Remarks from Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie To the National Association of Temple Educators Convention Clearwater, FL -- December 23, 1998
I am grateful for the opportunity to address your national convention.
This is my first address to you since I became president of the UAHC, and it enables me to express my profound thanks to NATE and to all its members for the extraordinary work that you are doing on behalf of our Movement. NATE has been in existence now for forty-three years. And what have you done in that time? You have created a new profession--that of the Reform Jewish educator. You have set standards for that profession and raised its aspirations. You have joined with the Union and Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in producing textbooks and educational materials and curricula as well as testing their effectiveness in the classroom. You have taught our children and the teachers of our children. When NATE was created forty-three years ago, I doubt that its founders would have imagined an assemblage like the one gathered here--so rich in numbers and in accomplishments.
We have a great deal left to do, of course; in a sense, the work of seriously educating our Movement has just begun. You have asked me to be honest with you and to talk tachlis--and I will. But it is best that we not make light of our past achievements.
In the two and a half years that I have been president of the Union, educational issues have almost entirely dominated my agenda. And my efforts to give new direction to our Movement have rested in very large measure on the foundation that you have created. It is this association and its members who are there on the firing lines--doing the everyday work of teaching Torah and running our religious schools, which must be the starting point for all else that we hope to achieve. And it goes without saying that your support, cooperation, and active participation in the new educational work that we are undertaking are absolutely essential to its success.
With that in mind, I propose to do three things this evening: first, to restate the goals which give shape and form to the educational agenda as I understand it; second, to summarize very briefly the new educational projects that the Union has already undertaken; and third, and most important, to place before you a number of challenges with which we must grapple--you and I together--if we are to have any hope of succeeding in the years ahead.
Torah at the Center My goals are simple ones, and they have been frequently stated. They begin with the premise that this enterprise of being Jewish is of transcendent importance; that we want Jews to be in dialogue with their ancestors and to be part of Jewish intellect, Jewish values, and Jewish learning; that Judaism in the final analysis is primarily about God and Jewish books and not about whether the Arabs hate us or the Gentiles hate us.
These goals require a particular model of synagogue life--one that has emerged primarily from the work of the Rhea Hirsch School and the Experiment in Congregational Education (ECE) program and that sees the synagogue in a new way: as an interdependent learning community; as a place where education is not confined to the religious school and a few adult classes; as a place where a variety of models exist for serious study, including havurah, Shabbaton, family education, and home study; as a place where each member family meets with the rabbi or educator to plot out an educational plan for the synagogue year; as the home of a sophisticated library, where a variety of educational materials not now available are offered to individuals and groups; and as a place where every committee and program group incorporates into its everyday work the study of appropriate Jewish texts.
In short, we need to see the synagogue as a place with Torah at the center.
But that is not all. We also need to say openly and honestly that Jewish education is not an end unto itself: It is a means to an end. And that is because we Jews do not study Torah as an intellectual exercise but as an act of intimacy--as a vehicle for expressing the deepest yearnings of our soul. Let me put it somewhat differently: We study Torah for the purpose of encouraging a Jewish way of life, which involves not only Jewish literacy but also prayer, ritual observance, and the work of tikkun olam.
Still, and without contradiction, I am quick to acknowledge that it is very hard to teach belief and communion with the sacred. We do not know how to do that very well. But we do know how to teach Jewish competence and Jewish literacy, and that can serve as the basis for Jewish faith and belief. Ignorance is a greater calamity than doubt precisely because faith built on ignorance is sure to crumble. On this point, the Talmud is clear: "Ayn boor chasid--An ignorant person cannot be pious." So our goal is not study, it is Jewish living; but as a Movement strategy, study may be the best way to get us there.
