In December 1999 the Board of Governors of the American Jewish Committee voted overwhelmingly to support a statement calling on the entire Jewish community to make Jewish education the top communal priority in the battle for Jewish continuity.
We know that what we are asking will be very expensive and will require difficult and sometimes painful choices. We believe that the responsibility for educating our children Jewishly rests on the entire Jewish community—not just the parents, not just the synagogue, not just the denomination.
We have asked a number of scholars, activists, and educators to respond to the following four questions about the statement and other concerns about Jewish education that the statement seeks to raise.
The statement assumes that Jewish education lies at the core of Jewish continuity. Do you agree? What are the implications for continuity initiatives outside the rubric of formal education—for example, trips to Israel, long-distance learning, and outreach to unaffiliated Jews? The statement asserts that within Jewish education priority be given to the high school years. Do you agree? What are the implications for an educational system that is primarily focused upon the years precedent bar or bat mitzvah? The statement asserts that some forms of Jewish education are working and others need to be upgraded significantly. What fundamental changes do you see as necessary to ensure quality Jewish education for all Jews? Some have criticized the statement for the absence of a specific funding mechanism. What steps need to be taken to ensure quality affordable Jewish education for all? We hope that the Statement as well as the thoughtful essays in this booklet will engender discussion and action throughout the entire Jewish community. Our Jewish future depends upon it.
Chair Policy and Program
The American Jewish Committee
AJC Statement on Jewish Education
Background The mission of the American Jewish Committee includes safeguarding the continuity and ensuring the future quality of Jewish life. The AJC has long recognized the centrality of Jewish education to efforts to ensure Jewish continuity. In 1977 the American Jewish Committee, acting on the recommendations of its Colloquium on Jewish Education and Identity, recommended broad efforts to intensify Jewish education on all levels, including increasing the number of contact hours and years of schooling, creation of realistic goals, introduction of Judaic studies into public and nonsectarian private education, broadening of Jewish studies on university campuses, intensification and broadening of day school education, and greater communal investment in Jewish education broadly conceived. In 1982, the American Jewish Committee reaffirmed its support of Jewish education as communal priority.
Since that time much has been accomplished. The number of students in Jewish day schools has increased to 212,000. On college campuses, there is hardly a university of note that today lacks an impressive array of Judaic studies courses.
Yet Jewish teaching has long underscored the principle that to be a Jew connotes life-time encounter with Jewish heritage—ideally from cradle unto grave. Regrettably, however, for too many American Jews Jewish learning has been reduced to its most elementary levels—often culminating and even ceasing with the bar or bat mitzvah rite of passage.
As presently constituted, Jewish education suffers from paucity of contact hours and from low expectations of output. Moreover, the classroom time usually devoted to Jewish education generally omits the critical years of adolescence, which AJC research has demonstrated are the most crucial years for impacting upon long-term Jewish identity.
To be sure, significant exceptions to these trends exist. Day school education, once considered marginal to the system, now has become a viable option within each of the religious movements as well as under communal or transdenominational auspices. Alumni of Jewish day schools, particularly on high school levels, report continued long-term Jewish identification and involvement underscoring the effectiveness of day school instruction. On college campuses, where once academic Jewish studies was limited to handful of elite universities, today virtually every university of note boasts a substantial Jewish studies program signaling the legitimation of Jewish culture by the canons of American university life. Similarly, the Hillel Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, in recent years, increasingly has enhanced its presence and programs on college campuses.
These trends notwithstanding, the Jewish community continues to agonize over its future continuity. Efforts to enhance Jewish education are critical to that continuity agenda. A literate Jew is simply far more likely to become a committed Jew. Moreover, Jewish education constitutes a potential bridge issue around which diverse sectors in the Jewish community may cooperate in the pursuit of common goals of enhancing the Jewish future.
Recommendations Based on our research and deliberations, the American Jewish Committee recommends the implementation of the following programs as essential to strengthening Jewish identity:
A. Jewish Education as Communal Priority
Jewish education, broadly conceived, must become a critical priority in the allocation of communal resources for domestic needs. To ensure educational effectiveness, Jewish education must target the entire Jewish family, enabling parents to create a Jewish-supportive environment in which the education of their children can occur. Therefore, emphasis upon adult and parental education is critical for the success of Jewish education generally. No single model of Jewish education will work for all Jews. Therefore it is imperative that the community create a variety of successful models of formal and informal education including day schools, supplementary schools, and community-based schools so as to maximize parental choice in seeking models that best fit the Jewish needs of particular children and families. As the Jewish community enters the twenty-first century, its greatest challenge lies in confronting the prospect of continued erosion and assimilation. Jewish education remains the primary response to that danger. To collective meet the challenge of securing Jewish continuity, Jewish education on all levels must be strengthened and enhanced.
Cost and Affordability Quality Jewish education must be regarded as a matter of right rather than privilege. The entire Jewish community must assume the responsibility for funding Jewish education. We recommend creation of a communal endowment fund established for the express purpose of providing per-student subsidies determined by family income and tuition levels and applicable towards any form of quality Jewish education for children and youth. Creation of such a system would insure the principle of affordability funded entirely by the Jewish community without recourse to governmental assistance. As a symbolic step in this direction AJC recommends creation of a Jewish communal fund to enable children of communal professionals to pursue quality Jewish education.
C. Supplementary Schools
The supplementary school requires considerable enhancement of expectations, greater communal investment in personnel and teacher training, and exploration of alternative programs and models. We must establish the principle within supplementary education of continuing Jewish schooling past the bar or bat mitzvah years. Notwithstanding the growth of Jewish day schools a plurality of Jewish children continues to receive the bulk of their Jewish education through Jewish supplementary school. In recent years the supplementary school has been suffering from a crisis of credibility and self-confidence. To ensure Jewish continuity, the supplementary school must be enhanced and in some cases rethought so as to enable effective transmission of Jewish heritage.
D. Continuing Jewish Education
Successful models of adults Jewish education, particularly the Wexner Heritage program, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, and the Boston MEAH (100 hours) program need to be replicated for a broader cross section of American Jews. AJC chapters must play a particular role in adult education for their own members. Particular success in recent years has been attained through the adult Jewish history curriculum developed by AJC. Programs along these lines merit further development and utilization within AJC chapters. Efforts within AJC should include staff and professional education as well as programs for AJC leaders and members.
E. Jewish Day Schools
Day schools today are considered the jewels within the Jewish educational system. The 1995 Report of the North American Commission on Jewish Identity and Continuity characterized day schools as "arguably the most impactful single weapon in our arsenal for educating Jewish children and youth." The 1999 United Jewish Communities report of its task force on day schools notes that "virtually all segments of the community agree that the day school is the most effective form of Jewish education, and that it will continue as such for the foreseeable future."
Existing research on Jewish day schools both in the United States and in other Jewish communities demonstrates relatively low levels of mixed marriage and high levels of communal involvement among their adult graduates. This has been particularly the case among those who pursue day school education through the high school years. Moreover, those high schools that have studied their alumni, over succeeding years, report both continued Jewish communal involvement and full integration into American society for the overwhelming majority of graduates.
