Showing posts with label Jewcy. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Jewcy. Show all posts

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Idea #23: Jewish identity projects are not the answer

By now, I hope that nearly everyone who reads this blog is familiar with 28 Days, 28 Ideas - a partnered blog dedicated to proposing 28 ideas to transform the Jewish future each day in February. If you havent, check it out! Some of them are very pie in the sky. Others are attainable in the very near future if we can get our act together or if someone individual or group makes it a burning priority.

Yesterday's posting is below, and I was excited to read it right after reading Josh Mason-Barkin's response to the NATE Jewish Identity Symposium held in Toronto a few months ago (in URJ's Torah at the Center/NATE News, page 19). I think Josh and Daniel have started an excellent and essential conversation over the burning question of what are we really trying to do in Jewish education. And of course Natan Sharansky has declared that Jewish Identity is the new priority for the Jewish Agency - I am not certain how that plays with all of this.

There are a number of comments to this piece already online with the original posting on the Fundermentalist that you might want to read as well. Please comment here or there, but comment!

By Daniel Septimus

Over the last several years, I have read dozens of articles and listened to scores of conversations about the challenge of strengthening Jewish identity in America. Indeed, since the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey canonized Jewish American assimilation, an unprecedented amount of communal dollars and efforts have been poured into this endeavor.

Programs aimed at "young Jews" are often explicitly framed as identity projects, a fact readily apparent from the mission statements of two of the most prominent and well-funded organizations serving the 18-30 crowd, Hillel and Birthright Israel.

Hillel "provides opportunities for Jewish explore and celebrate their Jewish identity through its global network of regional centers." Birthright Israel aims "to strengthen participants' personal Jewish identity."

This may seem neither controversial nor remarkable, but I believe that the obsessive focus on identity is both misguided and fundamentally alien to Jewish tradition.

What do organizations mean when they say they want to strengthen or cultivate Jewish identity?

At The Jewish Federations of North America's General Assembly, in a panel on Jewish Peoplehood, Dr. Erica Brown noted that there are three components to identity formation: the cognitive (what we think), the behavioral (what we do), and the emotional (what we feel). In discussing some of the maladies plaguing the American Jewish community, Dr. Brown suggested an interesting diagnosis: when American Jews speak about Jewish identity they aggressively emphasize the emotional.

In other words, to too many American Jews, Jewish identity means feeling Jewish.

Dr. Brown's insight articulated something I have been noticing for years and was, most recently, driven home during a conversation with a prominent Jewish philanthropist. As we spoke, this generous and committed Jewish leader extolled the virtues of Jewish education and lamented its current state. When I asked him what he wanted Jewish education to achieve-what its aim should be-his answer was simple: "I want Jewish kids to feel proud of being Jewish."

I, for my part, was stunned. Really? That's it? That's the goal of Jewish education, of all your philanthropic benevolence? A feeling of ethnic/religious/cultural pride?

This is merely one example, of course, but to appreciate the Jewish community's excessive emotionalism-and its eschewal of the cognitive and behavioral aspects of identity formation-consider this: Could you imagine Birthright Israel's mission statement asserting that it wanted to influence the thinking and behaviors of its participants? Surely, most American Jews would consider that paternalistic, if not creepy.

So what's so bad about putting all of our eggs in the basket of emotional identity?

First, as Dr. Brown noted, it ignores the importance of "what we think" and "what we do."

Professor Steven M. Cohen has noted something similar. "In common parlance, ‘identity,' has come to be understood as related primarily to intra-psychic feelings-the attitudes and sentiments felt within....But, in truth, Jewish identity extends (or ought to extend) beyond the affective. Being an ‘identified Jew' is not just about feeling Jewish, but about expressing Jewish belonging and undertaking identifiably Jewish behaviors."

Secondly, valuing emotional identity as the fundamental aim of Jewish life is a recent phenomenon that has little precedent in Jewish tradition. It's difficult for me to think of a single traditional Jewish text that discusses the importance of feeling Jewish. Not only is the centrality of emotional identity not rooted in Jewish tradition, it is likely an expression of our alienation from this tradition.

One might suggest as my friend Dr. Eliyahu Stern has that "identity is the language of those who have lost it." Or as Leon Wieseltier has written: "Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity the louder."

Now, I do not believe that all contemporary Jewish expressions must be rooted in the past, and I do believe there are contemporary values-Jewish and secular-that should trump traditional Jewish ones, but the emotionalism that guides American Jews is not one of them.

The idea I'm suggesting here, then, is that we abandon the rhetoric of identity, that we stop programming and funding the goal of strengthening Jewish identity. I am not, however, suggesting that we abandon all the programs that mention Jewish identity building as their aim. These programs can-and usually do-have other goals, even if they are not always front and center in their mission statements. Additionally, since I am tearing down one of the primary frameworks of contemporary Judaism, let me offer an alternative.

The second mishnah in Pirkei Avot reports the following: "Shimon the Righteous was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly. He used to say: The world is sustained on three things: on Torah, on the Temple service [avodah], and on deeds of loving kindness [gemilut hasadim]."