And finally this: My goals for our future include an absolute rejection of the fatalism that so often surrounds our discussions about Jewish education. This fatalism takes two forms. Some Reform leaders will affirm the vision that I have articulated but then say that it cannot be realized until we restructure the family and transform the synagogue and invest massive resources into these efforts. There is truth in each of these claims, of course, but the conclusion often becomes that educational change is virtually impossible in the near term: instead, we must be patient and wait for better days. Another approach is to assert that there is one key and only one key to educational revival; these days, day schools and Israel trips are most often presented as panaceas. Let me be clear: My oldest child completed a thirteen-year day school program and my second child is now in his tenth year of day school studies. I am an energetic advocate of day schools. Similarly, I am an old-time, Hebrew-speaking Zionist who believes that connection to Israel is vital to our Jewish well-being. I have been to Israel more than thirty times and have lived there with my family on three occasions. But it is disastrous to suggest that these are the only answers and to claim--at least by implication--that all other synagogue and Movement educational efforts are doomed to failure. This is factually wrong and very dangerous: It means abandoning all those Jews in our ranks who, despite our best efforts, will not, in the short term, attend day schools or travel to Israel. And we will not leave them behind.
On this point, let us be clear: Fate is a Greek concept and not a Jewish one. We cannot afford to be passive, accepting, or patient. My view is that there is nothing inevitable about the educational crisis that we face; it results from communal and individual choices that can be studied, evaluated, and changed. As I have said many times, Reform Jews believe in the transforming power of leadership and the transforming power of Torah. And there are steps that each of us can take now that will make a difference.
I hope that you share, at least in basic outline, the goals that I have presented. As I said, I have stated them before, but as we all know, the essence of teaching is repeating what is especially important again and again. It may not be absorbed the first time, or the second, or the fifth, but if rabbis, educators, and teachers assert it frequently enough, it will eventually find its way into the consciousness of the community. I recognize my responsibility here, but I also know that your influence is in some ways greater than mine.
We find ourselves at a unique moment in Jewish history. There is a broad consensus, at least among our leadership, that Judaism and Jewishness matter; that study is our first duty and greatest joy; and that to be a Jew is to be heir to one of the greatest traditions of faith, morality, community and individual living that the world has ever known. We all need to see it as our duty to proclaim this message and in so doing to set a new agenda for our Movement.
How Do We Transmit Torah? Goals are essential, of course, but it is in the doing that we are ultimately tested. It is fine to proclaim Torah, but how do we transmit Torah? How do we create the programs and the structures and the activities which embody Torah and which actually pass it on to Jewish men and women, to parents and children, and to families in all their variety?
I think it is fair to say that our Movement has generated a great deal of educational doing in the last two years, perhaps more than some people think wise. Many of my colleagues recommended a slower, more deliberate approach. They advised me to use the opportunity of a change in leadership to bring the multiplicity of UAHC programs under a single roof and to charge a single executive with carrying them out. They urged me to do appropriate research, to develop a finished plan of action, and then to proceed in a careful and coordinated fashion.
I believe that in many ways that was sound advice; nonetheless, I rejected it, not because it was flawed theoretically but because it was flawed practically. To understand my thinking, you must understand the sense of urgency that underlies it. I am convinced that we have a window of opportunity in the Jewish world, but it is a very narrow window; it will last a few years, a decade at most. During that time, we must engage a community that for generations has been turning its back on Torah and Jewish learning but now seems prepared to take them back; at the very least, it seems ready to experiment, to dip its toe into the water, to allow itself to be convinced. We simply cannot afford to wait while we engage in massive research studies or major organizational restructuring. We need to act now--or another generation, and perhaps the entire community, will be lost. My approach, therefore, has been to proceed as aggressively as possible on multiple fronts; and I have done so with the expectation that we will not simply run off in a thousand directions but that new leadership and the exigencies of the hour will make it possible for the educational arms of the Union and of the Movement to develop a coherent education strategy, and to work together for the first time in the closest possible harmony and cooperation.
