The Adult Approach

By Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff

It’s about the kids. It’s all about the kids. In recent days, Jack Wertheimer and Steven Cohen have offered a salutary reminder that non-Orthodox American Jews are “standing on a demographic precipice.” And backing away from the cliff’s edge, they tell us, will require focusing squarely on the young.

According to their prescription, a return to Jewish flourishing will be secured by stressing the importance of day schools, residential summer camps that offer “serious Jewish content,” Israel trips “for sixteen and seventeen year-olds,” youth groups, organized campus activities, and efforts to stimulate in-marriage or convert gentile partners. It is hard to dispute that these are top priority agenda items – as they have been for some time. And Wertheimer and Cohen are right to sound the alarm; with the ground moving fast under our feet, it is too late for complacency.

But these solutions all have one thing in common: they are targeted towards those who are, at most, in their early thirties, with the vast bulk of the activity aimed at those who have not yet graduated college. Funders, understandably, are also attracted to this cohort; vast sums are already directed towards the age group. This is hardly surprising. The young represent the future …and it is the Jewish future that all are anxious to influence.

And yet… And yet, given that the average life expectancy now exceeds four score years, does it really make sense to concentrate our Jewish capital and energy almost solely on the first quarter of life, glossing over the rest as if it didn’t count? Wertheimer and Cohen do hold that there need to be “more opportunities for Jews at every age level to come together with their peers for purposes of Jewish enrichment.” But, reflective of the current norm, they are specific and determined when it comes to programs for the young, but vague and sketchy when relating to the other three quarters of the life span.

Let’s be clear: educating the young, and helping to shape their loyalties and attitudes during their most formative years – at a time when they can indisputably absorb the most material – ought to be the prime focus of our efforts. A “prime focus” though, is not the same thing as a “sole focus.” And making the first quarter of life our “sole focus,” as seems to be the trend for many funders and communities, may well diminish, rather than strengthen, our chances of success.

It is appropriate to be wary of sports analogies, but in this case a parallel might be instructive: The current orientation in Jewish life is like a team that has decided to spend all its money on players, and next to none on coaching staff, reasoning that the coaching staff are older people, of lesser importance to the endeavor, who have really “had their day.” The players, conversely, are the ones on the field right now who can actually score victories for the team. Consequently, the team expends virtually all its resources on players, while “making do” in the coaching department with whatever comes to hand.

It is obvious that no good team would ever use this formula, because the chances for success would be dramatically impaired. While effective teams might well spend a great deal more on players than on coaches, they would never regard skimping on coaches as a worthy proposition. Good teams understand that players need effective, trained, skilled role models – elders and motivators who can inspire players, shape them, and offer them ongoing mentoring along a pathway of commitment. No good team would think to forego the education of its coaching staff, to pay scant attention to their wellbeing, or to discount the necessary expenditures to keep them functioning as effective exemplars.

The Jewish world needs the same. Wertheimer and Cohen inform us that “on every measure of Jewish identity, those between thirty and forty-nine trail substantially behind those between fifty and sixty-nine. …The preponderance of so many inactive non-Orthodox Jews in their prime childbearing years cannot but foreshadow further declines in the next generation.” Yet the resources and programmatic initiatives devoted to the 1.2 million American Jews in the thirty to forty-nine year old cohort pale into insignificance when compared to those directed towards the under-25s. Wertheimer and Cohen also reveal that “among non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, nearly half have received either no Jewish education or just six years or less of supplementary schooling.” What is to be offered to this “half” as they proceed into their thirties and begin families of their own?

There will be those who will counter that thirty to forty-nine year olds are far too preoccupied with building their careers and establishing themselves to be engaged meaningfully in Jewish life. While this may be true to some extent, such a response hardly excuses the lack of a coordinated, appealing educational strategy for this age group and beyond, backed by funding.

There is, after all, a significant “disconnect” in the non-Orthodox approach to addressing the present challenge: it is based on the theory that young people can be convinced to embrace a way of life that their parents and grandparents either mostly ignore or about which they are ignorant. The theory pays little heed to the reality that good, numerous role models count. Without such readily visible models, the young might reasonably wonder why it is so important for them to adopt wholeheartedly that which their elders have largely set aside. More than most will admit, we usually grow to take seriously what our parents value and to overlook what our parents disregard.

Consider: What would be the impact of a Jewish father who declared that every week he was going to devote the equivalent amount of time to studying Jewish sources as to watching “the game”, and then actually modeled this for his children? What would be the influence of communities that asked that parents participate in adult learning as a prerequisite for their child’s Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremony? And what might be the effect of a grandmother, who, later in life, begins to observe Shabbat and starts to invite her family for a regular Shabbat meal?

Research has already discerned that “the role model parents can provide their children as engaged learners is invaluable in demonstrating the seriousness of Jewish education” (International Handbook of Jewish Education). If we are to gain traction in strengthening Jewish identity, then “demonstrating seriousness” will indeed be paramount. And seriousness demands focusing not just on the next generation but also on their many potential role models and mentors. To put it another way, if we do not involve those over thirty in the embrace of Jewish tradition and learning, it will be considerably less likely that we will create lasting commitments among the young.

The hour may indeed be late, but an effective strategy calls upon us to expand the reach of adult learning beyond its existing scope, and to engage in the tough grassroots effort to make Talmud Torah a significant part of the non-Orthodox adult landscape. It may not be “priority number one”, but, in the current environment, we need to take more than just one step back from the crumbling cliff.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff is a noted teacher and researcher in Jewish ethics. He lives in Jerusalem and is the founder and president of MoJI, the Museum of Jewish Ideas.