What are these three pillars?

  1. Torah, which includes education and study, the intellectual and cognitive aspects of Judaism.
  2. Avodah, which in Pirke Avot refers to the service of God as conducted in the Temple, but can generally encompass the religious, spiritual, and ritual aspects of Jewish life.
  3. Gemilut hasadim, which incorporates the ethical demands of Judaism-helping the poor, visiting the sick, fighting for the dignity of all.

I'd like to see the rhetoric of Jewish programming and funding guided by these three categories. Of course, there are other values that could be used as touchstones for Jewish priorities. The People of Israel and the Land of Israel are two that come to mind. But while I wouldn't ignore the importance of Peoplehood and Israel, I believe Shimon's pillars speak more directly to the human condition.

While Shimon's framework is Jewish, I don't think it's incidental that he believed "the world" was sustained by these three items. One might argue that a full life-for individuals and communities-includes elements of these three categories: the intellectual, the spiritual, and the ethical.

If our goal is to raise a generation of Jews who feel Jewish, then our aspirations are, I fear, limited and foreign. Creating a Jewish community that is committed to study, ritual, and helping others seems like a nobler endeavor. And a more Jewish one at that.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Reports of the Hebrew School's Demise Have Been Greatly Exagerated

I have dedicated my professional life to supplementary, or complementary or afternoon Jewish Education. In other words, Hebrew School. I am committed to it be cause:
  1. It worked for me and my friends. We all came through a wonderful experience at B'nai Jehoshua Beth Elohim in suburban Chicago, learning from Rabbi Mark Shapiro, educators Barbara Irlen, Bernice Waitsman and Marshall Wolf, and dozens of teachers including Sharon Steinhorn (arguably the first - and second - congregation based family educator ever), Sy Bierman, Sandee Holleb, Joan Goldberg and more than I can name right now. It led us to be campers at Olin Sang Ruby Union Institute, to participating in our Jr. and Sr. youth groups, to becoming camp staff and teachers, etc. over 25 of us grew up to go to HUC-JIR and become rabbis, cantors, educators and Jewish communal workers. Lots more became functional Jewish adults and leaders of our Jewish communities.

  2. Something in the neighborhood of 85 - 90% of all Jewish children in North America will not be going to day school. Period. They need a place to learn about being Jewish and to love being Jewish. Waiting for Birthright is too little, too late. Summer camps are awesome, but it is extremely difficult to get the "unsynagogued" to go in many communities. (I know MIlwaukee is different! Please don't flame me from Eagle River you Interlaken folks!) Not much left of the non-Orthodox Zionist youth movements. I mourn Young Judaea's present state. I would like to back up the following statement with actual research (I recall it but can't cite, so therefore it is an opinion, not a fact): I believe that the majority of families with children in Hebrew schools would not choose to enroll their children in day schools if there was no tuition charged.

    The decision to enroll in day school or not is, I believe, based on much more than cost. Those who make the choice are either believers in the endeavor day school represents (a valid, meaningful choice), driven there by inadequate public options in their community (equally valid and meaningful, if unfortunate) or looking for something that a particular day school offers that they believe is more beneficial to their child(ren) than the public option (again, valid and meaningful). Cost does turn some away who would otherwise choose day school. I believe if it were free, most would continue to make the choice not to enroll in Day School, because the alternative is pleasing to them. It is not a last resort.

  3. Finally, because I believe in Hebrew School, I have made it my life's wrok to make the experience as meaningful and impactful as I can. I owe it to those who helped me become who I am. I owe it to my sons. I owe it to my grandchildren who are merely dreams in my and my wife's heads (and not yet very vivid -- we have lot's of time!).
I believe Hebrew School can be great. Not for everyone. Certanily not for the kid whose parent says: "I hated it. You'll hate it. You gotta go." Fortunately, we don;t hear that much in our synagogue anymore. I think you can judge the strength of a school by how many B'nai Mitzvah keep coming. Nearly 70% of our B'nai Mitzvah become confirmed at the end of tenth grade. One or two of them choose not to continue to High School graduation. Fifteen years ago it was 29%. Our goal is 85%. We will get there. I don't think we are the best of the best or anywhere near alone. Some things become facts (like the failure of the supplemental school) just by repeating them loudly and frequently.

Why am I talking about this? My friend Robyn Faintich of the Florence Melton Communiteen High School (and fellow Jim Joseph Foundation Fellow at the Lookstein Institute) tweeted about the following blog from Benjamin Weiner on the Jewcy blog.

Jewcy is an online media outlet/blog, social network, and brand devoted to helping Jews and their peers expand the meaning of community by presenting a spectrum of voices, content, and discussion. JEWCY is a project of JDub Records, a non-profit organization dedicated to innovative Jewish content, community, and cross-cultural dialogue. Read it. Join the conversation.