We began by reviving our Department of Jewish Education. Rabbi Jan Katzew has brought new energy and dynamism to this department, and his has been a clear and articulate voice for high standards and renewed commitment to our congregational schools. The publications that his department has produced for parents, teachers, principals, and young families are of the highest quality. Notable, too, was his decision to move educational resources into our regional offices so that the Movement could provide practical, hands-on help to many more schools and educators; we now have nine part-time regional educators who work under Jan's direction. He is your champion within the Union's halls, and he is an exceedingly effective champion. He has also brought his talents to the work of the Commission on Reform Jewish Education, which has expanded its scope of activities and which will play an ever-larger role in our Movement. The fact that Rabbi Deborah Joselow and Linda Thal are with Jan in the Department of Jewish Education means that we have an absolutely superb first team giving direction to our educational work.
Rabbi Katzew has also undertaken giving new life to our UAHC Press. Twenty years ago, the Press provided 80 to 90 percent of the books used in Reform religious schools; today, it provides only 10 percent. We are solely responsible for this drastic decline; we were not producing books and materials of the quality that you had every right to expect of us. We considered dropping the Press altogether, but it is my view that there are indeed unique and distinct Reform educational needs and that it would a serious error to leave the satisfaction of those needs solely to nonmovement, for-profit publishers. Therefore, we have taken the opposite course, expanding the Press and separating it from the Department of Jewish Education. It now operates with a new and talented publisher, Ken Gesser, under Jan Katzew's supervision. Most important, we have created an editorial board consisting of leading educators, rabbis, laypeople, and HUC-JIR professors who will guide the Press, and will assure that it is publishing what you want and need and not what we want and need. Changes in the Press and in your response to it are already apparent.
Informal education has also been a high priority for us. I know that no one here needs to be convinced of the value of our Union camps: They are the place where our children stretch both their Jewish muscles and their Jewish minds. Shortly after becoming president, I asked our Union leadership to double the capacity of our camps. Since that time, we have purchased three new camps, and we are expanding every one of our existing facilities. Virtually all of our Jewish professionals are now graduates of our camping system, educators as well as cantors and rabbis; much of our lay leadership comes from there as well. I am therefore convinced that doubling the number of children in our camping system will revolutionize Reform Jewish life.
As some of you know, at the Union's board meeting earlier this month in Memphis, I announced a second initiative in the area of informal education--this one aimed at rebuilding the Reform Jewish youth movement. Everyone in this room is aware of the appallingly high teenage drop-out rate in our synagogues after bar and bat mitzvah, and you aware as well of the sorry state of the youth groups in most of our congregations. I have proposed a comprehensive strategy and the expenditure of considerable resources to recapture our teenagers for Jewish life, and this is a strategy that very much involves you. I will return to this subject later on in my remarks.
But the educational work of the Union in the last two years has not focused entirely or even primarily on children and young people. If we want the synagogue to truly be an interdependent learning community and if we want education to be the core of temple activity rather than a fee-for-service proposition aimed at getting members through the door--especially when their child is approaching bat mitzvah age--then we must focus on Jewish study for grown-ups. I have told my leadership again and again that Judaism is not pediatric. For thousands of years it has been something else: a religion of adults who strive to find God, observe Torah, embrace mitzvot, and honor commitments going back to Abraham and Sarah. A Judaism that is pediatric will fail because it will have nothing to say to adults, who will then turn elsewhere to meet their spiritual needs.
And we need to look at the hard truth about ourselves: In North America today, you do not need to know a thing about a Jewish book to sit on virtually any board of any Jewish institution, synagogues and seminaries included. We have never demanded that the Jewish head be trained. We have never demanded that some baggage of Jewish knowledge and culture be carried by those who in other ways give so much of themselves in carrying on the work of our congregations. Therefore, the Union has instituted a major effort, which I announced at our 1997 Dallas Biennial, to promote adult learning and literacy. Directed by Rabbi Larry Raphael and our newly created Department of Adult Jewish Growth, this effort includes the production of user-friendly Jewish texts for temple boards and all major temple committees, as well as study guides for a select number of books that we encourage temple leaders to read each year. Other elements of the program are the distribution of a weekly liberal Torah commentary, Torat Hayim, training sessions for those who wish to learn to chant Torah, and the expansion of our network of adult Kallot. We are particularly pleased that between 400 and 500 congregations participated last year in a Tikkun Leil Shavuot, many for the first time and most using the study resources that we provided.
