The Future is in Our Past
In the past two years, much conversation has been held in reference to the 2013 Pew Survey of U.S. Jewry. But we now have a more recent study – the Pew Research Center Survey on American Religion, which adds some interesting information to the discussion. Between June and September of 2014, 35,000 Americans were interviewed over the phone, of which close to 850 identified as Jews.
Compared to the previous study of this kind, done in 2007, Jews in 2014 seem to pray, study, and go to synagogue slightly more. And while the majority of Jews feels gratitude weekly, they spend less time thinking about the meaning and purpose of life than other religious groups. Of all religions who believe in the Bible, Jews are the ones who least believe God wrote it. In fact, general belief in God also fell when comparing 2014 to 2007 answers.
While there are many more pointers studied, what seems to have hit the general media more than anything else is the Jewish support for same-sex marriage (77%) and the fact that most American Jews (57%) eat pork (90% of Muslims do not).
In my eyes, this is not nearly as worrisome as the fact that, according to this research, the majority of Jews do not experience spiritual peace. Judaism, as all religions, should lead to feelings of peace, of well-being, of purpose, of spirituality. Where have we gone wrong?
I know I am in danger of crossing the line of political correctedness. But if we are to survive, as a religion, we need to engage in some serious thinking. This is especially true if we want non-Orthodox Judaism to survive and flourish as much as Orthodoxy.
This past October, a group of American Jewish leaders from different movements published a “Statement on Jewish Vitality,” in which they propose that if we are to survive spiritually speaking, we need to face the problems head on, and come up with solutions for them. These solutions must “build Jewish social networks; convey Jewish content; target peer groups of Jews at crucial stages of life.” They discuss support for day schools, for summer camp, for youth groups, Israel trips, college campus rabbis and educators. They advocate for film festivals, concerts, learning programs. They speak of conversion-oriented courses, which would bring more intermarried couples into the Jewish fold. While I admire and respect the 74 names which sign the statement, I find that we are missing a very important element: a push for the education of our adults. Those who grew up in the Orthodox world and went to cheder and yeshiva acquired the Jewish “language.” Whether they remain observant or not, they have the knowledge foundation needed to make their choices, to search for spiritually meaningful experiences, to engage with their Judaism in a way that allows for spiritual growth. But what happens to those who grew up with little or no Jewish education? While supplementary school is a real blessing for those who do or did not attend day schools, how much can we realistically learn in a couple of hours a week when we are speaking of a corpus of teachings and literature that is at least 3,000 years old?!
I am not at all suggesting that day school is the only option, neither am I saying that supplementary Hebrew school is not impactful. What I am saying is that for the majority of American Jews, there is a need for strong, meaningful, relevant, adult Jewish education. Education that takes into consideration how adults learn, what they are looking for, and how they can truly become links on the chain of transmission of Judaism to the next generations.
As I humbly accepted the Covenant Award for Excellence in Jewish Education last month, I said that adult learners understand that learning is a journey with no end. And that Judaism teaches not WHAT to think, but HOW to think Jewishly. I quoted the Jewish songwriter Doug Cotler, who says, in one of his songs, that it is not only words and stories that are passed down from generation to generation: It's the way we study, the Book we study, it's the way we study the way.
Adult learners become more involved with their synagogues, their education agencies, their federations. They become role models for their friends, spouses, children and grandchildren. They promote intergenerational engagement and contribute to the building of a Jewish future.
A few days after I delivered this speech in DC, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University published comments based on research done with Millenial Children of Intermarriage. According to the 2013 Pew Research, 71% of non-Orthodox Jews are intermarried, so this topic is more than relevant. They found out that going on Birthright trips, attending college courses on Jewish studies and participating in on-campus Jewish groups, all led to future Jewish engagement. What is most interesting is that the likelihood of young adults engaging in these programs and activities was higher for those who, growing up, had a strong relationship with Jewish grandparents. In other words, Jewish grandparents who shared Jewish experiences with their grandchildren, greatly influenced the younger generation and were a predictor of future Jewish engagement.
With all of the above in mind, I strongly urge Jewish organizations to invest in adult Jewish education, to offer learning opportunities for adults. How many Jews eat bacon or not is not a barometer of how vibrant our communities will be in the future, even if it is a headline that “sells.” But how many Jews experience spiritual peace is certainly an indicator of our success or failure. Jewish education nourishes the soul and allows for each one of us to find their own place in Judaism. When we discover how Judaism can enrich our life, we are ready to pass that down to the next generations.
In order to keep and grow a spirited, dynamic, Jewish community, we need to be actively involved in strengthening those who are the links in the chain of tradition. We must offer them opportunities to learn, we must facilitate inspiration and connection, we must convey that Jewish living is an accessible reality which we cannot pass up. This is what the mission of any Jewish educator should be.
 The full text of the research can be found at http://www.pewforum.org/files/2015/11/201.11.03_RLS_II_full_report.pdf
 Document can be found at http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/strategic-directions-for-jewish-life-a-call-to-action/
 Complete report can be found at http://www.brandeis.edu/cmjs/pdfs/intermarriage/MillennialChildrenIntermarriage1.pdf