Thursday, June 23, 2011

Lord Jonathan Sacks - Following His Lead

Lord Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of England has corroborated what most of us already know – that Jewish education is the key to the survival of the Jewish people. And no institution has been better at education Jews than the Jewish day school.

I think that has become clear not only to Orthodox Jews but even to the leaders of other denominations. Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionists Jews have all begun setting up their own school system and Jewish Federations have been helping them. Many Federation leaders (at least here in Chicago) now understand the importance of a Jewish education beyond the hated afternoon classes that many young children are forced to attend after a full day in public school.

I recently wrote about the need to do something about the over 90% of American Jewry that have become so assimilated that in some cases there is barely any connection to their Judaism at all.

Intermarriage is at an all time high. Within a generation or 2 the vast majority of this 90% will be lost to Judaism completely – almost irretrievably. This simply cannot be allowed to happen.

I made some suggestions as a springboard for discussion about how we can change things. Basically we need to do better outreach and make our day schools attractive to the typical assimilated non observant Jew. Making the day school an attractive alternative to a public school education is a necessary key to success in keeping as many Jews Jewish as possible and perpetuating them into the future.

The biggest hurdle in my mind is the lack of will on the part of our rabbinic leadership. The second biggest hurdle is the increased level of financing Jewish education that is already overtaxing virtually every parent who isn’t at least a millionaire.

The overwhelming sense I got from much of the commentary to that essay was that changing the paradigm is a virtual impossibility.

I don’t think so. England actually did change the paradigm. Because there you have rabbinic leadership who was not willing to accept the status quo. From Jerusalem Post:

Speaking at a panel on the future of European Jewry at the Presidents Conference in Jerusalem on Wednesday, Sacks recalled how in 1993 he knowingly created an artificial sense of crisis to try and put an end to four decades of decline in the population of British Jews.

“We were losing Jews at an alarming rate,” he said. “If we did nothing, the community would die. The solution was clear to us: We had to rejuvenate the Jewish community, and we learned from history that education was the most powerful tool.”

To reach out to parents of Jewish children in Britain, he signed his name to a controversial ad campaign aimed at stirring up a public debate.

“In 1993 we took out a big advertisement of lovely young Jews, the kind you’d all want your children to be, and one by one they were falling into the abyss,” he said. “The headline read: Britain has been losing Jews every day for 40 years.”

The campaign worked.

Sacks said that in 2005, about 63 percent of Jewish children studied at Jewish day schools, as opposed to 25% in 1993.

All I can say is, WOW! A 38% increase in day school attendance in a span of 12 years. Apparently issues that prevent it from happening here did not prevent it from happening there.

As Orthodox feminist Ms. Blu Greenberg always says, ‘If there is a rabbinic will there is a Halachic way’.

I do not see any real Rabbinic will here. I instead see an emphasis on the concept of ‘Al Tharas HaKodesh’- a higher state of holiness. The current Zeitgeist is to create an environment of like minded individuals that will reject anything but the purist of Jews as members – certainly as far as day schools and high schools are concerned.

Parent bodies desire an ‘upgrading’ of admission standards so that their children will not be influenced by values they do not subscribe to. One school in Chicago just implemented a ‘No TV’ rule. All future admissions will require that there be no TV in the house. Most of the parents in that school don’t have one and are upset by those students who do - and come into the classroom every day talking about ‘what was on TV’ the night before. They want to eliminate that influence from their children. What about parents who do not want to remove TVs from their homes? ‘There are other day schools...’ they will be told.

This is exactly the opposite of what they should be doing. Isolating oneself even from members of your own religious community is a sure prescription for maintaining or perhaps even increasing assimilation out of Judaism to percentages much higher than 90%.

What value is there in isolating a child
Al Tharas HaKodesh’ to the point where there is no interaction with the outside world of even religious Jews? Is raising a child ‘Al Taharas HaKodesh’ worth abandoning the rest of Jewry to the winds?! Are all the students who attended this school before the new rule lesser Jews? Are they handicapped and unable to achieve the heights of Judaism that this new rule will ensure? Does this new rule make any real difference in how their students will turn out? I seriously doubt that.

I see no alternative. The status quo will in a generation or two beget a spiritual holocaust of no return. And it is being accelerated by school boards devoted to ‘raising the standards of religiosity’. How can we be so selfish as to allow that to happen?

Perhaps our rabbinic leaders should have a conversation with Lord Sacks.