I am not naive, and neither are you. I am aware that in some synagogues the response to our charge has been enthusiastic, and in some it has not. I know, too, that initial enthusiasm has sometimes faded with the passage of time. But on balance I believe that the reaction has been positive and that we have begun to change the culture of synagogue life. Many of our leaders, it turns out, are truly interested in digging deeply and finding within themselves a spiritual center: Many truly aspire to be Jews who will hear God's voice and will see Torah as a tree of life.
There is one other initiative of particular importance to me that I wish to mention. Reform Judaism has always prided itself on its ethical thrust; whatever else Reform Judaism may or may not be, it is accurate to assert, I believe, that which is unethical cannot be authentically Reform. We are a Movement dedicated not only to tikkun olam--repair of the world--but also to tikkun middot--repair of that which is ethically flawed in our personal lives and behavior. For half a century, our schools--relying on books by Roland Gittelsohn and others--have viewed personal ethical instruction as a foundation on which our curricula are built. But more recently, I fear that we have been overwhelmed by events.
Much has been said about the moral confusions of modern life. These confusions have been heightened by the spectacle that is playing itself out in Washington--by the bombardment of news stories on Clinton, Starr, Lewinsky, and Jones and by the graphically detailed accounts of stained dresses and cigars and sexual liaisons in the White House. The normal confusions of adolescence have been magnified, and this at a time when the frenetic quality of modern culture already leaves many of the young in our society desperately confused about appropriate sexual and ethical standards. But what is new is this: Adults are confused as well, and it is my sense that in many cases, neither parents nor synagogues are making any serious effort to dispel this confusion and to provide clear guidance.
Sexual and ethical problems of a very serious sort have been surfacing in recent years in our camps and Israel programs, and we have the clear sense that in the great majority of cases, the children involved have received virtually no direction or instruction from their rabbis, synagogues, or religious schools. Therefore, Rabbis Jan Katzew and Dennis Eisner are heading up a national task force which is hard at work shaping materials and programs to respond to this crisis for use in family education and in our schools, our camps and on our Israel trips. To state the obvious, this is an exceedingly complicated task, and we are drawing upon expert advice from the Jewish and the general academic community. We expect to have the first materials in your hands a year from now. I ask you to help us by joining in this process and by using and evaluating the programs we provide for you. A Judaism that does not guide us in making the most intimate decisions of our personal lives will not retain our loyalty and respect; and similarly, a school which does not assist the young in their desperate search for credible values will be dismissed as an irrelevance.
Finally this: There are those who would claim that the success of our educational system depends not on any program, no matter how brilliantly conceived, but on a fundamental redrawing of our congregational map so that we see our synagogues in a different way--not as service providers but as integrated educational units with Torah as the end goal and driving force. I made reference to this point before as one of my goals, and it, of course, has been the guiding principle of both ECE and the Synagogue 2000 project, led by Dr. Isa Aron and Rabbi Larry Hoffman, respectively. There is much merit in this analysis, and the Union too is working in the area of what we now call "synagogue transformation." ECE and Synagogue 2000 are wonderful projects, and each has generated promising results. If there is a problem, it is that the resources required are massive, and relatively few of our congregations have had the good fortune to participate in either program. The Union sees its task, therefore, as working with both Dr. Aron and Rabbi Hoffman to find a way to share the insights and advantages of these programs with the majority of our congregations that have not yet benefited from them in any direct way. This work has already begun, directed by Linda Thal and funded by a grant from the Nathan Cummings Foundation.
