Jewish continuity. This was and in many respects still is the buzz phrase occupying Jewish leaders in North America.
This crisis started with the Jewish population study of 1990 where it was “discovered” — and this was a surprise? — that the intermarriage rate was somewhere around 50 percent. Combined with a birth rate below the 2.1 replacement level, policy planners sitting in various community planning offices locally and nationally sounded the alarm concerning the future of the American Jewish community.
Various “continuity commissions” were launched in cities all over North America. Not surprisingly, Jewish education was seen as both the culprit for this crisis and its solution.
Within the Orthodox community, there is no intermarriage crisis. Indeed, Orthodoxy is criticized by some for its “triumphalism,” its sense that it has won the battle against assimilation, in contrast to the 1940s and 1950s when many were predicting Orthodoxy’s imminent collapse.
But what distinguishes the various strands of Orthodoxy from some of the other American Jewish movements is their consistent commitment to the content of Judaism and not merely to its continued existence.
Jewish education of all stripes, Orthodox or not, need not and should not be reduced to a means that is less noble than the greatness of the texts, traditions and values involved in that education. When our Talmudic sages discussed the question, “what is greater, education or action?” the majority came down on the education side, because it leads to action.
So here is a clear notion of education as a means, but the ends involved — performance of mitzvot, i.e., acting according to the will of God and fulfilling the covenantal responsibilities embodied in His Torah — is a worthy purpose for education.
Worthwhile educational philosophies and systems need to exist for reasons more compelling than institutional survival. They must embody grand ideas, visions of an ideal society, of an ideal human existence, provide glimpses into the transcendent, connections to values above and beyond.
At the family level, is Judaism a sincerely held set of beliefs that enhances and defines life, or is the Jewish aspect some vague, ill-defined ethnic sensibility? Educating to raise a Jewish family can be a rather pedestrian notion unless we’re willing to define the actual Jewish content of that Jewish familial life.
What is the answer that we as parents and teachers can offer to the teenager who asks, “Why should I remain Jewish?” Or, “Why shouldn’t I date/marry a non-Jew?”
Our answer must not merely restate that “being Jewish” is an obligation. It must explain why Judaism is important and, especially, why it is good. If we are educating our children only so that they will “stay Jewish,” marry Jews, give to Federation campaigns, raise Jewish children, then Jewish education will fail.
Much of the Jewish communal discourse shies away from defining the substance of Jewish life. It is a very difficult conversation, because the Jewish community has so many different approaches.
The Samis Foundation has for the most part been ideologically colorblind, in that we support all day schools in the area: communal (Seattle Jewish Community School and the Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, which are liberal and egalitarian) and Orthodox (Seattle Hebrew Academy, Northwest Yeshiva High School and Chabad).
More importantly than these ideological distinctions, we recognize that day school education, because of half of the school day being devoted to serious Jewish study, requires an in-depth commitment to the deeper questions of Jewish life, to the purposes of Jewish text study, to the significance of the modern State of Israel to the Jewish people and Jewish history.
Such depth requires a full-time setting. Chances for success not in highly limited or marginal contexts are slim to none. Samis would not support a day school where only one hour per day was devoted to Jewish study. As one prominent sociologist of Jewish communal life observed, “the more, the more.” The more Jewish education, the more committed the Jew.
And of course this makes perfect sense. Let’s consider briefly one key component of nearly any Jewish education: the Sh’ma. “Listen, Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.”
The use of the “Lord” is not a translation at all of the four-letter formulation of God’s name in the text of the Torah. It is a translation of the Hebrew word traditionally uttered in place of that name, which has such a high level of holiness that Jewish tradition has constructed fences to protect and preserve the name’s holiness. All of this is lost if only the summary English translation is used.
To appreciate the relationship of what we say in this key utterance to God and our tradition’s efforts to grasp yet respect Him, the student must read and understand the Hebrew text and words.
Consider also the words that follow the initial line of the Sh’ma. They demand an extraordinary commitment on the part of the person reciting them, a command to love God with all one’s heart, soul and…well, this next word is very difficult to translate. It typically and usually is the simple adverb “very,” but in this context is treated as a noun with a possessive suffix: “your very-ness?” What does that mean? So, we usually translate it as “might,” but the word seems to encompass the extremity of human striving in all respects.
The point here is that sh’ma is a statement of ultimate commitment by a Jew to Judaism. If, however, only one hour per week is devoted to Jewish education, the overall message we are sending is that Judaism is merely a pleasant, heimish old culture.
In this context, how could we expect the student to take seriously such an expression of absolute commitment? If Jewish education is a supplement or an afterthought, worthy of only one hour per week of study or even two or three, then the message of the text conflicts with the medium, and the medium will prevail.
The reply given to this challenge is, what does one do with those who are not willing to make a day school commitment? Write them off? Of course not, but communal leaders have to be willing to make the statement and translate into action the commitment to the “more Jewish education, the better.”
Institutions that can offer only a part-time modicum of Jewish education should be encouraging and challenging their students to be growing Jewishly all the time, even to the extent such growth would lead to more intensive commitments.
For children, inevitably this means day school education. In other words, a supplementary school’s idea of ultimate success should be closing its doors because all its students have enrolled in full-time day schools.
Indeed, it used to be the case that Conservative rabbis encouraged their congregants to enroll their children in day schools, and not the synagogue’s supplemental schools. The Reform movement also has opened day schools in many major metropolitan areas. Local synagogues should follow the lead and develop stronger recruitment relationships with day schools. All Jewish education efforts need support, but the more intensive ones should be supported much more, both financially and from the various pulpits of communal responsibility. Not because it leads to Jewish continuity, though it does, but because it is the right thing to do!