Joel Lurie Grishaver
More than 160 years ago my father was Bar Mitzvah at Temple Ohabai Shalom in Boston. It was a Reform Synagogue with a traditional leaning. My father never learned a letter of Hebrew, he read his Torah Portion off of a sheet of transliteration. He never did learn a letter of Hebrew, but he did OKAY in the Union Prayer Book universe. He was a Youth Leader, a Temple Treasurer and a board member of the Brotherhood and the JCC. In those days, the Reform movement only ran a Sunday School. No Hebrew involved.
Given the apparent motivation and Jewish reality, those days seem to be returning.
MARRIAGE and IDENTIFICATION
Jewish Life is about a lot of things.
Je Suis Charlie. In Europe there is still antiSemitism. Some of it is historic, but much emerges from contemporary Middle Eastern politics. There are lots of angry Muslims in Europe. I will not claim there is no antiSemitism in North America, but it is masked by a lot of other factors like the Boston Marathon. In Europe, some parents still want their kids to deal with the reality of anti-Semitism, but that is not the American reality. The PM of Israel is not going to offer American Jews safety in Israel. Now in the deep-seeded racism that permeates the popular discussion one can find the roots—but honestly told, Jews here count as whites, and Jews (outside of Abortion clinics) don’t fear being targets.
Israel. Netanyahu may consider himself a leading Republican, but fear of Iran is not going to motivate any Jewish parents to submit their children to Jewish learning. (Maybe a few Persian Jews, but the number is not statistically relevant.) Jewish parents may want their children to feel pride in Israel, see themselves as part of a world Jewish community, and have lots of other positive feelings about their Jewishness, but learning Hatikvah is not a step in the Jewish lifecycle and it will not serve as a foundation for much Jewish learning. None of that will stop Jewish tourism. I would be interested to know the impact ISIL has had on the Birthright program.
In-Marriage. In The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in America (Indiana University Press, 2000, Eisen and Cohen) we learn of the Jewish Sovereign Self, that allows Jews to feel that they carry their Jewishness within and that it can be passed on to their children regardless of in-marriage. They can marry anyone, live any lifestyle, yet by force of will, the identity of their children will continue to be Jewish. The whole network of organizations originally designed to pass Judaism on are no longer needed. In the wake Sovereign Self Jewish organizations no longer need to be exclusively Jewish and Jewish education lost its strongest motivation. In Simon Sharma’s, The Story of the Jews, we learn that many dynamic Jewish communities lived integrated lives.
Peer Group. If in-marriage is no longer central, then a dating pool is no longer sacred. One can no longer not find someone called “Rabbi” to perform any wedding (or a gym to belong to). Bar/t mitzvah’s can happen without congregational involvement. Belonging to the now expensive synagogue is a matter of choice. Judaism has become a hobby—a way of life, for sure, but a hobby. Jewish community can now happen via social media, and like sports’ team allegiance, it is influenced by but not controlled by family history.
Observance. Orthodoxy is clearly viable. Non-Orthodoxy is still viable if less secure. Networking is the way of the Jewish future. Reform has those who attend the Rabbi’s Saturday morning Torah study, while the Conservative Movement has an elite made up of those who show up weekly for Saturday morning services (often, key Day School families). Alternative minyanim fill the urban landscapes, Day schools, youth groups, Israel trips and summer camps are no longer what they were in the golden age, but all still draw their crowds. Hillel remains in business. And then there is Chabad.
Identity. Jewish music lives a life outside of synagogues. Google Jewish artwork and be surprised. Yiddish Books have an afterlife at the Yiddish Book Center. Jewish Identity is not what it once was but it is still very much alive. Judaism would be a second rate hobby if there were not things to collect my sister, Judy, dreidles, and my friend, Janie, collects tambourines as her tribute to Miriam. Jewish life is alive and well in cultural terms. How many famous Jewish drag Queens can you name? (Start with Lady Synagaga).
Knowledge. Once again we are not at the epoch of the curve (I don’t think) but there is a lot of Jewish learning around. Just look at the success of international Limmud. A conference for adult Jewish learning. Check the brand new out the options at The Official Hillel Guide to Jewish Life on Campus published by Hillel Internaional. Check out The Florence Melton School of Adult Jewish Learning. It is not what it once was, but it is still impressive. What doesn’t happen in the Hebrew school years can still happen later in life.
Social Action. Call it Social Action. Call it service learning. Call it Tikkun Olam: Insuring fresh water, ending slavery, providing woman’s education, and feeding the hungry—improving the world. We live in an age, especially of youth, where projects that improve the lot of humanity are big. Here is a popular trend that is completely in sync with the Jewish tradition. Consider this an area of opportunity.
