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October 10, 2015 | 27th Tishrei 5776
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A Tradition of Overthrowing Idols

by Jan Katzew and Wendy Rapport

(Published in Jewish Education News, Spring 2005, Volume 6, No. 2. CAJE, New York. pp. 23-24.)

Just as Abraham discarded the idols
of his father, it is time to consider what
idols need to be overthrown in order to
attract American Jews in the 18-36 year
old cohort into the Jewish community.

In the most recent generations of American Jews, there has been a profound change in education. In the past years, the number of students in supplementary schools has decreased from 550,000 to 250,000, while the number of students in Jewish day schools have increased from 120,000 to 205,000. Several factors have contributed to this profound change; the dominance of day schooling in the growing Orthodox population, the acceptance of day schooling among Conservative Jews and the emergence of Reform and Community Day Schools. PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, epitomizes the efflorescence of the day school movement. At the same time, efforts to strengthen and deepen Jewish learning in congregational schools are being made by projects such as the Experiment in Congregational Education and Synagogue 2000, as well as by curricular initiatives such as the Union for Reform Judaism’s CHAI curriculum. The Jewish educational system has been resilient, continually questioning operating assumptions and challenging the status quo. The growth of Jewish studies on campus, with more than 40% of Jewish students taking at least one course in Judaica, is a hopeful harbinger, as is the burgeoning of adult learning, especially among Jewish women and our elders.

However, there is at least one life stage, between high school graduation and the entry of one’s child into a Jewish early childhood center, in which the Jewish educational system is missing more than matching. We hasten to note that not everyone proceeds from high school to eventual parenthood, and for those who remain single or childless, the level of engagement with the Jewish community is painfully low. American Jews have the highest median age of any group of Americans, and we are prolonging adolescence as well as adulthood. College graduates are moving back home, marrying later, if at all, and having children later and in smaller numbers.

There is a disturbing, perplexing gender asymmetry in Jewish educational involvement, especially in the non-Orthodox community, with women often outnumbering men by a 3:1 ratio. Of course every generalization is a distortion, but short of developing Individual Education Plans for every member of the American Jewish Community, which may actually be a worthy ideal, we need to try and perceive meaningful patterns, trends and tendencies in order to learn from them and respond to them.

Ever since Abraham, as children grow, they learn to challenge, overthrow and eventually replace the idols of their parents. As difficult as this process may be for parents, it is healthy for Judaism. It is time to consider what idols need to be overthrown in order to attract American Jews who are in this 18-36 year old cohort in the Jewish community.

Competing in the marketplace

Who is best equipped to help us rethink the way we serve this population? One vision for serving this age cohort involves, in fact, not serving them, but enabling them to meet their own needs and provide for their peers. Jewish institutions can provide the supports for this population of adults to take responsibility for their Jewish learning and living. The Jewish educational system needs to find the leaders and nourish their leadership, responding to their initiative. There will never be substitutes for excellence and passion; we need to attract more gifted and compelling new leaders to the Jewish community. Additionally, Judaism has survived and thrived without a critical mass of God-fearing, Torah loving people, so we also need to give people the opportunity to experiment and search, teaching them how Jewish adults find their way on the path of lifelong learning and Jewish involvement. We can do this by providing role models and examples of different paths, by offering the support of our expertise, by actually sharing the physical space of our institutions, and by being open to innovation and change.

Congregations can and should open their doors to the minyanim that are being established across North America. In Washington, DC, at least two institutions are living examples of this phenomenon. In one, an old building that had housed a Conservative congregation had been sold, and was on the verge of being sold yet again; it was purchased by Jewish developers who now rent it out at very low rates for religious services. No group can use it more than once a month, and consequently, no one constituency owns it. The former home of the DC Jewish Community Center was eventually rehabilitated and has become a revivified center of Jewish life. In places where the Jewish community has returned to areas that once were populated by large Jewish communities, there are opportunities “to renew the old and sanctify the new.”

With the shrinking and aging of the American Jewish community, Jewish educational institutions will need to involve increasingly greater proportions of each age cohort just to maintain the quantitative status quo. Judaism will need to compete in the marketplace of intellectual and spiritual ideas and ideals. Competition is one price for the prize of religious freedom, and we should not be deterred from marketing Judaism as a compelling identity of choice.

We can be pluralist, encouraging diversity of religious expression, without being relativist by subscribing to the proposition that all forms of religious expression are equal. Judaism has proved equal to every form of challenge in the past from Korah to Amelek, from internecine battling to external forms of animus. “The Jew as victim” will not capture the hearts, minds and souls of the 18-to-36 year old cohort. The Jews this group have known are in positions of power, and the Judaism they have known is free and independent. The Judaism we teach must cohere with the Jews they know. It must respond to the service-oriented, community-minded, politically-motivated and spiritually-seeking members of the next generation of American Jewish leaders.

Self-actualization and transformation

Just as a chain is only as strong as its weakest link, the chain of Jewish tradition is only as durable as the weakest generation of Jews. What are Jews in their 20s and 30s seeking and not finding in the Jewish community? A place to pray? A place of safety? A place of friendship? A place of meaning? We have more questions than answers, and therefore, Jewish institutions and their leaders need to be attentive listeners so that they can be responsive to the articulated emotional, social, intellectual, ethical and spiritual needs of the generation largely on the periphery. We can start by communicating a message of openness and wiliness to adapt. Some institutions may need to make radical policy changes in order to attract Jews who are outside the Jewish community. There is no formula, no single issue, no single leader required for effectiveness.

To return to the parenting analogy as mentioned with reference to Abraham and the idols, rather than living vicariously through our children and struggle to have a new generation fit an old generation’s mold, we want to empower the next generation to self-actualize and to transform the Jewish community for the better, keeping it relevant and building on the strong educational foundation we have tried to give them. The Jewish people have survived the destruction of our sacred spaces by transforming them. We have survived the elimination of sacred institutions by transforming them. We need to do it over again.

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