The major complaints about day schools relate less to the quality of education provided that to the capacity of middle-class parents to afford tuition. The Jewish community has consistently opposed governmental funding for private Jewish education. It is crucial that opposition to governmental funding be accompanied by sufficient Jewish communal funding so as to enable any Jewish child who chooses to do so to afford Jewish day school education. Therefore we recommend the following steps:
We believe the Jewish community must be challenged to ensure the affordability of day school education for all Jews who desire it. We reaffirm AJC opposition to governmental vouchers. AJC should undertake research analyzing the effects of day school education upon intra-Jewish relations and inter-communal relations.
As stated earlier, AJC research has demonstrated the critical nature of the teenage years for formative Jewish learning and experiences. To strengthen Jewish education on secondary levels, we recommend the following:
Secondary Education The community must establish the principle of continuing Jewish education on secondary levels. Precisely at the moment when Judaism as a culture can begin to be appreciated, students leave school on the assumption that Jewish education represents a pre-bar mitzvah activity rather than a lifelong commitment.
We urge advocacy efforts to enable the non-Orthodox movements to provide quality Jewish day school educational models on adolescent models. Secondary schools remain overwhelmingly under Orthodox auspices. Only a handful of Conservative and Reform day schools exist on the adolescent level. A critical challenge to the non-Orthodox movements lies in the creation of day schools servicing adolescents.
2. Funding for Adolescent Education
Greater communal funding should be awarded to those who pursue Jewish education through the high school years. If the communal budget does not permit subsidizing all forms of Jewish education, we recommend targeting of subsidies toward programs geared to adolescents, including summer camp, informal education, and formal high school education.
Initiatives such as those proposed here will encourage greater continuity in Jewish education past bar or bat mitzvah.
3. Hebrew Language Instruction
We recommend advocacy for the inclusion of Hebrew language instruction within American secondary school language curricula.
Of particular concern in recent years has been the decline of Hebrew-language literacy among American Jews. Even the best of Jewish educational institutions report a decline in Hebrew language literacy. This trend signals both a loss of a key lens upon Jewish heritage as well as a broader gulf with Israeli society.
4. Israel Experience
Experience has indicated that successful Israel programs have been a direct function of sustained contact with Israelis, formal study components, and extended length of time of participation in the program.
Programs offering a free trip to Israel as the birthright of every American Jew signal both new philanthropic norms and a statement of Israeli responsibility for securing Jewish continuity in the Diaspora. We caution, however, that such programs not be regarded as a "magic bullet" or cure-all to Jewish continuity. Rather they represent but one step within a spectrum of initiatives to strengthen Jewish commitment of all American Jews. Transformative experiences, no matter how well executed, may never substitute for formative Jewish education.
G. Intra-Jewish Relations
We urge AJC chapters to make Jewish education an agenda item for intrareligious dialogue and coalition building for advocacy purposes within the Jewish community.
Jewish education constitutes a potential bridge issue between the diverse Jewish religious movements. All Jews have a stake in quality Jewish education as a vehicle of securing Jewish continuity. At a time of increased polarization within the Jewish community, the concepts of Jewish unity and peoplehood may be significantly strengthened through common efforts to enhance Jewish education.
Conclusion In a recent column in the New York Jewish Week, Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote: "In a society of unprecedented individual freedom unmarred by any trace of organized anti-Semitism, the Jewish community will thrive only if it is prepared to invest massively in serious, sustained Jewish education. A Judaism without walls can endure only if individual Jews are saturated with Jewish memory and music, texts and traditions, values and beliefs. A well-formed Jewish identity in our children is the best bulwark against their diluting Judaism or turning a cold shoulder to the Jewish community as adults."
Adopted by the AJC Board of Governors December 13, 1999
Professor of Jewish Education and Director of the Experiment in Congregational Education, Rhea Hirsch School of Education, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles
Yasher koach to the American Jewish Committee for recognizing the fact that Jewish education is more than a "one-size-fits-all" proposition, and that a variety of settings and approaches are needed to meet the educational needs of all American Jews. The statement’s explicit reference to the full range of educational options—adult learning, family education, supplementary schools, day schools, camps, youth groups, and Israel trips—sends a welcome message that the Jewish community must promote all of these learning modalities simultaneously.
Educational researchers have long recognized that learners differ from one another in significant ways: different learners respond differently to different learning environments and different methodologies. The enormous differences in religious ideology, knowledge, and practice among American Jews make it even more imperative that Jews have a range of attractive options from which to choose. Day schools are appealing to some learners from some religious backgrounds; for others, congregational education may be more appropriate, and even more effective. Some adults will be open to enrolling in serious, curricularized adult study; others may need to enter through the door of family education or be offered a menu of more serendipitous and varied learning opportunities.
In my opinion, however, the AJC statement does not go far enough, because it fails to address the important question of coordination and synergy among the various educational programs.
A "complete" Jewish education begins at home and extends through preschool, formal schooling, and a variety of informal learning opportunities. Nor does it end there; it is imperative that it continue throughout the college years and the various phases of adulthood. The good news is that several exemplary programs for each of these ages and settings exist; the bad news is that their existence is a well-kept secret. The educational innovations of the past decade have attracted relatively little attention; and no discussion has taken place regarding the ways in which these innovations might be adapted to suit other settings.
In addition, the tendency has been to view each of these innovations as a self-contained entity, as though each can stand alone, independent of the others. But we know that the value of any single program is much lower than the cumulative effect of two, three, or more. Demographic studies have demonstrated that the benefit accrued from participation in two or three different programs (for example, supplementary school plus camp plus family education) has the potential to be multiplicative rather than merely additive. Thus, while Israel trips have the potential to transform the lives of teenagers, the likelihood that this potential will be actualized is much greater if these adolescents return home to vibrant Jewish communities that welcome their participation. And while day schools are, indeed, effective in transmitting higher levels of content, how much more effective would they be if they offered family education to their parents and continued opportunities for learning to their graduates?
It is not enough for the Jewish community to promote a plethora of programs. It must also look for ways to make these programs complementary and synergistic, rather than redundant and disconnected. The AJC’s statement on Jewish education does not deal with this challenge, which is as great as the challenge of creating and funding the programs themselves.
What makes the coordination of educational opportunities particularly challenging is that it requires coordination among the various institutions that create, support, and provide them. For the confirmation class to prepare students for the Israel trip, and the Israel trip, in turn, to smooth the way for future participation in Jewish life on campus, the agencies that sponsor these programs must work together. No single project undertaken by a single agency will solve the problems of preparation and coordination once and for all; rather, a variety of mechanisms must be developed at a number of different levels. Congregations, JCCs, central agencies for Jewish education, federations, the denominational movements, and independent organizations like the American Jewish Committee all have roles to play. Only if each plays its role will the daunting challenge of fully educating American Jews be met.