Stop Blaming Hebrew School

My weekly unsolicited email from Shalom TV, "America's Jewish Television Cable Network," informs me that Michael Steinhardt, philanthropist provocateur, in a recent "rare, personal interview," launched into a tirade against non-Orthodox American Jewish education. Hebrew school, argued the hedge-fund tycoon and Taglit-BIrthright impressario, spitting the word out through clenched teeth (or so I imagine the scene), "has been, and continues to be, a shandah--an abysmal failure." In Steinhardt's estimation, the ineptitude of this warhorse of an educational model is responsible for skyrocketing rates of non-Orthodox intermarriage, and the plummeting percentage of Jewish philanthropic dollars actually going these days to Jewish causes. (He sets the figure at 15%). "Can there be a worse term in the American Jewish lexicon than 'Hebrew School?" he asks. "There were six kids in the 20th Century who liked it!"

I am still digesting the press release--the lack of a cable hookup means it will take me some effort to watch the actual interview. Other tidbits include Steinhardt inveighing against the use of "mythical" anti-Semitism as a "boogeyman" to "raise money" for Jewish organizations, and against an obsession with the Holocaust that hinders us from thinking "about what we want to accomplish and what we want to be in the 21st century." The "religion of Judaism," he says further, is "so deeply disappointing" in its "practice, its verbiage, its inability to reflect realistically upon our lives."

The only redemption he sees for the "moribund world" of the Diaspora is a relationship with Israel, "my Jewish miracle." He has no respect, mind you, for the political and business establishment of the country, which he described with adjectives such as "awful" and "less than glorious," and he does not seem to be in favor of living there all the time, either. "I have a wonderful house in the middle of Jerusalem," he says. "I love Israel. I love America. And," like Alec Baldwin in bed with Meryl Streep, "it's a complicated situation."

I admit again that I am only relying here on the sampling of quotes provided in the press release, so I don't feel justified launching a full critique of Steinhardt's performance. Instead, I'd like to focus on the first salvo, the oft repeated claim that synagogue Hebrew schools are responsible for the decline of the Jewish people--a claim that is more or less akin to stripping your parents' house of all viable woodwork, plumbing, and appliances and then wondering why they live in such a dump.

Firstly, it should be noted that Hebrew school has not been a failure, as it is largely responsible for the success of many who have spent time on the editorial board of Heeb, or in the Alpine fortress of Reboot, or the stables of the Foundation for Jewish Culture, or most likely, if you will pardon me, the inner sancta of Jewcy and JDub [Editor's note: I should just point out that I didn't go to Hebrew school, but several of my colleagues did].

Anyone who has jockeyed disaffection with the Jewish establishment into a successful career of personal expression on the American mass-media stage, including the Coen brothers (who, since "A Serious Man," I consider the patron saints of the genre), should reflect on the debt of gratitude he or she owes to this half-assed system of religio-ethno-cultural indoctrination. Things might have been far less interesting had the ingredients come out fully-baked.

But, snarkiness aside, the problem with blaming Hebrew School for the collapse of our millennia-old civilization is that such talk, to paraphrase Tevye, blames the cart for the inherent lameness of the horse; exonerates the many who fled the challenge of creating meaningful Jewish life for the sorry state of affairs they left behind, and ignores the implacability of the forces that made them flee in the first place.

For what created the supposition that two to six hours a week of afterschool guttarality could foment a firm commitment to the Jewish people? I don't think this paradigm was determined deliberately from the outset, by committee. At the turn of the last century, there were viable models of Jewish education, and there was a critical mass of Jewish community prepared to embody them. And then there was mass immigration, and genocide, and breakneck assimilation--from a flummoxed traditional culture into a post-War America that was primed with petroleum to give Jewish people the greatest thrill ride they had ever experienced in a Gentile world. And, at the end of the day, Hebrew School emerged because it was the best we were allowed to do. Speaking, gloves off, as a working rabbi and education director, trying hard to find ways to reflect the "verbiage" of the Jewish religion "realistically upon our lives," it is frustrating that, by consensus of the parents of my community, I can only educate their children for two hours a week with no homework, and that those hours come well after regular school hours, and that the expectations for behavior and attendance sometimes fall somewhere between a railway station and a monkey house--despite the fact that they are all, without exception, great kids. But this is roughly the extent of the concession that many American Jewish families are willing to make these days to their Jewish identities, and there should be a category of Nobel prize for whoever figures out how to put these parameters to the best use.

There is a lot of talk in circulation about "what we want to accomplish, and what we want to be in the 21st century;" what it will take to "get our groove back," whether that means summoning the "boogeyman," or replacing religion with spirituality, or pretending we're Jamaican, or humping each other at younger ages with fewer prophylactics, or giving "Jewish barbarians" (Steinhardt's term) free trips to an Israel whose only redeeming virtue seems to be that we only have to be there sporadically. Of course, it is the responsibility of those who care to come up with compelling answers to the question of why be Jewish. But these answers are getting shorter and shorter, and sounding more and more often like marketing slogans, and, at the end of the day, the lack of substance is less the fault of educators than it is the fault of Jewish consumers who don't want to buy, no matter how cheap the cost. Beyond that, it is the fault of history.