The largest challenge facing the North American Jewish community may be summed up by the most challenging question that my almost five year old has ever asked, “Why?” This question is difficult because she is not satisfied by the stock answer of “because I said so” or “because it’s the rule.” She is trying to make sense of the world around her and she really wants to the know the answer to her question because she is on a constant quest to create meaning and relevance.
The North American Jewish community has found itself in a similar position. The marketplace of ideas and opportunities are overflowing with options and we are not making a compelling case to our youth (or even adults in many cases) that Jewish life is rich and vibrant, and most importantly, meaningful and relevant. There are a myriad of Jewish opportunities available from youth groups to day school to gap year programs. Are they truly having the impact that we desire?
During my senior year of college, I conducted research looking at what factors enhanced Jewish identity in college students. My results were disheartening. Despite a reasonable sample size and a focus groups to help interpret the qualitative data, the only tangible result that I could present was that supplementary school experiences had a negative impact. No other result presented as statistically significant in either direction.
As a product of a combination of religious school, youth group, Jewish summer camp, Hillel, and an observant home life, this data continues to haunt me. I wonder why so many of my peers have not chosen to live Jewishly engaged lives. In my role as a day school administrator, I worry that we are working with a model that reaches to too few. At the same time, while day school education has been shown to create leaders in the Jewish community, I encounter many who left their day school experience turned off from Judaism.
As a leader in the Jewish community, I clearly see the need for us to embrace the challenge of relevance and meaning. Judaism is an incredible product whose multi-faceted nature has the ability to reach out to a diverse number of Jews. As an educational leader, I want to be in the trenches working to create the experiences that will bring relevance and meaning. I want to be working expand on the successes of successful models of engagement while trying to understand while other models have failed and learn from those failures. We need to create partnerships and synergies that allow us meld together the most effective interventions and programs and I want to be part of solutions that change the landscape of Jewish education and engagement.
Within the day school world, we need to become exemplars of educational practices for both general and Jewish studies. While minimally engaged families may not be initially attracted by the Jewish studies program, we need to make the case for the deeper skills, such as empathy, critical reading, and problem solving, that Jewish studies build and how they enhance, not just general studies, but the entire child. We need to learn from the success of youth groups and camps that build a love of Judaism through their affective programming that does not over intellectualize Judaism.
I would be remiss, however, if I did not mention that even the most meaningful and relevant experiences are useless if they are not accessible. Building towards this grand vision of learning environments that create engaged Jews is useless if we cannot tackle the affordability question. Without a doubt, Jewish life as it is currently construed in North America is an expensive proposition and in a world with some many competing demands for our dollars, we need to make sure that the experiences that we create are worthy of the financial support of our constituents. While creating a compelling product will not solve the affordability question, it will go a long way towards creating the demand and desire that will impact the financial issues.
We simply need to answer the question, “Why?”