Jewish Education

Posted by:  Dr. Stanley Dickson

Posted 7/16/01


Presently, there is not one issue in the United States as important to the Jewish people and the community at large than the education of our Jewish children.  Indeed, some very insightful and astute observers have predicted the status of the young Jewish population, but few realized the magnitude of the problem.  The purpose of this article is to review some of the past events in Jewish education which gave rise to our present condition, and to suggest possible courses of action that may already be underway in some communities and need to be expanded, while in others they need to be introduced.

The journey that our grandparents and great-grandparents made at the beginning of the 20th century presented a myriad of problems unimaginable to most of us.  Leaving their homeland and coming to the United States for a "better life" was a courageous act prompted by intolerable living circumstances in Eastern Europe.  It is, however, the events that followed World War II that became the basis of my reflections regarding Jewish education.  Needless to say, we were by the mid-20th century assimilated, but nonetheless we retained our Jewish identity.  The Jewish population in the United States increased from 1 million at the beginning of the century to between 4.5 million and 5 million by 1950.  In 1999, it is estimated that there were approximately 5.5 to 6 million Jews in the United States (American Jewish Historical Society:  The Philip Leff Group, 1999).

This increase resulted in an expansion of the number of synagogues and Jewish religious schools to accommodate growth in membership and their offspring.  Since Jewish education is a major factor in our religious tradition, the synagogues were confronted with many problems which required much attention and application to the school's population.  Although the dedication and effort expended to resolve these problems were considerable, it is my view that the opportunity for pupils to commit to a Jewish life occurred much too infrequently.  This is understandable in light of the total needs of the synagogue.

Financial support was less than extensive and economy was the guiding principle for the lay Board of Directors.  Well-trained teachers were in short supply.  Up-to-date learning material was expensive and therefore not used by many schools.  Teachers' salaries were minimal or even below minimal levels and therefore qualified young people (i.e. education majors in college) were not interested in teaching in a religious school.  Besides, a religious school teaching position was only part-time, so the teachers had to seek other employment, either full- or half-time, to make a living wage.

Schools often hired individuals fluent in the Hebrew language, but who had no formal training or expertise as a teacher.  Some parents volunteered to teach if they had particular knowledge about some area of Judaism.    Teaching experience and training in the use of appropriate pedagogical techniques seemed not to be a prerequisite in hiring teachers for some of these supplemental schools.

Children were expected to learn after attending a full day of school while their non-Jewish friends were at play.  Their ability to concentrate decreased significantly.  It is then no surprise that many youngsters demonstrated antipathy toward the supplemental school experience and looked forward to discontinuing their religious education after Bar and Bat-mitzvah.

Today, most parents still opt for the supplementary school experience, expressing a commitment to public school and multiculturalism.  There are 470,000 children enrolled in some form of Jewish education.  Approximately 287,000 are in congregational schools (Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, October 1999) and less than 200,000 are in Jewish day schools.  Supplemental schools may serve "Jewishly ambivalent" parents for whom Judaism competes with other priorities.  For some children, it may be a congregational school or nothing.

I would suggest that at a time when enrollment was very high, the students did not achieve at levels that were likely to result in their making a commitment to a "Jewish life".

One of the consequences of this was reported by Gorden and Horowitz (1994) reviewing information released by the National Jewish Population Survey (1990); the New York Jewish Population Study (1991); and the North American Data Bank, Dr. Keysor (1993-1996).  Their own research supported these findings.

Gorden and Horowitz's research examined three variables related to Jewish survival:  intermarriage, declining birth rates, and Jewish education.  The study noted the dramatic rise in intermarriage during the latter part of the 20th century (9 percent before 1965 and 52 percent in 1990).  Only 28 percent of the children of these mixed marriages were being raised as Jews; 41 percent were raised in another religion; and 31 percent were raised with no religion at all.  The research they reviewed included 770,000 children under 18 years of age.  While 28 percent of these children were raised as Jews only 15 percent of this group married Jews themselves.  They concluded that if this trend continued we would lose 85 to 98 percent of the American Jewish community by 2076.

Those attending Jewish day schools had an intermarriage rate of less than 5 percent.  The research supported the conclusion that a commitment to a Jewish day school education would result in less intermarriage and defection from Jewish practices.  It should be noted, however, that the study did not control for the influence of the Jewish household.