It has been said that the battle for Jewish continuity must be waged one Jew at a time. Stationed in the front line of the battle for the hearts and minds of individual Jews are the "gateway" institutions—the synagogues and JCCs. Over three-quarters of American Jews come through their doors at some point in their lives. What happens within these institutions will determine the likelihood that those who enter stay and become active, committed Jews. But fulfilling this enormous potential will require synagogues and JCCs to think differently about their work, focusing on individuals rather than cohorts, and aiming to create formative experiences rather than to maintain a roster of routine activities. Synagogues, for example, are used to funneling their members into programs—religious school for the children, confirmation and youth group for the teens, havurot and adult education classes for their parents. What would happen if, instead of simply sending out flyers or registration forms, synagogue professionals, along with a select group of congregant-mentors, took the time to meet annually with each family? These meetings would provide an opportunity to discover the needs and interests of family members, and to tailor learning opportunities for them.
At first this might seem like an impossible task for a small number of professionals to handle; but if the professional staff were augmented by a cadre of volunteer members, chosen and trained especially for this purpose, it would be eminently possible. A small number of synagogues have begun to offer this opportunity to their congregants, with eye-opening results. Congregants are made aware of learning opportunities (both inside the synagogue and outside in the larger community) they might never have discovered on their own. Parents, for example, have an opportunity to consider how intensive their child’s religious school experience will be, and whether they want to play an active role in that experience; they are presented with an array of educational options that may be new to them, such as a Jewish camp for their child, an Israel trip for their adolescent, an adult retreat or day-long workshop for themselves. The professionals and congregant mentors, for their part, have an opportunity to hear directly about people’s needs and abilities, and to think about connecting learning opportunities with people’s professional and avocational interests. While I have not heard of a comparable "annual learning checkup" taking place at a JCC, I see no reason why JCCs might not offer these to their members, with an equally positive response.
It should be clear, even from this brief sketch, that congregations and JCCs will need considerable support from the denominational organizations, central agencies for Jewish education, and federations if they are to reorient their thinking and take a more personalized approach to promoting learning. Central agencies and federations can offer ambitious, innovative opportunities for learning that an individual synagogue or JCC might not be able to afford, such as intensive two-year courses, community celebrations of learning, classes geared to pro-fessional interests, and weekend retreats. They can also provide the resources for a congregation to participate in a synagogue change project like the Experiment in Congregational Education. National organizations can sponsor longer institutes and publish resources for learning. Many of these institutions already offer some of these resources and opportunities, but they do so on their own initiative, without much input from the "gateway" synagogues and JCCs. Imagine a central agency or federation that conceived of its primary role as the convener and supporter of frontline institutions, with the goals of stimulating new approaches and fostering cooperation and synergy. The federation, for example, might act as the shadchan between the JCC and a synagogue, or between a museum and several day schools. While this might sound like a utopian fantasy, central agencies in some communities have already begun to play this role.
And what of independent organizations such as the American Jewish Committee? For them I envision a special function, unlikely to be fulfilled by any of the other institutions: to remind the community that quality counts.
Neither the American Jewish Committee’s statement, nor my own response, up to this point, mentions the quality of the programs under discussion. This omission is hardly surprising; the topic is usually absent from public discussions of Jewish education, perhaps for fear of offending someone. The implication seems to be that all day schools, family education programs, Israel trips, etc. are of equal value. But if the American Jewish community is to invest its financial resources in Jewish education, as the AJC’s statement advocates, it will have to ask some difficult questions: How do we define success in Jewish education? How is success, by any definition, to be assessed? These questions are as complex as they are politically charged; but to evade them is to assume, tacitly, that quality does not matter.
Obviously, the goals of formal education are different from those of informal education. And assessment need not mean testing. The last thing I am advocating is the promulgation of national "standards" for Jewish education, and a series of national exams to ascertain whether or not these standards are met. In the past decade much more sophisticated and thoughtful approaches to educational assessment have been developed. Recent studies of the Israel experience are a case in point. These studies combine both quantitative (e.g., large-scale surveys) and qualitative (e.g., interview and participant-observation studies) methodologies. They remain sensitive to the goals and ideology of a program’s sponsors, while raising important issues about whether these goals are appropriate, and whether the program is meeting them. In public education this type of research has, for decades, been tied to federal funding. It is high time that funders of Jewish educational programs required a similarly sophisticated type of accountability.
The American Jewish Committee has a proud tradition of sponsoring educational research. Its publications of the Schoem and Himmelfarb studies, and its sponsorship of Heilman and Bok’s work, were landmark contributions in their time. How wonderful it would be if the AJC would take a lead in commissioning, collecting, and disseminating newer, more sophisticated studies that would advance our understanding of what makes for quality Jewish education and, in the process, hold institutions accountable for the quality of their programs.
National Director, Department of Contemporary Jewish Life The American Jewish Committee
The context and backdrop of the AJC policy statement on Jewish education lies in the ongoing debate over how to ensure Jewish continuity. Since the release of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study revealing increased levels of assimilation, intermarriage, and communal erosion, Jewish leaders have sought the key to ensuring that their grandchildren remain Jewish. For many, the key remains elusive. Quick fixes or magical transformations simply do not exist. Rather, the primary if not sole solution must lie in sustained Jewish education. Over the long term, as the AJC statement argues, "a literate Jew is simply far more likely to be a committed Jew." Put another way, the real slogan for advocates of Jewish continuity ought to become "Torah, Torah, Torah," as Reform Jewish leadership has recently acknowledged.
Given this context, the statement breaks new ground in two very specific aspects. First, it strongly advocates that Jewish education become a life-long activity—from cradle to grave. This time-honored Jewish norm runs counter to the widespread American Jewish practice of relegating Jewish education to preadolescent years. For example, at a recent bat mitzvah I attended, the celebrant shocked the rabbi but regaled her guests by proclaiming, "I’ll tell you what bat mitzvah means—it means no more Hebrew school!" Moreover, the core principles of the Judaic heritage comprise intellectual values of peoplehood, covenant, God, Israel, and social justice—concepts unlikely to be appreciated for their grandeur at such early ages. Lastly, in terms of confronting the issues of mixed marriage and Jewish continuity, one cannot minimize the significance of the teenage years. Only then do young people begin to make decisions about dating patterns and expectations of marriage and family. The widespread termination of Jewish education by age 13 in effect dictates that we lose young people precisely at the moment when Jewish teachings about family might begin to actually have some impact upon them.
Second, the statement asks that the Jewish community acknowledge the successes of Jewish day schools in securing Jewish continuity. Alumni of day schools, especially in the high school years, simply have much lower rates of mixed marriage and much higher rates of communal affiliation. To be sure, virtually every day school can point to its own cases of mixed marriage. These, however, are noteworthy precisely because they are so exceptional. Clearly, day schools will remain an option for at most a minority of American Jews. However, making that option more accessible and affordable, particularly within the Conservative and Reform movements—which, in fact, host very few high schools—are critical communal challenges for the future.
Ironically, American Jews understand the importance of a quality secular education. We insist upon sending our youth to the finest American universities. Our educational attainments are the envy of other religious and ethnic groupings. We are indeed the "people of the book" with respect to Western culture. However, we content ourselves with the most puerile standards of Judaic education.
