Hey, remember how the sky is falling for liberal Judaism? Remember how there is no easy answer to solve most problems?
Apparently, we’ve been wrong about all that. If we just send kids to Jewish day schools, that’s it! That solves the problem!
(Hopefully by now you know not to take me so seriously when I seem so excited about platitudes.)
Reassessing last year’s Pew study, Cohen and Wertheimer have written an article in Mosaic touting education and denominational setting as central to sustaining Jewish identity. They’ve noted in particular that more day school means more engagement, and more conservatism in Jewish upbringing means more engagement; they also question the “post-denominational” movement in Judaism by equating it (however validly–and they do nothing to demonstrably make the connection) to the “nones” of the Pew survey. Liel Leibovitz, writing in Tablet, doubles down on the education proposition, and chastises major Jewish donors for funding all manner of identity initiatives while failing to fund Jewish day schools.
So, let’s recap. The conclusion appears to be: you get Jews by marrying Jewish, educating Jews, and being more Jewishly conservative. The easiest of these to “make happen” is to pay for Jewish day school for liberal Jewish kids, so we should really do that. Keep The Tribe together, and whatnot.
In this model, Judaism doesn’t survive by standing on its own or on its merits. We continue to have Jews solely from consanguinity and shared learning, which will stymie the losses. Never mind what being Jewish might mean, or what value there is to that.
How long are we going to go on like this?
I don’t mean to be completely negative. I don’t, truly. But if the “luminaries” of contemporary Jewish social thought can accomplish nothing more than to bite their fingernails to the quick because there aren’t enough Conservative-affiliated Jews and not enough kids in Jewish day schools, then what is the point of continuing to listen to the luminaries?
The problem I have with this is that the things that create some level of engagement in Jewish life are not the things they talk about. What is shown to encourage continued membership in synagogues and engagement in Jewish life? It’s not the movement associated with the congregation, and it’s not simply enrollment in day school.
If you want someone engaged, you have to use best practices to understand what people need, to not only make people feel welcome but to actually get them involved, and to provide “spiritual” challenge and support. There are compelling ideas and resources within all walks of Jewish life and all the various Judaisms in the United States today. We know that because we see that people are compelled by those ideas, and retain memberships and affiliations with all manner of groups, whether we’re talking about the rationalist Cultural, Secular, and Humanistic (and sometimes Reconstructionist) forms of Judaism; the more “mainstream” approaches of Reform and Conservative Judaism; or the intensely mystical approaches of Renewal.
But the best practices that get individuals engaged and challenged with the ideas that form those versions of Judaism? Those aren’t always–or even often–specifically Jewish. They are practices that not only sustain what is; they encourage growth. Cohen, Wertheimer, and Leibovitz don’t talk about them.
Without those best practices, all you’re worried about is assimilation. All you’ll do is slow the loss.
Maybe spending on Jewish day schools is a cure-all if all you’re looking to do is slow your losses. But if that’s your “plan” to save liberal Judaism, it could well be that you deserve to lose.