Personal Growth. There was a moment when 12-step literature, self-help, and spirituality was huge. It is not a fad that has continued, but it never vanished completely, either. I spend two days a week working at Beit T’shuvah (The House of Return) working as a spiritual counselor to a whole bunch of addicts in recovery. Understanding the issues of sobriety, I know that a positive sense of self is really important and Jewish values speak directly to this sense. We live in a world where problems of addiction have not been solved and inoculations against them are still useful. Here is another use for Jewish education.
Affiliation. Affliation, once an end, now becomes a means. Lots of Jewish organizations study The Spirituality of Welcoming: How to Transform Your Congregation into a Sacred Community (by Ron Wolfson) as a sacred text. In order to keep their institutions going, the study and practice of sustainability was become a major Jewish practice. Jews built a larger Jewish community and network of organizations than was needed. Now that they exist, these institutions have a life force that wants to continue. They have at their heart a cycle of finding and meeting the needs of a Jewish audience, or an audience that wants a Jewish connection.
Capitalization. Like affiliation, capitalization is a self-perpetuating Jewish goal. A number of organizations exist to raise money for good Jewish projects and stay in business as much for the fundraising as for the project. Both affiliation and capitalization are self-sustaining processes that build Jewish life through building Jewish life. They thrive off the projects they choose, but their process is self-generative,
NEW METHODS—NEW MOTIVATIONS
Every educational revolution starts with methodology. It is always the new method first. We are at the leading edge of an endless array of new methodologies that means new motivations are on the way. Inexplicably, the how always proceeds the why. The “what” comes before the “what for?” While experiential and project based, technology, and flipped classroom are rampant, the what for is now on hold.
The question that needs answering is: “Why should the Jewish people survive?” There are lots of old answers: That Judaism offers a lifestyle, culture, a set of values and a process that the world needs. That Judaism provides a way of dealing with birth and death and other life issues. That the Jewish tradition charges the world with a standard of behavior that is kind, compassionate, and just. From the Jewish tradition emerges art of every kind and variety—especially the word. The Judaism offers the world a series of treasure that cry out to be preserved and whose preservation transforms those dedicated to them.
My father was Bar Mitzvah because that is what Jews did. I’m not sure that as a fatherless child of a single mother of the working class that would have happened today. I went to Hebrew School and nothing was lacking in my Jewish upbringing. Today, the numbers are slipping. Those who believe that only Orthodox Judaism will survive don’t understand North American Jews. They believe that Judaism will survive only as #1 number one priority, I know that Judaism can survive as a top three or top five priority. Today Jewish social life doesn’t automatically lead to schooling, but it has room for school—and yes, compromises will be involved.
We are not in the proudest hour of Jewish life—though there is a lot to be proud about—and there should be little doubt that in most of its manifestations it will survive. If Jewish life came out of Elephantine Egypt, it will emerge today. Parents will continue to bless their childen (not as many parents) with a Jewish education—and that education will change and evolve. So some children will read transliteration or learn on skype, they will still do what Jews have always done—balance their secular and Jewish lives—and emerge to face the future.
We on the delivery side of Jewish learning are going to have to work harder to recruit and sustain participation, but we have sufficient talent. No one promised us a challenge free existence. We will succeed because God is on our side. We will succeed because what we are doing is worthwhile. And, we will succeed because we need to. Meanwhile the OLDER generation of educators will scream “minimalist” and be responded too, “you don’t know the present reality.” Evolution takes place.
Today, the foundation for Jewish Camping, funded by the Jim Joseph Foundation, has supported the opening of 10 new camps. These were designed to attract audiences that had not previously been drawn to Jewish camping. They include Passport NYC (urban), Adamah Adventures (Outdoors), Eden Village Camp (farming), Ramah Outdoor Adventures (Outdoor), URJ 6 Points Sports Camp Academy (sports), Bima (arts), Camp Inc., (Business and entrepreneurial), Camp Zeke, (health and wellness) JCC Maccabi Sports Camp and URJ Six Points Science Academy Science and technology camp. Here is an old product twisted to look brand new. They will still have song leaders, Havdalah, and a good dose of Israel. Likewise, North Shore Congregation Israel has recast its Hebrew school as a camp, and a group in Atlanta has added Jewish Education to an extended after school care program. And more are doing so—this way and that.
Jewish Education may take place in new frames, but the core motivation remains the same. New rationalizations will follow new forms, but life goes on.