Toward Adult Jewish Literacy

by Rabbi Elie Kaunfer

What would it take to radically improve adult Jewish literacy in America?

This is a problem long debated, but I believe we face an unprecedented opportunity to make a quantum leap forward during the next decade.

A cursory look at Jewish life in America reveals only the challenges to this goal: declining engagement, membership and connection. But below are some of the factors that are playing in our favor.

Demand for meaningful education is high. David Brooks termed the demographic that is post-college, pre-marriage/children (if at all) the “odyssey years.” These people are exploring their identity, and seeking meaningful opportunities to engage with sources of wisdom. Jewish sources and study have a tremendous amount to offer, if they can be opened up beyond platitudes and quotes that affirm existing values. The upcoming Third Space Conference, sponsored by the Jim Joseph Foundation and Hillel International, will no doubt serve to further highlight this opportunity.

Immersion works. Countless studies have demonstrated the ways in which immersive environments have a tremendous impact on people. Jewish camping, one of the darling causes of the past decade, is effective because of its immersive environment. The question is not if immersion works, but how can we expand immersive educational environments, specifically for those over 18.

A culture of direct engagement. The internet has brought us a world of unfiltered access to information. People don’t want to rely on someone else to translate something for them – they want to engage with the primary source. This means people want the tools to engage with the sources of information directly. Gone are the days when an “expert” could tell you everything. Now you want to check those opinions, and form your own conclusions. Jewish literacy could ride this wave: people want to delve into the sources themselves, not a summary by the “expert.”

College courses open people up to high-level Jewish studies. One of the quiet Jewish educational revolutions of the past generation is the ubiquitous presence of Jewish studies courses on college campuses. Thousands of Jews who may have previously experienced only pediatric-style Jewish education have come to recognize the depth of Jewish tradition as mediated through college professors. Even if academics often do not engage people on the heart/meaning end of Jewish wisdom, many college grads know there is such a thing as a sophisticated approach to Jewish sources.

Second languages are hot. Parents want their children to acquire a second language, and language courses in colleges are more popular than ever. The biggest barrier to Jewish literacy is knowledge of Hebrew. But Hebrew as a second language is on the rise in a number of new forms: Middlebury Language School now offers Hebrew, Hebrew immersion early childhood programs like at Kavana in Seattle are on the rise, and (regardless of what you think of them) Hebrew Language charter schools are poised to expand across the United States.

So how can we take advantage of these positive factors to push Jewish literacy to the next level? I propose three theoretical shifts and three practical goals.

Theoretical Shifts

Literacy is not for the elite. We can’t shy away from acknowledging how far we are from a literate Jewish society. We would never accept a similar status quo for knowledge of secular studies. But efforts to push Jewish literacy further are often pegged as elitist. Why is it deemed elitist to know Torah, but not elitist to know calculus and Shakespeare? There is a shame in illiteracy, and we must be aware of the difficulties in overcoming that. But we must make no apologies for demanding a much higher level for our community.

Literacy efforts cannot only focus on children. Education for children is critical for a literate society, but it is not enough. General society has embraced a model of intensive education through age 21 (not to mention grad school). In order to create a literate society, we can’t be satisfied at efforts that end with 8th grade or even high school. Adult Jewish education has often focused on a tour of Jewish concepts, not a serious engagement with Jewish texts and tradition. But Jewish adults are poised to learn to read and engage directly with our heritage. We must offer them that opportunity.

Stop telling people who study Jewish texts: “You should be a rabbi.” Non-Orthodox culture in American society gives very clear message to those interested in Jewish text study: become a rabbi. But a true culture of literacy must normalize facility with Jewish texts and concepts without devoting one’s career to becoming a rabbi. We must create pathways for people to seriously explore Jewish texts without becoming professional Jews.

Practical Goals

At the recent Jewish Funders Network conference, Mark Charendoff set lofty goals for Jewish engagement: 51% of Jews should go to day school, camp and Birthright Israel. In that spirit, I offer a challenge to a slightly older cohort.

25% of Jewish adults of all ages experience some form of immersive Jewish learning on the road to deeper literacy. This immersion-learning could take place in multiple forms: a week during college break or vacation, a 2-week trip to Israel, a summer, 6 months or a year. The immersion experience would aim to open up the magic and wonder of Jewish text study and offer tools to allow participants a path toward self-directed study and engagement.

10% of Jewish adults spend two years in service to the Jewish people. The first year would focus on immersion-learning, giving participants skills and confidence to engage first-hand in Jewish texts. The second year would offer a framework to put that learning into action: in synagogues, schools, camps or communal organizations.

50% of Jewish professionals and top federation/family foundation laypeople spend one month in immersive Jewish learning, a new form of “professional development.” At the recent Jewish Funders Network conference, 68% of funders said that literacy initiatives are insufficiently funded. Ironically, the people who set communal policy and funding priorities also struggle with literacy. Even the professionals in Jewish organizations are often disconnected from Jewish wisdom and heritage. Offer these leaders an opportunity to delve into texts first-hand.

Meeting these goals will take tremendous resources. How will we train the right teachers to carry this out? Where will these efforts take place? How will we fund and replicate the successful learning projects? But the first step is setting the goal to move toward literacy. I believe now is the cultural moment to push forward this effort.

Rabbi Elie Kaunfer is co-founder and executive director of Mechon Hadar. In 2009 Newsweek named him one of the top 50 rabbis in America. He is the author of Empowered Judaism: What Independent Minyanim Can Teach Us About Building Vibrant Jewish Communities (Jewish Lights, 2010).

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.