Our challenge, therefore, lies in bridging the gap between Jewish and general educational attainments. For the Jewish communal future, Judaic literacy and Jewish history must attain their places as educational objectives no less than European or American history. The classics of Jewish literature and thought must become as familiar to our people as the Federalist or the novels of Dostoevsky. Jewish day schools, in particular, provide a model for educational excellence in two distinct yet overlapping civilizations.
Permit me to draw upon my own experience. At the Maimonides School, a Modern Orthodox high school in Boston, my classmates and I in the 1960s were assigned a series of re-
search papers in our junior and senior years challenging us to assess the creation and flood epics in the light of modern science, study the patriarchal narratives in the context of modern ethical sensibilities, and, most remarkably, compare and contrast the Joseph narrative in traditional commentaries with Thomas Mann’s historical novel, Joseph and His Brothers. The opportunity of studying two cultures, finding the points of consonance between them, and assessing the areas of conflict, represented, for me, then and now, Jewish education at its finest.
The shift in communal attitudes toward day schools underscores a larger paradigm shift in the community concerning our self-defini-tion as a Jewish community. As long as our frames of reference remain American and universal, our Jewish identification will remain at best an adjunct—something we are also about but that is by no means central to our lives. Jewish continuity requires a fundamental shift in paradigm, placing our Jewishness at the very center of everything we do. Transforming Jewish institutions Jewishly is the key to ensuring the Jewish communal future. A Jewish community more committed and secure in its identity will have little difficulty moving Jewish education to the very top of its agenda. The example of Orthodox Jewry is here instructive: its willingness to undergo any sacrifice and pay any price—financially, culturally, or even familialy—in order to provide quality Jewish education for its young. To achieve this shift in communal culture and paradigm is the essential goal for the Jewish continuity agenda.
The key to ensuring Jewish continuity,
therefore, is hardly a mystery. Jewish continuity is available to those who desire it and are willing to pay the price for it. To be sure, it does require both considerable effort and resources. For most, the price will not be financial or economic although that too is an issue. Rather, the fundamental price lies in whether we are prepared to make Jewish matters priority choices in an open America that holds out so many attractive possibilities. Indeed, the news regarding Jewish assimilation in America constitutes an incredible success narrative. Never before in Diaspora Jewish history has there existed a society so welcoming of and receptive to Jewish participation. For a society so refreshingly free of anti-Semitism, nothing compels Jewish identification save ideological commitment that leading a Jewish life is worthwhile. Only long-term and sustained Jewish education can therefore hold out the hope for instilling that commitment and thereby building a vibrant and creative Jewish community committed to thriving on American shores.
Sylvia Barack Fishman
Associate Professor of Contemporary Jewish Life in the Near Eastern and Judaic Studies Department, and Codirector of the Hadassah International Research Institute on Jewish Women, both at Brandeis University.
Contemporary American Jewish life differs profoundly from historical Jewish environments, including postemancipation European communities. Unlike Western Jews in the past, American Jews today are not forced to collaborate in the "brutal bargain" of forfeiting their ethnic and religious identities as a condition of their acceptance in wider American society. To whatever extent they wish, they can participate in public and private Jewish behaviors. Paradoxically, this freedom to be Jewish arises from the fact that mainstream America is characterized now by an extraordinary permeability of internal ethnic and cultural boundaries. With the decline of overt antisemitism in the years since World War II, and the growing celebration of ethnicity in the 1970s and 1980s, discrimination, and antisemitism in particular, has eased dramatically, producing the impression that to be ethnic is to be more, not less American. For the majority of Jews, like other ethnic white Americans, ethnicity is not a limiting factor of life, not a daily, pervasive, defining condition of existence.
Moreover, ethnic boundaries are blurred. "Yinglish" phrases that previously were definitive ethnic markers, revealing one Jew to another, are now ubiquitous in American popular culture. Television personalities and writers of diverse ethnic, religious, and racial backgrounds speak and write about the mensch, the meshugineh, the nudnick. Jews now fit into America partially because American culture has, at least on the surface, absorbed Judaic elements.
Symbolic of this new ethnic celebration, Jewish artists and creators of popular culture no longer tell the story of Jewish experience encoded in some other ethnic or racial story, as Edna Ferber, George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and even Leonard Bernstein did at first. Jewish films, fiction, plays, and music have proliferated. Indeed, even stories about assimilation seem dated, as Jewish creative artists reach further and further into the esoteric reaches of the "authentic" Jewish experience represented by earlier periods of Jewish history or by Israel, the Holocaust, or Orthodox societies.
More than ever before, American Jews seem comfortable with their own physical and psychic selves. And yet American Jewish leaders today worry—with good reason—about the meaningful continuity of the Diaspora Jewish community. Indeed, few goals have such unanimous agreement in American Jewish life today as the idea that we must work toward a vibrant American Jewish life. The questions facing us today are unique in Jewish history: How can Jewish distinctiveness be maintained in the face of so much friendliness? How can American Jews be encouraged to make strong connections with other Jews and with their own rich culture and civilization? Can American Judaism survive and flourish without maintaining some dissonance with multicultural America?
The unprecedented freedom that American Jews enjoy has been a source of extraordinary advantages. It has also been accompanied by the erosion of a rich Jewish cultural legacy. Differing Jewish subgroups have reacted in three basic ways. The most extreme response, utilized by right-wing Orthodox groups comprising perhaps 3 percent of the American Jewish population, is that of resisting coalescence by resealing permeable boundaries, so that fewer elements of Americanization can enter their societies and the lives of their individual members. Living in close-knit communities where societal pressure effectively promotes behavior modification, the fervently Orthodox make high levels of Jewish education a social imperative, and discourage college education except as a kind of vocational training. These boundary resealers regard American culture as a pollutant rather than as a potential source of enrichment. While they have been affected by American values and behaviors, the extent of Americanization is limited.
The second model, employed to a large extent passively or unwittingly by more than two-thirds of American Jews, is that of minimal resistance. Half of children of at least one Jewish parent in 1990 NJPS households were not being raised as Jews, and the majority of those raised as Jews grew up in homes with little Jewish cultural ambience. Parents and children tend to receive low levels of Jewish education. While encouraging their children to acquire high levels of secular education, along with geographical mobility and independence, such parents fail to emphasize the importance of the Jewish environment of the universities attended. For this large proportion of the American Jewish population, a dearth of cultural literacy becomes a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy.
In contrast, a third—and I believe by far the most useful and compelling—strategy is to reinforce the intensity of Jewish life without resealing the boundaries. About one-quarter of American Jews enhance Jewish connections through cognitive and affective experience, and yet are open to the inward and outward flow of Americanisms. For those Jews who are concerned about maintaining Jewish cultural literacy and strong connections with Jews and Jewishness, but do not shrink from the American version of Western culture, lifelong Jewish education provides a way to infuse daily life with Jewish distinctiveness—a far more attractive option for meaningful Jewish survival than isolation.