The contribution of the Jewish people to the community at large cannot be overestimated.  As Isaiah said, "You shall be a light unto the nations" (Isaiah 42:6), and so we are.  A promintent professor of philosophy at Columbia University noted that the three men who most influenced our lives during the 20th century were all born Jewish.  The contributors of the number of Jewish people in arts, literature, science, etc., is inordinate to the percentage of Jews in the population.  Thomas Cahill, a Catholic writer, noted the outstanding contributions of the Jews in his national best seller "The Gifts of the Jews" (Doubleday Publishers, 1998).

Dennis Prager summarized the contributions by the Jews noted in Cahill's book ("The Prager Perspective", July 1, 1998).  Among the 10 Prager listed was "The Jews Gave the World the Value of Education."  There is a prevailing belief, attitude, tradition and perspective that seems identifiable with Yiddishkeit.  I believe these factors have become so ingrained in our being that it is now genetic and transmitted from generation to generation.  This Jewish gene is the basis for our contributions to the general community and our desire to make the world a better place to live.  Our liturgy, practices and teachings all reinforce this genetic material.  Those factors that diminish the strength of these characteristics can only reduce the positive consequences of our religion.  We are therefore obliged, no obligated, to maintain our religion and seek ways to perpetuate the ideals and behaviors that make us all better human beings.  In that regard, there are a number of recommendations I should like to offer for consideration.

- Hebrew day schools should market themselves to draw more families to this type of Jewish education, and the financial means should be found to make it affordable to all who wish to attend.  It should be noted that here in Western New York, Kadimah School reports that many of their graduates obtain New York State Regents Scholarships.  Not only do these students show commitment and excellence in their religious studies but do the same in their secular subjects as well.

- As "state of the art" educational program requires the most sophisticated material and equipment.  Today, of course, that means that each school should have computers for the teacher and the students.  Jewish material on CD-ROM and the internet offers students new ideas and new topics to explore.  This, in turn, permits richer discussions and more sophisticated critical analysis of many points of view.

- Teachers need to be trained in the effective use of this new computer technology.

- Synagogue budges have ever increasing costs in order to maintain and stabilize their existence.  I, therefore, suggest that these supplemental schools combine to form a community religious school with each synagogue sharing the per capita cost for the program.  Expenses would be shared and the best teachers of the programs employed.  In Western New York, a planned budget for a community school for Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues showed a reduction in expenses.  Unnecessary duplication of services resulted in savings.  This option should be used for children with parents who do not consider the day school alternative.

- Should the synagogues be unable to cooperate in a community school effort, the Hebrew day school should consider developing a religious study program as an alternative to the community school.  The classes may meet in the day school and the pupils can interact with day school students.  The professional teaching staff of the day school then becomes available to all students.

- Congregations should combine and offer an adult education program in each of the synagogues and the Bureau of Jewish Education.  Classes should be offered at least twice a week, in the evening, and on a bi-semester basis.  A curriculum should be planned and the most expert teachers in the community solicited for service as instructors.  Registration fees would offset the costs.

- Congregations and their religious schools should come together and support a unified Jewish youth group program.  By working together congregations could employ a director of youth activities for the community, and ongoing programs conducted.

- Finally, congregations and religious schools should encourage their students and congregants to attend residential Jewish summer camp programs.  Camp programs rich in the Jewish experience and with quality programs should be selected.  Financial assistance should be made available to those who cannot afford this experience.  The summer camp can then be a prototype for a "Jewish life" for the campers and add to their enrichment and commitment.

I'm sure many of the readers have additional thoughts and other creative suggestions.  Nonetheless, we cannot ignore the problem that now exists with our youth.  We are now in a position much like our ancestors who left home and came to America.  We are being challenged to be creative; to bring our children back; to prevent further erosion; and to maintain our heritage.  It will require attention, sacrifice, creativity and ingenuity.  But we have a history of successfully meeting challenges and overcoming difficulties.  That Jewish gene is still present and so is our G-d.  We are entering anew era of technology unimagined by our immigrant ancestors.  These new advances may be used to our advantage to help meet our challenges.  Let's join to use our wealth and experiences to insure the continuation of our heritage and tradition, for our children, and our children's children and humankind.

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