There’s No Place Like Home

[eJP note: Last October, 74 of our finest thinkers published an urgent “Statement on Jewish Vitality.” Much discussion followed both on-, and off-line. The Hornstein Jewish Professional Leadership Program even hosted a live-streamed round-table discussion. And then, or so it seems, discussion evaporated. With this post, Rabbi Schiff hopes to not just revive the discussion, but extend it further.

The “Statement on Jewish Vitality” and all the responses we published can be accessed here.]

Jewish HomeBy Rabbi Dr. Danny Schiff

Ten months ago, a diverse group of 74 Jewish thought leaders drew up a blueprint for revitalizing the Jewish future, entitled “Strategic Directions for Jewish Life: A Call to Action.” Coinciding with the second anniversary of the release of the 2013 Pew Study, the framers of “Strategic Directions” proposed that the Jewish world should respond to the challenges of Pew with a practical plan. Urgently.

And they stressed that it is not too late to make a difference – that a “healthier Jewish future” is still “achievable in our time.”

To their credit, these educators and thinkers did not merely offer general prescriptions. Indeed, they provided a succinct list of the multiple fronts on which the Jewish community “needs to advance” in order “to improve the quality of Jewish life going forward”:

  • A communal mobilization campaign
  • Diminished costs for day school tuition
  • More emphasis upon quality supplemental schooling that extends at least seven years
  • Major investment in low-cost Jewish summer camps
  • Thousands of Jewish teenagers traveling to Israel
  • Significant expansion of Jewish youth groups
  • Congregations prioritizing their teenagers
  • More outreach-oriented and pluralist rabbis, both on and off campus
  • Jewish cultural events, prayer communities, and learning activities among Jewish young adults
  • Retreat experiences for young couples and families
  • Jewish Public Health Education aimed at parents and grandparents
  • Continue and expand Birthright Israel’s numbers

They even described in concrete terms the significance of each of these items. For example, the virtue of a “Jewish Public Health Education” program lies in its potential to “underscore the value of day schools, education through the high school years, Jewish camps, Israel trips, youth groups, and attending universities with strong Jewish campus communities.”

There can be no question that “Strategic Directions” is a far-reaching plan. And a worthy one.

Something, however, is missing:

The Jewish home.

The list is filled with groups and experiences, schools, programs, and trips. All are important. But, without exception, they are run by institutions. The list centers the Jewish revitalization effort wholly around institutional endeavors. Even when addressing parents and grandparents directly, the authors’ stated goal is to expand commitment to institutions. “Strategic Directions” demonstrates just how fully institutionalized Jewish life has become: Got a Jewish challenge? There’s an institution for that…

Every item on the list invites Jews to leave the Jewish home behind and to encounter Judaism in an organized or programmatic setting that has the capacity to deliver Jewish content in a professional, polished context. Some of the proposals are innovative; some are tried and true. None hint that they might somehow directly seek to enhance the domestic milieu.

Is this the optimum strategy?

When primary encounters with Judaism happen outside the home, they are no longer connected to what our parents model as being truly significant and they are detached from the most impactful cocoon of all, where our life patterns are shaped. There can be little doubt that the priorities to which our parents commit themselves in the private domain are pivotal in signaling what they truly value, and have an enduring impact that is powerful.

For years, Jewish educators have bemoaned the “drop off” phenomenon, where kids are “dropped off” at schools and youth groups that are supposed to “make them Jewish,” while the parents drive away to other pursuits. Even in those instances when parents are devoted to their own Jewish communal activities, these have far less influence on the next generation if they fail to permeate the home and ensure a thick home practice.

Consider this picture: On a Friday night, a boy about to become Bar Mitzva the following day, is summoned to the bima of his congregation to lead kiddush. Awkwardly, he stumbles through the words. It is clear that kiddush is not part of his home experience. He has been taught the kiddush by an institution. Later, he may hear kiddush again at youth group activities, summer camp, at Hillel, or on a Birthright trip. But none of these institutions are likely to enable him to “own kiddush” or to make it a building block of his Jewishness if his home did not make it a part of his experience as he grew up.

And if making kiddush seems too “religious” an activity, then what about studying Jewish ethical or historic texts in the home, putting money in the tzedakah box at home, carving out a 25-hour Shabbat to be together as a family at home, eating in Jewish ways at home, observing Jewish holidays at home, and so on?

The Pew research data shows that only 16% of non-Orthodox Jews in the U.S. “always or usually” light Shabbat candles, and only 14% keep a kosher home. What does this imply about other Jewish home practices? Do we really expect that the home can be largely a “Jewish free” zone, and that Jewish institutions will take care of what the home neither practices nor reinforces through its actions? Put simply, this is an unrealistic fantasy.

While we are doing well at working to improve the institutions of Jewish life and create new ones, it is time to acknowledge that, outside the Orthodox sector, the Jewish home is weakening. And bolstering institutional vitality is a far less certain path to the Jewish future than inculcating a rich, tangible Jewishness in a devoted home environment. The “building blocks” acquired at home are considerably more enduring than those assimilated elsewhere.

This can be readily illustrated: if a parent were to offer to provide a substantial and substantive Jewish home environment, or to send her child to a Jewish day school – but would not agree to do both – what would be the sagest advice? As vital as Jewish day schools are, if it were to come down to such a choice, imparting Jewish commitment and content at home would arguably be the superior option.

Not for nothing does the Shema instruct us to “teach them to your children, speaking of them when you sit in your home…”. Not for nothing are we to affix commandments, in the form of mezzuzot, to the “doorposts of your home and your gates” – but not to the entrances of institutions. Not for nothing did the rabbis designate the home, and specifically the dining room table, as a “mikdash me’at,” a miniature sanctuary, where the elevation of Judaism would be focused after the Temple disappeared.

Our tradition understands well that from a transmission perspective, there is no place like home. Jewish conversation, Jewish practice, Jewish ideas, and the art of real Jewish living are best imbibed at home. Consequently, the time has come: we need to think of creative ways to strengthen the Jewish home. It is a priority that should be high on our strategic list.

Rabbi Dr. Daniel Schiff is the Foundation Scholar for the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh. He is also the founder and president of MOJI, the Museum of Jewish Ideas.