Since I was out of town last week, I missed Rabbi Mark Staitman’s talk about Pittsburgh’s “vanishing” Jewish community. I have enjoyed past Ehrenwerth Lectures, and am so grateful to the Ehrenwerth family for honoring Kandy’s memory in this meaningful way.
The June 23 account in The Chronicle of Staitman’s lecture reports that he characterized our Jewish community as “a shadow of its former self.” Had I been in attendance, I would have challenged this depiction of the state of Jewish Pittsburgh today.
Staitman correctly identifies the loss of membership and engagement over the past 20 years at non-Orthodox synagogues. However, in a city with three thriving day schools educating nearly 1,000 Jewish children, to measure Pittsburgh Jewish connections by synagogue attendance and demographics alone is to miss one of the most exciting movements in the perpetual and evergreen story of the evolution of the Jewish people.
The non-Orthodox Jewish day school movement has a proven track record of success. Look no further than across the Atlantic to Great Britain, where intermarriage rates in the late 20th century were rising on par with those in the United States. Today, the younger generation of British Jewry is more religiously and Jewishly committed than its parents.
Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, the former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, squarely attributes this reversal to the simple fact that his community built more non-Orthodox day schools over a 30-year period. In Great Britain in 2013, 10 percent of Jews 65 or older reported having attended a Jewish day school in their youth; in that same year, 70 percent of Jewish children were attending Jewish day schools, reversing the same trajectory toward assimilation that we’ve been wringing our hands about here in the United States.
This formula works right here in Pittsburgh, too. Here’s why I challenge Staitman’s description of the Pittsburgh Jewish community, based on my experience leading Community Day School, our region’s only non-Orthodox Jewish day school:
• Our experience proves that just because families are intermarried doesn’t mean they won’t choose to raise Jewish children. Of Pittsburgh’s three day schools, the CDS K-8 population is the largest, and we embrace families of all Jewish backgrounds bemoaned as “lost” by Staitman, including interfaith couples and unaffiliated millennials. Approximately 40 percent of our parents self-identified as “unaffiliated” in a recent survey. These families are finding a comfortable Jewish home at CDS and a partner to help them in raising their Jewish children.
• Day schools can help to invigorate non-Orthodox synagogue life. For example, our Middle School “minyan makers” join Shacharit services at Tree of Life*Or L’Simcha to ensure there are enough Jewish adults to complete the minyan. Rabbis from Congregation Beth Shalom lead weekly Torah learning sessions with our parents. During Purim, CDS students and alumni read the Megillah at synagogues across the community. CDS alumni often assume leadership roles on USY, Young Judaea or BBYO boards. Staff members recruited to Pittsburgh to work at CDS join Pittsburgh’s synagogues and share their talents as congregants, as well as day school educators.
• Staitman is quoted as saying that children are no longer taught to see themselves in “positive Jewish ways,” and that “such attitudes no longer exist.” Walk down our hallways on any given morning to hear the joyful voices of CDS students lifted in prayer. You might see 300 teachers, students and parents joining in dance during Kabbalat Shabbat, where our oldest students eagerly mix with our youngest in their Shevatim (mixed-age groups representing the 12 Tribes of Israel). More than 60 percent of CDS middle schoolers volunteer on our Tefillah Council for Jewish and ritual life on campus, leading Torah services and planning Purim shpiels and Chanukah carnivals for the school. CDS graduates bring Jewish pride to their public and private high schools, universities, and summer leadership experiences. Alumni report how their CDS education empowers them to contribute from a position of knowledge and self-confidence as Jews to discussions about world history, Israeli politics, human rights and social justice.
• Staitman also points to “an overall disinterest [that] has plagued the populace such that Judaism and the State of Israel are no longer valued.” He proposes two solutions to building commitment to Israel and Judaism: “Speaking Hebrew” and “finding ways to have people go to Israel for an extended period of time and to work there.” I agree — and wish to report that such approaches are alive and well in Pittsburgh. Hebrew is taught daily to our students from ages 3 to 14 by Israeli teachers speaking in authentic Israeli accents. Our graduates culminate their CDS years together with the eighth grade trip to Israel, a two-week intensive experience that solidifies their bonds with their classmates and their Jewish homeland. CDS alumni have been eager participants in programs for young adults such as Onward Israel, which already do exactly what Staitman proposes — invite young adults to live and work in Israel as young Israelis do. Our graduates are regularly chosen as Diller Teen Fellows, an immersive leadership program for a select international group of Jewish 10th- and 11th-graders. Each year, we hear of CDS alumni joining the Israel Defense Forces as lone soldiers. Most recently, CDS alum Elliot Beck was recruited as an assistant percussionist and timpanist in the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, and he credits the Hebrew he learned at CDS as an advantage throughout the rigorous audition process.
My challenges to Staitman’s claims notwithstanding, I do agree with his proposed solution encouraging creative partnerships among shrinking congregations, some of which are already underway. I wholeheartedly endorse another of his proposed solutions, which is to establish a new funding structure in the form of a community tax to underwrite the often prohibitively high cost of being Jewish. I also see encouraging signs of growth in congregations that embraced their own need to change in response to the changing Jewish landscape, rather than laying blame on disinterested parents and disconnected kids.
Certainly there are serious challenges facing American Jewry, and I don’t mean to make light of any of them. But let’s not paint our community into a dismal portrait that obscures our many successes. Instead, let’s look to the institutions that are working and invest in them for even greater success.
Community Day School is a highly effective institution at the heart of our Pittsburgh Jewish community. Our most recent Parent Satisfaction Survey, with 80 percent of current parents responding, reveals a 99 percent overall satisfaction rate, with 98 percent likely to recommend CDS to others.
CDS is securing the Jewish future by engaging primarily non-Orthodox Jewish families in immersive Jewish life and learning 172 days per year, while preparing their children to excel and distinguish themselves in their next academic experiences, as citizens, and as Jews.
Isn’t that something to celebrate?
Avi Baran Munro is the head of school at Community Day School.