This summary, while not exhaustive, gives you a sense of what we are trying to do at the Union in the area of education. There are other things, of course, that we are not yet doing but that we must do: For example, I believe that there is much work to be done in the area of nursery school education; I believe that we must provide much more significant support to Reform day schools; and I believe that we must expand our regional staff to provide better on-site support to you and your schools. Now, if you were to ask me: Do these activities that I have described truly reflect a single and coherent educational strategy? Are all the educational departments of the Union talking to one another and operating as part of a greater whole? And are the different arms of the Movement--UAHC, HUC-JIR, CCAR, NATE--cooperating in a meaningful way so that we can talk honestly about a Movement-wide educational strategy? The answer would be: Not quite yet. Ours is movement in which each of us has a history of ferociously defending our own turf, and those old habits and suspicions die hard. But I do want to say that from where I sit, we are making progress--real progress. I believe that education occupies a more central place in our Movement today than it has for many, many years; and I believe, too, that we are doing far better than we have ever done in moving toward that cooperative model and unified vision that we ultimately require if we are to do the sacred work with which we are entrusted.
Four Questions to Consider In the final section of my remarks, I would like to put before you some particular pressing questions with which we must grapple in the years ahead. Your conference organizers suggested that I might want to give you a charge for the future. I am reluctant to do this, however, because I am sensible enough to realize that you know a good deal more about education than I do. I sit in New York; you are in the educational trenches, doing every day the tachlis work of your profession--teaching teachers, teaching students, teaching Torah. But I will share with you my concerns and solicit your response; and to the extent that I am issuing a charge at all, it is a charge that I issue to the Union and to myself every bit as much as I issue it to you.
I have for you four sets of questions. In each case, I will pose the question and then offer some tentative responses of my own. In your groups, you will respond both to the question and to my thoughts.
My first question relates to the role of the educator in the congregation. Today's educator is not merely or primarily a school administrator or manager: He or she is a synagogue leader, a religious professional, a learned Jew, and a custodian of God's word who instructs other Jews in Torah and recalls to them the covenant at Sinai. If we assume that this is not yet the universal perception--and I think it is clear that it is not--what needs to be done for the Reform Jewish world to see temple educators in these terms? What can educators themselves do?
It is obvious that this question suggests problems that are deeply rooted and are not amenable to quick or simple solutions. A synagogue that does not value education will not value its educator. A synagogue that sees bar mitzvah as the goal of and primary rationale for its educational system is likely to treat its educator as a clerk or a bat mitzvah tutor. Also, we are all familiar with the bizarre mentality which asserts, contrary to all logic, that a rabbi is primarily an educator but an educator who is not a rabbi is an inferior being.
Yet I remain optimistic about the standing of your profession. I believe that as education grows in importance in the synagogue world and in the community, the status of the educator will rise along with it. Indeed, I believe that some signs of change are already apparent. I also accept the responsibility of the Union and the Movement to bestow upon our educators the recognition which they richly deserve, using the opportunities which present themselves at regional and national biennials and at other Movement events; and I welcome your suggestions in this regard.
But I would like to focus here on one step that I believe educators themselves can take. A fundamental rule of synagogue life is that a cause becomes truly important only when a corps of committed lay leaders comes forward to advocate that cause. Social action became important when social action advocates came forward to make demands in its name; outreach became important when powerful lay committees were formed on the congregational level. The rabbi's voice is important and appropriately so, but it is the presence of lay advocates that puts an issue on the top of the congregational agenda. But where are the champions of education in the synagogue? Do we have influential laypeople serving on our education committees? Do we have chairpeople who are strong and effective advocates of education when budgets are discussed by the board? Sometimes we do, but all too often we do not.
There are a variety of historical and cultural reasons for this, but I firmly believe that the perception of education as an endeavor that is entirely professionally driven has caused incalculable damage to our cause. Education will not become the center of temple life and educators will not enjoy the status to which they are entitled until this situation is remedied. And it will be remedied only in one way: when educators themselves recruit and cultivate volunteer leadership committed to education. What I am suggesting, in short, is that the educator needs to see himself or herself as a temple activist as well as a teacher of Torah. No matter how effective your pedagogy, you will not succeed and we will not succeed until you draw to your side layleaders with caring minds and hearts who will speak up for Torah.