By observing these dually well-educated American Jews, we see that learning experiences work because they enable Jewish individuals to engage in a dialogue with historical Judaism. Effective learning experiences change the way an individual views and interacts with the world; Jewish learning can enable the individual to respond to his or her American environment with a Jewish consciousness. Adult Jewish learning can be both broad and deep, reaching individuals through intellectual, emotional, artistic, and social realms. To use a very homely simile, we can think of ongoing Jewish education as a continual supply of very good tea bags: even though the boundaries around Jewishly committed individuals and communities are permeable, even though Americanisms continually flow into their lives, these Americanisms do not dilute their Jewishness, because the "tea bags" of Jewish education continue to provide strong Jewish flavor and color to their lives.
The American Jewish Committee and other observers of the American Jewish community and its Jewish educational needs have correctly assessed Jewish education for teenagers and young adults as the most critical need in American Jewish life today. Statistically, both an extensive Jewish education and a high level of Jewishness in the home have a dramatic impact on adult Jewish identification, especially among Jews ages 25 to 44. In the lives of flesh and blood human beings, of course, these factors are seldom separated. However, the interrelatedness of the home and the classroom should not cause us to undervalue their individual significance. Substantial Jewish education and the Jewishness of the home in which one is raised are each positively related to every behavior measured by the 1990 NJPS that was associated with Jewish identity, including living in a Jewish milieu, ritual observance in the home, membership in Jewish organizations, giving to Jewish philanthropies, and marrying within the community.
Significantly, the structural transformation of the Jewish community into a high educational and occupational status group does not by itself serve to make younger American Jewish individuals either less or more "Jewish" in any meaningful way. Perhaps for the first time in Jewish history, a combination of substantive Jewish education and high levels of secular education is related to higher levels of positive Jewish behaviors. Conversely, minimal levels of Jewish education are related to minimal levels of Jewish affiliation and activity, no matter what the level of secular education. Longer and more intensive Jewish education is associated with lifestyles that strengthen bonds to the Jewish community both directly, through enhancing active participation in a variety of spheres, and indirectly, through fostering in formal contacts and networks.
Simply stated, Jewish education is the only factor under our control—virtually the only area in which we can be proactive—that can provide a potential antidote to many negative aspects of American Jewish acculturation. This is true despite the fact that trying to "prove" that Jewish education "causes" stronger Jewish identification is difficult, because persons who are enrolled in Jewish schools for many years, and persons who sit in Jewish classrooms for many hours each week, are also likely to come from homes in which parents have above average levels of Jewish behavior. In order to seek (and pay for) Jewish education for many years, parents usually have strong Jewish commitments themselves. The household’s approach to Jews and Judaism may have a very important impact on growing children.
Human beings experience their lives in interconnected networks and overlapping contexts. Nevertheless, statistical studies based on the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey by Alice Goldstein and myself, numerous Jewish city studies, and additional studies by sociologists Bruce Phillips and Steven M. Cohen have each demonstrated that post-bar mitzvah Jewish education is positively related to increased Jewish connectedness during the adult years and the eventual formation of Jewish households. American Jewish teenagers and young adults are located not only at the crossroads of their own lives, but also at the crossroads of the American Jewish future. They comprise the most educationally critical—but also the most underserved—age group.
Despite the proven effectiveness of longer years and longer hours of Jewish education—ideally multiday education spanning early childhood, school age, and teenage years, supported by a Jewishly active home life, and complemented by Jewish youth groups, camping experiences, and Israel trips—statistics on the availability of Jewish educational programs for teens are disturbing. Fewer than one-quarter of American Jewish teenagers 16 to 18 are involved in Jewish educational programs. Of those who report informal educational experiences, 44 percent are attending all-day schools, 29 percent are attending after school programs that meet more than once a week, and 27 percent are attending one-day-a-week programs. In many communities, day high school programs are available only under Orthodox auspices, if at all.
The "Israel experience"—of which there are many varieties—has been the subject of great hopes and expectations by many communal leaders. Each year thousands of North American teenagers participate in short-term Israel experiences, and their numbers are now being increased exponentially by the innovative "Birthright" program. A major evaluation is underway, but already impressions gleaned from conversations with participants indicate that these programs do promote increased awareness of and attachment to Israel and Jews worldwide. However, we would do well to heed the conservative findings in studies by sociologists such as Steven Cohen, who note that Israel experiences, while likely to increase affection for Israel, are far less likely to substantively increase other types of Jewish connectedness.
Thus, although Israel programs are often touted as a panacea and an alternative to classical educational settings, both Cohen’s and 1990 NJPS figures indicate that the Israel experience is best viewed as a complement to, rather than a substitute for, Jewish schools. The important but limited effectiveness of Israel trips and other types of informal Jewish education is underscored by the fact that 1990 NJPS data also indicate that informal Jewish educational experiences, such as Jewish camps and youth groups, are today accessed almost exclusively by children and teenagers who have more than average years and types of formal Jewish schooling.
Two dramatically important new developments in Jewish education today are the proliferation both of university-based Jewish studies programs and of innovative and prestigious adult education opportunities. Today’s university environments are quite diverse in their Jewish offerings, which only decades ago were nearly nonexistent. College-level educational experiences can differ dramatically in terms of their effect on Jewish identification. Those students who attend colleges that offer vibrant and appealing Jewish environments, such as excellent Jewish studies programs or popular Hillel-type extracurricular activities, may actually be drawn closer to Jews and Judaism during their college years. Conversely, those who find themselves in settings where it is considered strange or odd to be Jewish may be increasingly alienated. College friendship groups can also have a powerful impact on feelings about being Jewish. Some college students are motivated to seek out Jewish activities and persons and will do so no matter how unfamiliar or unpromising the setting, while many more appear to be quite influenced by the often happenstance vagaries of school and work settings and friendship circles.
Nevertheless, what students bring to the university setting also has a profound impact on what they get out to it. Students appear to be influenced not only by the Jewish offerings of the university, but also by the positive or negative nature of their previous Jewish educational experiences and by the extent to which the values and behaviors of their parental homes had seemed to support or contradict what they were taught in Jewish schools. Indeed, one study of Orthodox day school graduates on the Brandeis University campus suggested that the behavior even of this very selective group was extremely diverse: students whose parents’ behavior had reinforced the day school curriculum were far more likely to continue independently to observe Jewish rituals than were students whose parents’ lack of Jewish observance had seemed subversive to day school policy.
In a development that probably would have surprised assimilationists who assumed that American Jewry would gradually lose all distinctive qualities, a largely acculturated segment of the American adult population has recently been seeking Jewish intellectual skills. In past years a laity devoted to intensive study was primarily Orthodox; however, today Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and com-munity opportunities for intensive text study for both men and women have increased. The traditional idea that Jews ought to make it their business to be the people of the sacred books has caught on among a limited but important segment of the population, along with both local and national initiatives to provide adults with intellectual tools and with opportunities to learn. Across the United States, adult education programs have been newly revitalized under the auspices of the Wexner Foundation, the Melton Center, the American Jewish Committee, CLAL, Hadassah, and a growing group of successful local high level Jewish educational initiatives.
