It’s Tisha B’Av today, but instead of mourning the destruction of the Temple or remembering the Holocaust, I’m thinking about how we can rebuild our Jewish community. Many of us believe that the key to a brighter Jewish future is Jewish education that is better, that reaches more people, and that is more relevant and applicable to our lives.
Today, Jewish children receive a Jewish education through Jewish day schools, Jewish supplementary schools, or Jewish camps. And of course, some Jewish children receive no Jewish education at all. There’s plenty of research out proving that day school is an effective way to deliver Jewish education for those who are willing and able to access it. The costs of accessing day school education, both in dollars and in lifestyle choices are very high, and even stipulating that the content of that education is terrific, day school will not be a realistic solution for many Jewish families. Camps, on the other hand, may be a fine complement to education received during the school year, but few would consider it to be an effective way, by itself, to provide Jewish education.
We must instead consider supplementary Jewish education – Hebrew school. Today’s Hebrew school is not the Hebrew school of the past, as caricatured in such films as A Serious Man. The days of uninspiring teachers, rote memorization of Hebrew, and listless classrooms filled with bored students are behind us. Today, and for some years now, Hebrew schools have provided an enjoyable experience that students emerge from with a sense of pride in their Jewish identity, some community service credits, and perhaps some Jewish friends and memories. What they do not get is Hebrew literacy, or even much by way of Jewish knowledge. While progress has been made, claiming success would be a case of setting the bar far too low.
There are many challenges to doing Hebrew school right, but I want to focus on two big-picture issues. The first is content, and the second is distribution. In the non-Orthodox world, the primary values of Jewish life have been Zionism and Tikkun Olam – supporting the State of Israel philanthropically and politically, and perfecting the world through a variety of social, political and environmental initiatives. A framework of Jewish holidays, rituals and traditions that were at times harmonic and at times dissonant with these values provided the structure for Jewish communal living. Hebrew schools taught to this content – the values and the framework for their expression. However, over time, allegiance to these values has waned, and questions and doubts continue to emerge about the values and the framework of non-Orthodox life.
The result of these growing doubts has been a complete lack of confidence and conviction over the way to express Jewish identity and to live a Jewish life within a Jewish community. The very meaning of who is a Jew and what is a Jewish community continues to go through convulsive changes. In the world of education, the question of what to teach is so toxic, so fraught with division and doubt that it is rarely broached at all. The absence of leadership is most evident when you consider that the newest thinking on this challenge is to privilege the consumer, and provide a plethora of options for the learner in a marketplace. Put another way, rabbis, educators and leaders are stepping away from the responsibility of defining a core set of content, values, rituals, and behaviors, and instead letting the market decide. No doubt, some curating of the vast sea of choices is happening, but nevertheless, it is astonishing how much Jewish leadership has conceded that it has no idea which way to lead.
Viewed in this light, the declining rates of synagogue affiliation and attendance reflect the declining interest in the type of Judaism these institutions stand for. Teachers continue to teach students how to live a Jewish life that most will find outmoded and irrelevant as they grow into adulthood. Students come away with vague good feelings about being Jewish but few Jewish habits or behaviors. Judaism becomes a more superficial identity that can be shrugged on and off, rather than the organizing principle for our values, our choices, and our life missions.
Is there hope in the emerging class of Jewish movements and organizations that are forging new paths in Jewish life? Perhaps, taken together, they are defining new possibilities for Jewish identity and community. Certainly, the growth, vitality, and passion in Jewish life is found more in the independent minyans, the new Jewish food movement, and radically open Jewish learning than in JCCs, Federations, and traditional synagogues.
Yet these new approaches face many challenges. Many of them haven’t even built educational material and pedagogies for teaching children and teens, and there’s certainly no comprehensive curriculum that existing schools could adopt or adapt. And let’s face it, so many of these celebrated young organizations are composed of no more than a handful of idealists who lack the requisite capital, expertise, and manpower to reach significant scale. Too many operate in such financially precarious states that they have to focus on making payroll instead of making change.
The truth is that we have no effective distribution mechanisms in the Jewish community. Our institutions, built to raise money and deliver social services to Jewish communities defined by geography and proximity, are struggling to reinvent themselves in the wake of the ongoing communication revolution. There are no national clearinghouses of educational programming, no open databases of comprehensive educational content, and a dearth of online programs of Jewish instruction. A consolidated online school? Not yet.
But can you solve the problem of distribution without solving the problem of content and conviction? I’m not sure. Why bother investing in a robust distribution mechanism when you have no confidence in your content? As a counter-example, take a look at Orthodox kiruv institutions. Chabad and Aish have invested themselves into building extraordinary distribution systems, from world-class websites with rich offerings across the full range of Jewish life and learning, to a world-spanning network of actual schools, synagogues and centers staffed by caring pastors and educators who serve their communities with tremendous dedication. The success of that system is predicated on the deeply-held convictions about how to be a Jew, how to live a Jewish life, and the nature and purpose of Jewish community.
There is no doubt that we need to build a better distribution system for Jewish education. But the only way we’re going to do that effectively is if we find our own commitments to Jewish life. I don’t think we all need to believe the same thing to build a good distribution system. FedEx doesn’t care what you put in your box, email is agnostic to the words you’re sending, and Google will find any webpage. Content-neutral networks can be enormously powerful. But paradoxically, they only exist because consumers of content are highly discriminant, and value some kinds of content much more than others.
Sina’at Hinam, baseless hatred, the Sages tell us, was the sin for which the Second Temple was destroyed, and only Ahavat Hinam, baseless, boundless love, can restore it. I believe that there is no better expression of boundless love than helping someone teach something to others, even if you disagree with it. Our love for the diversity of Judaism must be expressed by building a distribution network that helps share all those passionate and vibrant approaches to Jewish life with Jewish children and families – including those not attending school or synagogue – and all those interested in being enriched by Judaism. That’s the kind of Temple I pray we will merit to build, speedily and in our day. Amen.