And I do not mean to suggest that this work is entirely political, although there is surely a political dimension to it. I believe, for example, that one of the best ways to recruit lay leaders is to make certain that the education committee is the most Jewishly exciting committee in the temple. Its needs to conduct meetings at which texts are studied and significant educational issues are discussed. It should be the educational think tank and the educational conscience of the synagogue. And this is work that educators themselves can undertake, without waiting for the help of others.
My second question relates to the role of Hebrew in our schools and synagogues. Many of you are aware of my own views on using the Hebrew language. Hebrew is not a mere tool. It is part of the very essence of Judaism, inseparable from the values it expresses and the associations it conveys. One can pray or study in English rather than in Hebrew, but it is an entirely different experience: the drama is gone, the mystery denied, the religious meaning obscured. For virtually all of our history, Jewish education has begun with Hebrew education. Ours is the first major Diaspora community--with perhaps one exception--which has attempted to build its educational program on translation.
And what particularly disturbs me is that very often, we have simply given up. We have become fatalists, certain that we do not have the hours to devote to Hebrew instruction and therefore it is not worth the effort.
My question, therefore, is this: What can Reform Jewish schools and Reform synagogues do to teach Hebrew effectively and to revive the principle that basic Hebrew competence is essential for Jewish education?
This question, like the previous one, is complicated and difficult, raising fundamental issues about the nature of our Jewish identity. We need to consider long-term solutions rather than opt for the quick fix.
My own view on this matter is that a major Hebrew initiative begins with adults rather than children. For that reason, the materials that the Union is now preparing and the initiative that we plan to launch next year will focus on adult instruction.
I support this path because much of our adult leadership has a distinctively ambivalent attitude about Hebrew. In the discussions that have taken place on the Ten Principles drafted by the Central Conference of American Rabbis, I have been taken aback by the hostility that some of our members have expressed toward the Hebrew language. Such sentiments do not suggest, I believe, that these members reject Hebrew in principle, but rather reflect a sense of inadequacy on the part of those who have never mastered even the basics of the language and fear that they will be isolated as the level of Hebrew in the liturgy increases. Adults classes will create, I hope, a group of Hebrew enthusiasts who will testify that Hebrew is not across the sea or beyond our reach and that in fact it enriches our lives by opening up windows on our Jewish world. In addition, it is my hope that some of these adults will attain sufficient competence to provide a new source of teachers for our schools. And by the way, the materials that the Union is preparing are meant to take the student beyond phonetic reading to the basics of liturgy and text. We are not talking about a five-hour, one-time marathon, but an ongoing program of study and achievement to which our average member can reasonably aspire.
As for the Hebrew that we teach to our children, I believe that we need to be certain that our schools are not structured in such a way that they send a negative message. In many instances, I fear, we still follow the old pattern: The youngest children begin with Sunday sessions, and then Hebrew classes are added a few years prior to bar mitzvah. During the post-bar mitzvah years, for those who continue, Hebrew almost always disappears entirely from the curriculum. The message here is clear: Hebrew is no more than a practical necessity, a tool intended to carry you through your bar or bat mitzvah. You begin Hebrew studies when bar mitzvah is in sight, and you terminate them when bar mitzvah is complete. Unless we change these patterns, making Hebrew an integral and ongoing part of the curriculum beginning with the very youngest children, we will never break through the resistance that we have unwittingly encouraged. Unless we do this, we will never instill in our children a deep love for the Hebrew language.
And one other point: Given the constraints of time, it is natural that Hebrew studies in our schools will focus on liturgy. That being the case, the absence of prayer in our schools is certain to send another exceedingly negative message about how we view the Hebrew language. You will recall that in the research conducted by Dr. Sam Joseph, we saw that while most of our schools have their students study about prayer, hardly any have their children actually engage in worship. Now, I am the first to acknowledge that encouraging children to pray is no simple matter and that this is a subject that deserves full consideration at another time. But we would all agree, I think, that to educate a child is to convey that Judaism does not emanate solely from the mind; we would all agree that education also means giving expression to the deepest feelings of the Jew. It means learning not only beliefs and principles but a language of the soul--and to learn the language of the soul is to pray. What I am saying is this: If we are telling our children that they need to learn Hebrew so that they can enrich their prayers and then we don't ask them to pray, we are undercutting the very message that we hope to send.