Women’s adult education has undoubtedly served as one important and often underrecognized catalyst for adult education in general. At a recent conference on adult Jewish learning at Brandeis University, Jewish communal leaders testified that women’s enthusiasm for and dedication to high level adult Jewish education has changed the climate for such activities on both local and national levels.
All of these developments taken together have created a culture in which Jewish texts are considered appropriate targets for adult concentration. Thus, while the great majority of Jewish adults have little or no relationship to Jewish texts, for a substantial minority, the texts that comprise Jewish cultural history have become a salient part of life. It is important to note that Jewish education is cumulative longitudinally within the life of a Jewish individual. Well over three-quarters of American Jews who attended adult education programs had previous formal Jewish education.
There is much to make us hopeful on the American Jewish scene today. American Jews have entered an exciting new chapter in the relationship between secular and Jewish education. Earlier patterns have given way to a different set of realities. Contradicting decades of earlier statistical data and folk wisdom, contemporary young American Jews who have extensive secular educations are on average somewhat more likely to participate in Jewish activities and establish Jewish homes, while modestly educated young Jews are more often estranged from Jewish organizations and behaviors, married to current non-Jews, and not raising their children as Jews. Among younger cohorts of American Jews, higher secular education is not connected to weak Jewish involvement, as it has been in the past. More-over, the semiotic significance of educational and occupational achievement has changed over time, with particularly dramatic changes for contemporary younger Jews.
Several explanations can be suggested for the association of impressive secular education with higher Jewish profiles. First, a positive relationship between secular education and ethnic identification, which contrasts dramatically with past impressions, is a characteristic aspect of the larger pattern of white ethnic American identification. Studying middle class white ethnic Americans in 1990, Richard Alba found that—counterintuitively—those with higher levels of secular education were more, not less, likely to be committed to transmitting ethnic traditions to their children. The status of ethnicity has turned around in the past few decades, and highly educated white ethnics are more likely than their less educated sisters and brothers to seek out the distinct flavors of their own heritages. Second, low achievers are likely to feel uncomfortable and disfranchised among high achieving American Jews. Third, outmarriage is no longer a useful route to socioeconomic upward mobility for Jews. Fourth, overt antisemitism has declined. Few Jews are denied jobs because of their ethnic/religious identity.
Young American Jews do not perceive their Jewish identity as being in conflict with their potential for high achievement educationally, socially, or professionally. Rather than being an impetus for compartmentalization, outstanding educational and occupational achievements reinforce American Jewish identity, because achievers perceive other Jews as being similarly highly achieving.
Jewish formal and informal educational experiences provide the twin initial and lifelong bases for the infusion of Jewish cognitive and affective materials into American lives. Cognitively, individuals have a more genuinely Jewish consciousness when they have acquired intellectual tools that include familiarity with the Jewish religious belief system; Jewish texts and literatures; Jewish laws, codes, and rituals; Jewish languages; Jewish prescriptions for familial behaviors; Jewish ideas of communalism; Jewish preferences for gender role construction; and the diversity of Jewish cultural expressions. Affectively, individuals are more likely to be actively connected to other Jewish individuals and Jewish religious and communal structures when their experiential lives have included cultural reinforcements, such as those provided by Jewish families, youth groups, camps, and friends, along with Israel trips.
In our contemporary American world of permeable boundaries, formal and informal Jewish educational experiences yield complementary types of Jewish enculturation. Substantive formal education extending over the teen and young adult years has the most reliable predictive association with adult Jewish connections; informal Jewish education, almost always experienced today by persons who are also in the highest categories of formal educational cohorts, is closely correlated with adult connections. Together, they provide our best change to ensure that dynamic assimilation does not lead to the extreme type of coalescence that is tantamount to cultural impoverishment.
Assimilation is far from a random process, and we are not helpless creatures standing in the path of a tidal wave. We can make good use of the acculturation and coalescence of American Jewish life by combining it with high and lifelong levels of Jewish education. Our research shows us that this combination of American accomplishment and Jewish education creates a supportive context for dynamic Jewish life.
Director, Jerusalem Fellow Program Mandel School, Jerusalem.
Perhaps it is time that we focus anew on even the oft-quoted aphorisms that define our tradition. The Shema, perhaps the most famous of the tradition’s injunctions about education, first insists: "Take to heart these instructions with which I command you this day" and only then adds, "Impress them upon your children." Would it be pushing the text too far to claim that it suggests that there is no use impressing these words upon our children if we do not first take them to heart ourselves?
We are all in the debt of the leadership of the American Jewish Committee for having called our attention to the urgency of shifting our communal priorities and placing education once again at the center of our collective consciousness. This is an important statement, and if it is heeded by the policy shapers and agenda setters of American Jewish life, it may well play a critical role in helping to shape the direction—and destiny—of American Jewish life.
Change, however, may prove to be more difficult to achieve than even this document suggests. For a genuine shift in the effectiveness of American Jewish education will require not only a rethinking of our schools, camps, and other educational programs we have created, but of the religious worldview we model in general. Put otherwise, our educational ineffectiveness stems in part from our deep-seated inner conflict about the sorts of Jews we would like to educate and create. We do not educate well because we are not sure what we want our educational system to produce. We have sent our teachers and principals to the "front" to wage a battle for which we have provided no maps; the sad results reflect not on their dedication or talent, but on the nature of the task we assigned them in the first place.
Though this situation is not unique to any one movement or denomination, let me illustrate the point with reference to Conservative Judaism, the movement in which I was raised, in which I trained, in which I worked until recently—and which I therefore know best. The challenges facing each of the movements are distinct, and what ails Conservative Judaism may well not be an issue in other movements. But the central point, I believe, holds across the board: Jewish educational systems can succeed only to the extent that they have a clear conception (or conceptions) of the "ideal Jew" they seek to produce, and to the extent that the teachers in these institutions are able to articulate this sense and to transmit it with passion.
Conservative Judaism speaks often of the "ideal" Conservative Jew. This Jew is a person who observes the mitzvot such as kashrut, Shabbat, daily prayer, interpersonal commandments and the like, studies Jewish texts regularly, is devoted to Israel, and embodies a rich synthesis between the values of traditional Judaism and modernity. But whereas the movement—in its official publications or in the speeches of its leaders—often speaks of this "ideal," in reality few pulpit rabbis or community educators are very comfortable invoking this image. The fact has one important reason and one important consequence. The reason is that these educators (rabbis, teachers, and others) have no compelling arguments to make for why their pupils should live their lives this way. The consequence is that Conservative education takes place without an articulated vector, with no clear consensus on the basic goal of the education it provides.
Let’s return to the "reason." A close look at the vocabulary of Conservative Jewish life indicates that Conservative educators have been issued no tools for creating the ideal prototype to which they’re expected to give lip service. Conservative Judaism emerged from a nineteenth-century German intellectual movement known as Wissenschaft des Judentums, or the scientific study of Judaism. As important as this movement was to the academic study of Judaism, it was equally destructive of the religious dimension of Jewish life. Typical Conservative Jews, for example, are much more comfortable claiming that "God did not write the Torah" (for they have been taught that the document we know as the Torah is a compilation of several distinct subdocuments and worldviews) than they are at articulating what is sacred about the Torah. They are much more able to tell their children why they disagree with classic Orthodox theologies of revelation than they are able to explain why their view is different from one that ascribes no religious value to the Torah at all.
