You’ve seen the statistics. You’ve heard the reports.
You’ve encountered the prognoses about Jewish continuity and the survival of the Jewish people.
Well, I won’t be joining the voices affirming or disputing the Pew numbers.
I will say categorically that the story of Jewish survival and Jewish renewal begins and ends with you.
If you’re still reading anything at all on this topic, I assume that you are among those who care about the continued vitality of the Jewish people, not only for its own sake, but because the Jewish people carry Jewish ideas that are of value to humanity.
If you were there at Sinai, you might have seen Moses scratch the first bad data report on his way up to get the second set of Ten Commandments. “Checked in on my people, majority worshipping Golden Calf. Outcome uncertain.”
So, bad news is not new.
Want to know why we’ve been disappearing, assimilating, losing our identities, intermarrying, and dying for nearly 3,000 years?
Here’s my completely nonscientific hypothesis: I think that we are bad at statistics.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. We know statistics. We just choose to ignore them. Or at least, we don’t believe that they always have predictive value.
Why? Are we denying the odds? No. We are defying the odds.
We are doing what Jews have been doing for 3,000 years.
Jewish history is a history of odds defied.
Where to start? There are so many examples: Abraham rejecting idolatry. David slaying Goliath. The splitting of the Red Sea.
What about more recent history? The expulsion from Spain. The pogroms of Europe. The Holocaust.
Remember the birth of the State of Israel? The Six Day War?
All stories of odds defied.
As Jonathan Sarna said when in Pittsburgh for the Jewish Federation Centennial Fund’s Lecture Series, “American Jews will find creative ways to maintain Jewish life. It may still be possible for the current vanishing generation of Jews to be succeeded by another vanishing generation, and still another.”
Yes. Jews have been facing extinction for more than 3,000 years, leading to the oft-quoted Simon Rawidowicz characterization of the Jews as the “ever-dying people.”
From my vantage point as head of school at Community Day School, I see a very inspiring and odds-defying story.
People of wildly diverse backgrounds are choosing a full-on serious Jewish day school experience for their children.
Who are these people and why are they signing up for the non-Orthodox Jewish day school education offered at CDS and other schools like it around the country?
The answers may surprise you.
Our population includes interfaith couples, Orthodox families, families from the Reconstructionist, Reform and Conservative movements, and a significant percentage of families that are unaffiliated.
Our population includes families that can afford any private school and families with limited financial means.
Our population includes public school and private school advocates, people that fully expected to send their own children to the kinds of schools they attended.
Yet there is one beautiful, resonating, compelling, and overwhelming theme flowing across this odds-defying demographic pie chart.
Remember Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers”? He posits the need for 10,000 hours of practice and immersion at a young age to cultivate an unusual or enduring skill. He cites Bill Gates, the Beatles and other immediately accessible examples. If you buy this argument, think about what you get when you buy a pre-K to eight Jewish day school experience.
You buy nearly 11,000 hours of normative, integrated, Jewish living. You buy athletics, arts, science, global literacies, Hebrew language in a setting that takes Jewish living for granted. Even the best synagogue schools can’t compete with what happens when your middle school earth science teacher connects environmental science with timeless biblical teachings on how we must steward the earth’s natural resources.
And, when Jewish day school students move into their public high school or their private high school or their secular summer camp or their city basketball league, their strong identity makes it easier for them to be clear and confident about how to be Jewish in a welcoming and democratic society that threatens the Jewish future, not by anti-Semitism, but by the ism of “You’re Jewish? So what?”
We’ve got 40 years of CDS graduates telling their stories. Not only do they consistently achieve distinction in academics, careers and menschiness, many of them are living Jewish lives and raising Jewish families. Solomon Schechter Schools like ours and other non-Orthodox Jewish day schools throughout the nation share these good outcomes.
Among our diverse families, I see few parents choosing CDS just to escape the public schools. Most are making a positive choice to give their children something that they simply cannot get at any other school.
Yes. There’s lots of evidence to support Jewish day schools as partners in assuring a Jewish future. But we can no longer fight for a Jewish future if we aren’t able to say why it matters.
If you’re a parent or an educator, here’s how you can contribute to the odds-defying conversation:
• Have the conversation: Our kids need to know that we care about their Jewish lives, that what they do as Jews is of great consequence to us and to the Jewish people, that they are not free to abandon their heritage and their legacy without wrestling with it, and without understanding the consequences of their choice, and the richness of their inheritance.
• Keep the conversation positive: There was a time when Judaism transmitted well through the joint workings of insularity, guilt and/or obligation. But Judaism carries a joyful message and a proud history and a gift that we are privileged to share. There is no need to “make Judaism cool.” Trust me, kids see right through us when we try to jazz it up. Judaism is cool. It is radical. It is brilliant in historic and world changing ways. Give a young person a piece of difficult text and watch him or her go at it. Give a young person a sense of pride as to what the Jewish people have contributed to the world, and an appreciation of the fact that the job is not yet done, that the transmittal mechanisms of ritual and practice and study do continue to teach and reinforce particular Jewish values even as they may have evolved into universal ones.
• Keep the conversation transcendent: When young people or people that have disconnected from their Jewish selves have a legitimate gripe, listen and hear them, but take them higher. Ignorant parent? Uninspiring teacher? Boring rabbi? Mindless shul? Dogmatic school? Not many of us are worthy of the task we are given to teach our children and to not forsake these teachings. So, let’s own up to our unworthiness, while preserving and cherishing the value of what it is we are trying to transmit. Judaism transcends you and me and whomever or whatever else might not have done it justice. When God or our prophetic and wise sages send a message down through the millennia, are we really going to let an uninspired teacher or parent derail it? Sounds like a cop out to me. Find a teacher and learn.
Can we agree that the Jewish people and the world are well served by proud young people that can enrich the broad secular world by living enriched Jewish lives? Isn’t that what we carry forward if we hold ourselves accountable to be a light unto the nations?
Maybe it is a miracle. Maybe we are once again defying the odds by denying the odds.
But the truth is, Jewish continuity is in your hands and in mine. We make our future as we’ve made our past.
The Jewish future is assured, one Jew at a time. It starts (again) with you.
(Avi Baran Munro is head of school at Community Day School.)