My third question is one that I know everyone in this room has asked many times: How do we find the teachers that we need for our schools?
There are many reasons for the shortage that we all experience. At one time, many of the women in our congregations were former teachers who had stopped teaching when their children were born, and a good number of them were amenable to giving a few hours a week to religious school teaching. But today, fewer women are teachers, and fewer women stay home to raise their children. All parents--men and women--work longer hours than they once did, and Jewish ignorance, so pervasive in some circles, has left our members intimidated and insecure. The best teachers are self-affirming and self-confident Jews, and we just don't have as many of them as we would like.
But whatever the cause of the shortage, its existence is undeniable, and I am in search of a Movement-wide strategy to combat it. In this regard, I have few suggestions to offer; I come to you with questions and ask for your guidance. Should the Union and the College-Institute offer special summer programs, regional or national, for potential teachers or for current teachers seeking enrichment? Should we consider offering teacher training during the year in major metropolitan areas? Or is this better left to local boards of Jewish education?
Should we create a detailed curriculum for an adult education course to be offered in synagogues, specifically aimed at those who might consider religious school teaching? If we were to produce better or different teacher's guides and resources to accompany our textbooks, would that help in recruiting teachers? How can we help you? What else do we need to do?
I recognize, of course, that I have not even touched upon the question of what kind of teachers we should be looking for. In this regard, I know that some educators attach primary importance to pedagogic skill and some to Jewish knowledge and commitment; some assume that good teachers can be taught the Jewish things they need to know, and some assume that good Jews can be taught the teaching skills they need to know. In this debate, although I am a nonexpert, I do have an opinion that I would like to share with you. I am convinced that the greatest single problem we have in Jewish education today comes from teachers who do not believe. I am convinced that we need most of all teachers who are exemplars of Jewish living, who convey to their students their passion for Judaism, who share their struggles with a text as well as the meaning of a text. I am certain that if we want students who are religiously motivated and inspired, they must learn from an inspiring teacher. I believe that the very best way to teach our children mesirut and anavah and mentshlikeit is to do so with teachers who exemplify these qualities in their personal lives and who will be seen, in the best Reform sense, as yirei Shamayim.
So I do not know what strategy we will ultimately develop to encourage new teachers, and I look for your guidance in this matter. But this I can tell you: I would begin every time by looking for the passionate Jew--the enthusiastic davener, the committed social activist, the Kallah graduate, the lover of Israel--and then I would take whatever steps are necessary for classroom management skills to be acquired by this individual. My experience and my instinct tell me that this is a process which very rarely works in reverse.
My final question relates to the initiatives, mentioned earlier, which the Union has undertaken to expand its camping program and to revive its junior and senior youth groups.
How can we develop serious cooperation between our formal and informal education programs, both nationally and in our congregations? We all acknowledge the need, but my sense is that rarely does this cooperation actually exist. How can schools help rebuild junior youth groups, for example, and promote camp attendance? Conversely, how can camps and youth groups do more to strengthen our religious schools?
As I told you, at our board meeting in Memphis, I presented a comprehensive plan for restructuring and rebuilding our youth groups. This plan, which was passed by our board, entails a substantial expansion of the Union's youth staff. In the next eighteen months, a full-time youth professional will be hired for every UAHC regional office. In presenting this plan, I told my board members what you already know: that NFTY is but a shadow of its former self; that the post-bar and -bat mitzvah teenage drop-out rate is appalling high; that the absence of Jewish involvement by teenagers has a disastrous impact on their Jewish identity because dating patterns and long-term Jewish consciousness are substantially shaped in the teen years.