The "intellectual toolbox" that the crea-tors of the movement crafted in order to justify the academic study of Judaism has shown that it has precious little to offer a population desperately seeking identity and authenticity in a postmodern world. Put otherwise, classical Conservative vocabulary ironically wages battles that no longer need to be fought in an age when virtually all Conservative Jews are university graduates, and steals much from the spiritual life of today’s Conservative Jew.
The educational implications of this state of affairs are rather obvious. It is expected of "Conservative" teachers that they not purvey "Orthodox" conceptions of revelation, but neither are they to advocate a secular approach. What should they teach? They know that it has something to do with "the Torah’s sanctity despite its human origins," but that is a highly complex, extremely subtle argument. Few people of any denomination can make that claim, and our teachers find themselves trying to convince their students of something that they themselves don’t genuinely believe, or at least cannot articulate coherently.
The same phenomenon reigns when it comes to the place of halakhah, or Jewish law, in Conservative education. Having failed to convince anyone that the Bible is "God’s word," Conservative educators are hard- pressed to make a compelling argument for why their charges "ought" to live in a certain way. They can speak persuasively, and often powerfully, of how Jewish tradition enriches their own lives, but ironically, it is often the highly personal nature of their accounts that suggests to others—perhaps correctly—that each of us must write his or her own narrative, and that what speaks to one person will not necessarily speak to another. Forced to rely on the personal nature of their odyssey, they invariably undermine the movement’s claim of an "ought" or a commanding divine voice.
Nor do the movement’s de facto decisions on Jewish law assist the educator in her or his role. When asked, most Conservative Jews define their movement’s approach to halakhah by what it has changed, rather than by what it has preserved. They know much more about their movement’s expanding the role of women, permitting driving to synagogue on the Sabbath, allowing electricity on the Sabbath and the eating of cooked fish in nonkosher restaurant, etc., than they do about what has not changed. The notion that Conservative Judaism is trying to conserve something precious is often missed entirely. Because of the decisions the leadership of the movement has taken, Conservative youth too often perceive halakhah as something to be changed when it can be, and transgressed if it can’t be changed; how then can we expect our educators to work to create the "ideal Jew" of which the movement so often writes?
The resulting confusion runs deep. When polled, the overwhelming majority of Conservative Jews assert that to be a "good Conservative Jew" one must follow halakhah, but an equally impressive majority also claim that a "good Conservative Jew" can be married to a non-Jew! The nonsensical contradiction reflects not on the teacher but on the mixed message that an entire movement has communicated for decades. How much can we genuinely expect our teachers and their educational systems alone to alter this state of affairs?
In the case of Conservative Judaism, there is reason to expect that nothing fundamental will improve until the movement develops a new vocabulary with which to speak to its constituents. Conservative Jews are looking for something that Conservative ideology as it is presently formulated simply cannot provide; the disappointments we encounter in our educational institutions are effects, not causes, of the real problem. The movement’s theological toolbox, designed in the nineteenth century to free people from a rigid, anti-intellectual theology, has nothing to offer a people already reared in the intellectual secularism of America who might be open to a demanding religious system if only its spiritual valence could be articulated thoughtfully and passionately. But that is the toolbox with which the movement equips its educators, and when study after study indicate that these educational enterprises have not succeeded, we unfairly seek the cause of the problem with the educators and not with the movement that defined their task in the first place.
It is not, of course, that there is no way to make arguments for the Bible’s sanctity—and even divinity—in the aftermath of biblical criticism, or for the centrality of Jewish law even in the face of all that modernity has wrought. Ernst Simon’s "second innocence," James Fowler’s "conjunctive faith," Charles Taylor’s notion of "inescapable horizons," and even subtle elements of Joseph Soloveitchik’s Halakhic Man all offer elements of what could be a powerful argument for a serious dialogical engagement with Jewish law even at the beginning of this new millennium. But tragically, most Conservative rabbinical students (the future leaders of the movement) are much more familiar with the names of Wellhausen and Freud than they are with Simon, Fowler, or Taylor. They are too often the products of either an antiquated theology that advocates loyalty to halakhah in terms that are highly unconvincing, or of a response to that theology that is so oriented to individual choice as to be virtually indistinguishable from traditional Reform theology. Either way, the movement does these rabbis and its other educators a profound disservice by asking them to advocate positions that the movement itself has never seriously invested in defending.
What happens when educators trained in this internally incoherent system meet the "real world" of the school and the classroom? They have no compass. The "ideal" toward which they have been asked to educate seems so thoroughly illogical to their students (and to those students’ parents) that they soon give up. And having given up on this ideal, a problematic "noneducation" then ensues. Texts are taught with no clear conception of what religious message ought to be gleaned from them or of what impact they ought to have on the lives of those studying them. Laws and traditions are taught, but more often than not as a kind of "anthropological" investigation of some "other" Jewish world, thus widening rather than narrowing the Jew’s sense of himself or herself as part of that tradition. Israel is taught with no clear conception of whether aliyah is or is not a Conservative ideal, so that what emerges is not much more powerful than the student’s investigation of France or Brazil in their public school social studies class.
This state of affairs is troubling precisely because Conservative Judaism potentially has so much to offer. Our Jewish world desperately needs a compelling synthesis between the values of tradition and modernity and a hermeneutic for creating that synthesis; a reinvigorated and redirected Conservative movement might contribute much to this goal. And similar and equally compelling challenges face Ortho-
doxy, Reconstructionism, Reform, and other options currently available to American Jews. We all need to rethink our ideologies and our practices in light of what we would teach.
Jewish education is still a field waiting to be built and treated seriously, and we should all hope that this statement by the American Jewish Committee will move our community in that direction. But the solution cannot come from the teaching professional alone. The challenges faced by Jewish educators point to the need for each of the movements to rethink the degree to which it advocates a clear and consistent image of a vital and compelling Jewish life. The revitalization of Jewish education in North America calls not simply for a rethinking of the world of educators themselves, though that is surely important, but for an honest reexamination of the very tenets, beliefs, and ideals that the movements espouse. Nothing less is likely to have the impact our future so desperately requires.
David M. GordisDate:
Director, Wiltstein Institute of Jewish Policy Studies; President, Hebrew College, Brookline, Mass.
The publication of the American Jewish Committee statement on the centrality of Jewish education on the American Jewish public agenda is a noteworthy event. In its characteristically informed and nuanced way, the Committee has both reflected and contributed to a change in American Jewish priorities. The statement will undoubtedly generate wide discussion and will, I hope, contribute to an intensified focus on Jewish education and an enhanced commitment and investment on the part of Jewish communities of all types and sizes throughout the United States.
