What does one say to a group of people who are committed to Jewish life? I’m more accustomed to speaking with groups not already committed and trying to find ways to engage them with Jewish life. I’ve talked with thousands of Birthright Israel young adults, most of whom are undereducated Jewishly, and I hope to light a Jewish spark—not because of me, but it’s clear that Birthright has created Jewish ruach.
What can the day-school world do similarly?
What I’m about to say may seem provocative and critical of the day school world, and even your work, but I hope that you understand that my words come from ahavat yisrael.
I spent over a decade chairing PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education. I had great hopes for the promise of day schools, especially pluralistic community day schools that serve non-Orthodox students. I expected growth in penetration of the non-Orthodox market. We spent our first five years helping to launch nearly 60 new schools or school programs across the country. I understood that a day-school education gives a young person the literacy skills and sense of Jewish connections that increase their chance of ongoing Jewish involvement. While not a causal study, a 2007 Brandeis survey shows that while 70 percent of non-Orthodox Jews who had completed at least six years of day school said, while in college, that they were committed to Jewish life, only 45 percent who didn’t attend day school felt that way.
So, yes, I support the idea of Jewish day schools, and I have invested in them. But alas, after many years of trying, data shows that the percentage of non-Orthodox children attending day schools may be as low as 3 percent. The absolute number has declined and declined. According to Marvin Schick’s Avi Chai study, two years ago it was 33,000. Ten years before that it was 40,000. And this is out of over one million school-age non-Orthodox kids. This is something we all should ponder.
I wonder if the fact that the level of commitment among that 3 percent is so much more intense than that of the 97 percent leads us to complacency. We revel in the positive impact and ignore the others. We take pride in the disproportionate number of day-school graduates who go on to Jewish professional life, becoming rabbis, educators, and organizational leaders. But should that be a point of pride given the poor showing, writ large, of the accomplishments of Jewish professionals in making Jewish life compelling for the vast majority of American Jews? Have we simply created non-Orthodox leaders who can replicate themselves but not lead the broader progressive community?
I know many have been struggling with the issue of declining day-school participation by non-Orthodox families. Most attribute the results to affordability, but there are more important factors. Jewish immersion experiences where traditional religious elements define the environment with a certain parochialism have become a foreign proposition to the vast majority of American non-Orthodox Jews. Too many contemporary Jews view the prospect of sending their children to an exclusively Jewish school for full-time education as a step backward in their American engagement, regardless of the cost.
We need to find a way to reverse this trend. We need a cadre of non-Orthodox Jewish leaders who are able to think broadly about how to engage the rest of the community. But, even more importantly, we need a critical mass of next-generation Jews who have Jewish literacy skills and are steeped in Jewish culture, while at the same time have the knowledge and creative spirit that will enable them to be secular achievers. My simple proposition is that day schools can neither attract a larger group of students nor fulfill their mission of preparing the next generation of Jewish achievers if they don’t balance Jewish and secular education. They can’t, as well, succeed if they don’t create Jewish pride, again both in Judaism as a religious tradition and as a community that has disproportionately excelled in a large range of secular pursuits. We are accustomed to excellence and extraordinary achievement. This is so because we are the inheritors of a modern Jewish history unique among the peoples across the globe.
Permit me a brief discussion into the near-history of Jewish life: The European enlightenment and the Haskalah that began in the late 17th century and the subsequent emancipation of Jews both in Western Europe and through the American Founding ushered in an era of unprecedented Jewish achievement in almost every human endeavor: in the sciences, in the arts, in business, in academia, in entertainment. It has been nothing short of astonishing.
You name the field, and whatever it is, over the past 300 years Jews have excelled. But this history and the pride that comes from understanding Jewish achievement in the modern age is mostly absent from traditional venues of Jewish education including day schools. In the vast majority of our educational establishments, when children learn about Jewish heroes, these are almost exclusively figures from the biblical and rabbinic periods.
In modern history, day-school students may learn about the founders of the state of Israel, which of course is an epic accomplishment, but they don’t learn about those Jews who discovered the cure for polio, who first theoretically explained nuclear fission, who discovered the catalytic properties of ribonucleic acid (RNA), who discovered and developed GFP—the green fluorescent protein, who discovered quasicrystals, who discovered the relationship between oxygen and lactic acid, who discovered penicillin and its curative effects, who discovered the dendritic cell, who discovered the exclusion principle in physics, who discovered the anti-proton, who invented the holographic method, who discovered cosmic microwave background radiation, who first detected the neutrino, who provided evidence that the expansion of the universe is accelerating and whose accomplishments have benefited all people in all places. How many Jews can recite the names of Salk and Sabin? Ernst Chain? Adam Reiss and Saul Perlmutter? Besides maybe Einstein, they don’t learn about the cadre of Jewish physicists whose work was the foundation for the nuclear era, whose superior intellects conceived not only of the possibility of nuclear energy but implemented it. Los Alamos during the Manhattan project was a shtetl, albeit a secular one at that.
