Vital Signs: Betting on Jewish Literacy

by Jack Wertheimer

Over the past three months I’ve published six essays in Jewish Ideas Daily on specific examples of people and programs that seem to me to offer welcome news—”Vital Signs”—for the future of American Jewish life. My list was hardly exhaustive; it could have been easily expanded to twice or perhaps even three times its size. Looking back now at my examples—a summer camp, a supplementary high school, a Hebrew-language initiative for young children, an adult-education program, a fellowship program for young community leaders, and a prayer group—I’m struck by the ubiquity of a leitmotif that, directly or indirectly, runs throughout all six.

That leitmotif, broadly put, is education. Nothing new about that, one might say; but one would be wrong. To be sure, Torah study has long been a core value of rabbinic Judaism. But for much of the past century, the people of the book in this country seem to have transferred their devotion almost exclusively to the secular domain, becoming authoritative students of every conceivable professional and academic discipline while for the most part remaining ignorant of the great texts of their own tradition, let alone of the Hebrew language. Only in our own time has the ground begun to shift.

To appreciate the significance of the change, we need to remember that Jewish education has never been high on the agenda of the American Jewish community. The working assumption in most periods seemed to be that Jewish culture was a matter not of study but of osmosis: of absorbing and imitating the style and customs of parents and grandparents. Of course, an elite of trained personnel would need to know more, but few American Jewish leaders entertained serious expectations of the rank-and-file.

As the generations passed, however, it became clear that osmosis was a failed strategy. And so, by the middle of the last century, a vast network of part-time schools was established—at first as communal institutions and then within synagogues. The second half of the century also witnessed the growth of day schools, which offered a setting for a more intensive, five-day-a-week Jewish education. By now, the American Jewish community can boast some 800 day schools and over 2,000 supplementary schools.

But this large array represents only the most visible aspect of what has recently become a much bigger and multi-pronged movement. Where children and young people are concerned, energy is being invested in a whole range of newly re-conceived early-childhood programs, a few of which even offer Hebrew. Summer camps are assuming increased responsibility as purveyors of Jewish knowledge. Though the denominational youth movements continue to attract only a small fraction of Jewish teens, synagogue and communal programs are filling the vacuum, as is the B’nai B’rith Youth Organization. Teen and Birthright trips to Israel, often supported by local communities, are rounding out the opportunities for teens to continue their study, partially offsetting the scandalously low numbers receiving a formal Jewish education.

The greatest growth is occurring among young adults and adults. On hundreds of college campuses, students can engage in the academic study of Jewish civilization by taking courses that fifty years ago were available at only a small handful. Beyond the campus, Orthodox “outreach” organizations offer lectures and classes; independent minyanim provide peer teachers for their less well-versed congregants; service agencies introduce their professionals and volunteers to the major texts of the Jewish tradition; special educational programs are directed at young parents lacking the knowledge of how to raise Jewish children; family or adult education for parents of school-aged children is spreading. It is even possible for young adults to engage in Jewish study as an add-on to outdoor hiking and skiing programs.

Most dramatically, adult education is now available through multiple venues, from synagogues and Jewish community centers to retreats and cruises—not to mention the Internet, with its huge assortment of sites geared toward every religious and secular comfort zone and every level of preparation. National curricula are being taught in cities across the country.

Will this explosion of initiatives translate into action, and have a lasting impact on the day-to-day mental, spiritual, and communal lives of American Jews? No one can state with certainty. Across the spectrum, educators express modest expectations. If, they say, even a third of those who study become more engaged members of the Jewish community, something worthwhile will have been achieved.

Considerable evidence, still anecdotal, suggests that something significant is already happening—that the new Jewish learning has indeed transformed and given beneficial direction to the lives of Jews. Both the philanthropists who support these efforts and, by extension, the larger community are wagering on a much larger and more lasting success. A very great deal remains to be done, but if their bet pays off, the consequences for the future vitality of American Jewish life will be enormous.

Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, is the author of A People Divided, among other books, and the editor most recently of Learning and Community (Brandeis).

from Jewish Ideas Daily

The original text of the review may be found here.

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