What, in fact, is the relationship between Jewish education and the continued creative vitality of Jewish life, which is commonly but sometimes too casually referred to as "Jewish continuity"? Beyond the general sense that being informed Jewishly leads to a higher degree of Jewish engagement and appears to be correlated with "more Jewish" behavior patterns such as a lower incidence of intermarriage, is there a more precise interrelationship that might be suggested?
I would propose the following formulation of the issue of "Jewish continuity" as a way of deepening our understanding of the interrelationship: The question of Jewish continuity is whether substantial numbers of Jews will draw from Jewish religion, culture, and civilization in meaningful ways in shaping their identities. If the answer is yes, there will be continuity of Jewish life. If not, no matter the size of institutional budgets or the elaborateness of the organizational structures of Jewish public life, there will be no "continuity" of importance. Nor, perhaps, should there be!
When I say "in meaningful ways," I mean at least the following: First, will substantial numbers of Jews draw from the language of Jewish tradition to mark significant transition points in their lives, such as the birth of a child, starting school, adolescence and puberty, marriage, death, and other significant events in the individual life cycle? Will they draw on the Jewish public calendar to mark shared communal experiences, such as changes in the seasons and to celebrate the cycle of nature and creativity?
Second, in shaping the value systems by which they live, will substantial numbers of Jews draw from Jewish religion, culture, and civilization? Will they be influenced by classical Jewish narratives, biblical and postbiblical, as they create the rules by which they make decisions and choices? Will their own struggle to make sense out of the often apparently random and chaotic nature of human experience be conditioned by Jewish attempts and formulations to shape a coherent narrative out of the human experience? Will role models from the Jewish past speak to them and participate in their own personal human journeys? Will biblical, rabbinic, and later formulations of attempts to embody ethical norms in daily life, both personal and communal, inform their own efforts to structure their behaviors, relationships, and priorities in ethically alert and responsible fashion?
Third, all thoughtful people grapple with core questions of meaning during their lives. What is the significance of my presence in the world? How do I wish to be remembered? What is the meaning of love? Of birth? Of death? If they choose to use religious language, what is the meaning of my relationship to God and what does that relationship imply? What is my role as an individual in the community? In shaping their responses to these and other core questions of meaning, will significant numbers of Jews draw from the experience of the historical Jewish community, its teachers and its classical texts? Will the responses to the core questions of meaning that individual Jews develop be influenced significantly by the conceptual, ideational, and spiritual vocabulary of Jewish tradition, culture, and civilization? If the answer to these questions is yes, that significant numbers of Jews will, in fact, draw from our culture and tradition in these ways, there will be Jewish continuity. If not, there will be no continuity of any importance.
And this is precisely why Jewish education must become central. American Jewry, arguably the most well educated American community, demanding and often achieving the highest standards for itself in general and professional education, has only the most rudimentary familiarity, if that, with its own culture and civilization. For American Jews, Judaism has become both literally and figuratively a closed book. And if the book is closed there is no possible way that Jews can draw from the richness of their culture and civilization in shaping their identities. They simply have no access to their own civilization. If we cannot change the status quo, from a highly educated and sophisticated but Jewishly illiterate community to a Jewishly informed community, the answer to the question of Jewish continuity will without question be no. The fundamental and most critical challenge we face, if we seek to ensure the continued vitality of Jewish life, is to open the book, to provide the access, and the book can only be opened through Jewish education.
The analogy of naturalization of new citizens suggests itself in this context: When a resident alien seeks to become naturalized, the expectation is that he or she will need to have a core of information and requisite skills to function competently within the society that he or she is joining. We expect a basic knowledge of the major personalities of American history, of the key documents of American society, an understanding of the workings of the American government, a familiarity with the fundamental values of democracy and freedom upon which our country is based. Those are threshold requirements.
The analogy with general culture and the
larger society can be extended. The objective of liberal education is to create citizens who can function competently within the society in which they live. Through the stages of education and in age and developmentally appropriate ways, individuals are exposed to the principal features of the history of the culture and the nation, to significant literary and cultural monuments, to the shaping ideas of the culture, and to major personalities whose impacts have been enduring. In addition, they are provided with the tools—linguistic, analytical, and computational—to function effectively as trustees of the culture of the community in which they live. Absent the information base and skill set, they cannot be expected to function competently as responsible guardians of the culture or as transmitters of the culture to the next generation.
The world is a dynamic place. Technology constantly transforms it. New ideas challenge old assumptions and new formulations replace old ones. Change is the only constant in a living society, and so competence for an individual in society requires not only receiving and preserving the past, but reshaping and recreating the culture for the future.
The same holds true for Judaism and Jewishness. The kind of education that is required must prepare individual Jews to be not only custodians of a tradition and culture from the past, but active participants in a living community that is constantly reshaping and refining its culture in ways that are appropriate for the present and future. If there is to be continued vitality to Jewish life, the Jewish community must see its role not only as repository but as creator, and Jewish education must prepare the community for such a role.
For that reason, Jewish education must be viewed as a life-span enterprise, as the American Jewish Committee statement correctly states. The role of education as a socializing process is very important. In this regard there is a critical role for the secondary school years and for nonformal Jewish educational settings. They create a comfort level with Jewish community and the motivation and inclination to engage Jewishly. But peer group associations are not enough. The community must be built on common cultural foundations. Jews will continue to be diverse in their religious, ideological, and political views. Their lifestyles will vary. The desire to remain connected Jewishly, to other Jews and to Jewish community, can only be nurtured by providing access for Jews to the richness of Jewish culture and civilization that they can share with other Jews. Jews will build their identities by drawing from and internalizing what they choose from Jewish civilization. In so doing they will link themselves to other Jews and to Judaism, and will shape Jewish patterns for the next generation. But this needs to be seen as a dynamic rather than a static process, and it requires a high degree of knowledge and sophistication, certainly no less than is expected and demanded in general liberal education. Jews are highly educated in general culture and recognize quality and authenticity in education as opposed to indoctrination and mediocrity. We must overcome the mentality that sees any Jewish study experience as equal to any other, a kind of indiscriminate checkoff mentality, and replace it with standards of sophistication and excellence of the kind we would require in the general and professional educational areas.
For this reason, I see no way that we can achieve our objective by focusing on one age cohort, even if resources are limited. We cannot afford to give short shrift to Jewish education for the college-age population or for adults beyond traditional college age. That which can be offered to the college-age population is qualitatively different from what can be offered to secondary school students. Nor can we neglect preschool or elementary school years when the capacity to assimilate language skills and other competencies is greatest. It would be unthinkable in the larger society to suggest that we concentrate all efforts into one age cohort. So also Jewish education. Jewish education must, in fact, be a life-long enterprise, and the communal approach must be to ensure the availability of sophisticated Jewish study as a life-span program. The costs of such an initiative are high. On the other hand, we should not underestimate the resources available in the Jewish community. We must formulate the program of life-long Jewish education and the critical rationale for it in exciting and compelling terms, and find the resources from both individual and communal resources. The American Jewish Committee statement makes a number of constructive suggestions in this direction. These and other must be adopted and implemented. There is simply no acceptable alternative.