Since biblical times, we Jews have been a famously contrary lot, and the erosion of traditional values in the modern period has only deepened the divisions. Yet there is a single article of faith proclaimed with startling unanimity and certitude by all who profess to care about the survival of the Jewish people.
From one end of the broad Jewish spectrum to the other, from secular humanists to the most rigidly devout, Jewish education is promoted as the key to securing the Jewish future. In last week’s CJN, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman added his powerful voice to the chorus. As he put it, “Nothing is more crucial to advancing this goal [of ensuring the continuation of a strong Jewish identity] than Jewish education. At all levels, from the earliest age in the home, through formal and informal education at all levels, there is no alternative to exposing the next generation to Jewish values, traditions and identity.”
I began entertaining doubts about the conventional wisdom regarding Jewish education years ago, and these have only increased as I raised my own children and became ever more involved in the lay leadership of the Jewish schools they attended. Let me make clear that I am not saying I no longer value Jewish education. Rather, what I mean is that in the distant past, the lives of our people were suffused with a critical mass of Jewish content, and this preserved in them a strong sense of self as Jews. Today, however, the great majority of Jews wish to replace the actual practice of Judaism with mere knowledge of Judaism. As a consequence of this shift, we tend to have overblown and unrealistic expectations regarding the efficacy of Jewish education in building Jewish identity.
In 1986, the Canadian Jewish Congress, Ontario region, commissioned a “Task Force on Assimilation, Intermarriage and Jewish Identity”, which I was privileged to co-chair. Following an intensive investigative process, the taskforce issued a report setting forth recommendations for counteracting the erosion of affiliation among Jews. Looking back, I am struck by the fact that almost all the recommendations involved promoting Jewish education in one form or another. In the years since, our community’s deep conviction that Jewish education is the panacea for assimilation has continued to grow, as reflected by its ever-expanding investment in Jewish educational facilities and resources. Yet parallel to this trend and notwithstanding our heroic efforts, we have witnessed a relentless increase in the rate of attrition.
Some years ago, I was visiting in Borough Park, a Brooklyn neighbourhood heavily populated by readily identifiable chassidic Jews. While strolling along the main street on a sunny Sunday afternoon, I came across a group of people wearing baseball caps and clutching cameras, listening to a tour guide’s animated explanation of the significance of the different types of garb worn by the local residents. I was intrigued to learn that these were members of a synagogue adult education group from Long Island, who had come to catch a glimpse of how their ancestors in eastern Europe lived long ago. They were no doubt having a fine educational experience learning about their ancient heritage, but this does not mean they had any interest in living significantly Jewish lives themselves. It is the difference between being a spectator at a sporting event and being a player: the self-perceptions and actual commitments of the two are simply incomparable. And if the goal of “Jewish education” is to ensure that there will be Jews in the world of the future, no one could seriously argue that the photo-snapping tourists from Long Island were as likely to have Jewish grandchildren as the bemused black-clad chassidim walking by.
Our Jewish community is one of the most affluent, generous, and dedicated in the world, and we are justifiably proud of the wonderful schools and other institutions that we have created. The great majority of parents I know who send their children to day schools wish them to be Jewishly knowledgeable, so that one day they will be in a position to make informed decisions about how they will choose to fulfil themselves as Jews. Deep down, they hope their children will ultimately vindicate their own life choices by choosing to be just as non-observant as they themselves are. Many are the stories of day school parents, including even some leaders of the community, who have called the principal to complain indignantly about a particular teacher who “brainwashed” their child into requesting that the family start having Shabbat dinners together on Friday nights, at an hour when the parents customarily go out with their friends.
I have acquired from my own Holocaust-survivor parents an appreciation for the sacred imperative after Auschwitz of transmitting a strong Jewish consciousness to the next generation. Although my parents never attended Jewish schools, which simply did not exist in small prewar European communities, their Jewish identity has always been unwavering and vigorous, absorbed intuitively from the personal example set by their own parents in the family home. Yes, I know, times have changed. For this reason, our challenge today is to identify the success factors of times past and try to make them work in our contemporary situation.
The truth is that it requires very little objective knowledge to live a vibrant Jewish life, and in our increasingly interconnected world, this knowledge is easy to attain. The real issue is the individual Jew’s degree of motivation to seek it out and act on it. I can agree with Lieberman and many others that Jewish literacy is a worthy objective, but on the available evidence, I have my doubts that it necessarily leads to the development of a strong Jewish identity. One can acquire a comprehensive Jewish high school education, one can even become a university professor of Jewish studies, without necessarily forming an emotional commitment to living a Jewish life. The key to forming such a commitment is actually doing the rather simple things one has learned about, and doing them consistently. Such observance can move beyond mere nostalgia or folklore and become an integral part of a person’s being. An individual who embraces an all-encompassing core of Jewish activity is apt to seek a like-minded spouse, and together they will strive to raise children on this model.
A respected Jewish community professional recently told me that she herself did not observe any Jewish rituals because she never had the benefit of a day school education. I responded that it does not take very much education to know how to light Shabbat candles, for example. All that is required is the determination to do it and the ability to strike a match. My ancestors, like hers, knew what they had to do to live richly satisfying Jewish lives, without having enjoyed a formal Jewish education. Clearly, something has changed dramatically. If we truly care about securing the future of the Jewish people, as we profess, we owe it to ourselves to examine what that “something” might be, and what we need to do about it.
The celebrated 19th-century German Jewish bibliographer Moritz Steinschneider was a modern man with modern sensibilities, unwilling to lend credence to any religion, including his own. People would ask him in puzzlement why a totally non-observant Jew had chosen to spend his days cataloguing musty old Jewish books with such loving devotion. His unsettling response was that he saw it as his mission to give Judaism a decent burial. If they wish to avoid being among the pall-bearers, the many present-day Jews who share Steinschneider’s modern sensibilities yet yearn paradoxically for a bright Jewish future, need to discover meaning and satisfaction in the Jewish experience beyond merely being knowledgeable about it.
As we survey the contemporary scene, there is, to be sure, much to cause us consternation. But in all fairness, there is also much to give us hope. In Montreal and Toronto and other hubs of Jewish life, we see young people creating dynamic new communities where they devise innovative, stimulating and joyful new ways to reconnect to their sources and celebrate the age-old treasures of Judaism. Throughout our long and tortuous history, we Jews have rebounded from countless existential crises by pulling together. I am confident that in the end, we shall once again meet the challenge, for “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”
Robert Eli Rubinstein, a Toronto businessman, is the author of An Italian Renaissance: Choosing Life in Canada, which won a 2011 Canadian Jewish Book Award.