I also told them that the key to rebuilding a youth group program is the religious school because we need to begin where the kids are. Once they have left the temple, it may be almost impossible to get them back. This means that we must focus on children in grades five to seven, when they are under your care. Junior youth group activities for these younger children will, in turn, pave the way for senior youth group involvement.
But this approach requires that congregations break down the barriers between formal and informal education and that the religious school principal and youth group adviser work in close cooperation. It is my belief that ideally our synagogues would have a single professional--a youth educator--who would be responsible for both school and youth groups. I know that some of our synagogues understand these needs and that their schools and youth programs work together in complete harmony. But in too many cases, these programs operate in isolation from each other, according to the paradigms of the past.
The Union's new youth professionals will be organizing special conclaves and activities for children of junior youth group age as a means of encouraging the formation of strong junior youth groups in our synagogues. Our youth professionals will be instructed that the first people they need to talk to are religious school principals because junior youth groups will not succeed without them, since junior youth groups need to be, in effect, a joint effort of youth staff and school staff. Can we make this happen? Can you help me make it happen?
I know that you are every bit as concerned as am I about post-b'nei mitzvah education--about the disappearance of our children at precisely the time when they are in search of a new religious identity and when they are in desperate need of credible values and a personal spiritual center. I do not know exactly what the answer is, but I am convinced that if we are to reduce a drop-out rate that is somewhere between 60 and 80 percent, we will ultimately do it by creating some kind of hybrid--part school, part youth group, part summer experience. And the cooperation needs to begin now.
And this, too: As we expand our camp capacity, will we find the children to fill those beds? Generally speaking, we have two kinds of congregations in our Movement: camp congregations and non-camp congregations. We have synagogues that send 10 or 20 or 30 percent of their children to UAHC summer camps, and we also have synagogues that send one or two children, or none at all. Given the proven success of our camps in generating Jewish enthusiasm and commitment in our young people, it would be fascinating to study why some congregations continue to show little or no interest in our camps. But whatever the reasons, I am convinced that the educator's role is essential here if our expansion goals are to be met.
But this is not meant to be a one-way street, not at all. If you send your children to a Reform Jewish camp, you want to be satisfied that they will receive a Reform Jewish education worthy of the name. And I will tell you frankly and plainly that I am not satisfied with the quality of education that our camps offer. Some of it is superb, but some of it is not. And here, too, we need you: We need you to serve on our camp faculties and we must create appropriate forums where formal educators and informal educators will sit down and think and plan how the education in our camps can be improved and in some cases radically revised.
I have talked enough. I have been honest with you, and I know that you will be honest with me. I look forward to what I am certain will be your thoughtful responses to my questions.
Let me conclude with this: In the grand adventure in which we are engaged, we will never lack for doubters. "Jewish education has always been a boring, dismal failure," they will say, "and it will be for you as well." But those who prefer the chambers of pessimism are wrong. There is so much that is right about what we are doing. There is so much that is promising. And in any case, as I have stressed again and again, Jewish education has not failed in North America: It has simply never been tried.
What do we mean when we talk about education?
We mean that while we honor the scholar, we insist that the Torah was given to every Jew.
We mean that from our earliest days, study has been the central, burning, incandescent passion of the Jew.
We mean that for thousands of years, Jews have devoted themselves to Jewish literacy and lifelong learning.
We mean that there are all kinds of Jews and all kinds of Reform Jews. But whatever kind of Jews we are, we must all be competent Jews, and we must do the work that competence requires.
We mean that we cannot be certain whether or not our children will join us in the grand adventure of Jewish learning and Jewish life, but surely we must give them the keys to the mansion, whether or not they choose to enter.
And we mean that we have fallen in love with the dream of Moses, that we see ourselves as holy people, and that our message, therefore, will always be Torah and our program will always be educate, educate, educate.
I am grateful to you for your devotion to this--our mutual, sacred cause--and I pledge to you my full support in the wonderful work that you do.