values, the Hebrew calendar of celebration and mourning, the family rituals of brit, bar/bat mitzvah, hupah, Jewish burial, and kashrut and shabbat? Probably not. But, given our tiny size, we cannot cheat so many Jews out of their literary and historical heritage, and we must give them the opportunity to engage with their Judaism in ways meaningful to them.

Sociologists can draw the map, we educators can change it. Surveys describe, we teachers prescribe…

Dr. Seymour Epstein is the former director of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education.