Jews are two-tenths of 1 percent of the world population but represent 20 percent of Nobel Prize winners. Yet, we have won 41percent of all the Nobel prizes in economics, 28 percent in medicine, 26 percent in physics, 19 percent in chemistry. How many people in this room can name but a fraction of the 26 Jews who have won the Nobel Prize in economics? We’ll raise our hands and we’ll say Milton Friedman and Paul Samuelson, right? What about the other 24? How many know who Robert Aumann is? Of the Americans who have won the Nobel Prize in physics, 34 percent have been American Jews.
Our story cannot be limited to a tale of rabbis, Jewish institutions, and denominations. It is wonderful to teach children that Rebecca Gratz founded the first Hebrew Sunday school here in Philadelphia in 1838, but our full story reflects an America, who by its founding created opportunity in realms of secular achievement regardless of religious or ethnic background. From the beginning, Jews have embraced those opportunities to contribute to the greatness that is the American experiment.
It is no accident that Jews have excelled in America. Many reasons have been offered for our success: Jewish genes, being immigrants, living under the protection of American liberty. But Jewish values—taught by Jewish schools and by parents—have also been critically important. Day schools are the home of Jewish values and we need to teach them—not as a subject divorced from the modern world, but integral to it.
One way to ensure that teaching of religious and secular content is integrated is to tell our children the story of modern Jewish heroes—not just the fighters for Israel, but the Jewish scientists and doctors who are warriors in the battle against cancer. Teaching about an arcane religious supernaturalism perhaps has a place, but if this is the sole focus of Jewish parochial education, it will be irrelevant to the majority of us who want to hear a Jewish story that aligns with the cutting edge of the world that we aspire to, that we know we are capable of. American Jews want a story that speaks of who they are and can be in the real world. My sense is that the Barrack Academy is at the top of the day school pack in its secular education offerings.
As we ponder who Jews are and what the next generations are going to be like, we can’t ignore data that contradict what many of us assumed just a few years ago. According to the 2013 Pew study, A Portrait of Jewish Americans, 59 percent of 18-29 year olds with intermarried parents identify as Jewish and were brought up to consider themselves as Jewish. Less than 40% of 30-64 year old individuals from intermarried homes identify as Jewish. In other words, in the past 20 or so years, a majority of Jews growing up in intermarried homes consider themselves to be Jewish but when Jews intermarried 30, 40, and 50 years ago, a majority of their children were not brought up to consider themselves Jewish. This is a significant shift. Intermarrying in 1970 mostly meant cutting oneself off from the Jewish future. It does not necessarily mean that anymore. The credit rating of being Jewish has gone up considerably over the past 50 years, and parts of our community changed their attitudes and opened their doors to intermarried families. Part, but not all.
But even more telling than the Pew data, a recent Brandeis study looks at millennials, Jews aged 19-32, who grew up in intermarried households, and examines what happens to their Jewish identity when they go on Birthright, get involved with Hillel, or take Jewish classes. Without these interventions, the rate of Jewish involvement of young people raised in intermarried homes is as much as 30 points below the rate of involvement of millennials raised in in-married homes also without these interventions. But the difference between in-married and intermarried millennials who do have these interventions narrows considerably. Surprisingly, the majority of the children of the intermarried who undergo these interventions end up being involved Jewishly after college.
So, intermarriage is not the unavoidable death knell that we once said it was. With a majority of American Jews intermarrying and with a majority of those who intermarry seeking to raise their children as Jews, how relevant can day schools be if they are not fully welcoming children from intermarried families? Parochialism, the commitment to be by ourselves without mixing with others, leaves out all those Jews who are now finding ways of affirming themselves as Jews in unparochial ways.
When I think about Jews who are thoroughly enmeshed in the open society, I realize how resonant the story of Jewish contribution to America may be for them. As I noted earlier, there are multiple reasons for Jewish success, but I have a simple answer: Our secret to success is our shared values—some obvious, some not so. We value tzedakah. We are a people of hope and action. At the core of Jewish values is the emphasis on education, education that includes constant seeking after the truth in a dialectical way, not only the Havrutah of the tradition, but holding contradictory ideas at the same time and breaking through the boxes of our prior thoughts to forge new categories. This is what the Talmud does and it is, as well, what Einstein did. I believe there is a way to teach these core Jewish values while highlighting our accomplishments and creating a new inspiration. If we can show the great numbers of American Jews who are people of high quality and capability the deep connection between the extraordinary achievement of so many Jews, and the Jewish values and Jewishness that underpin that achievement, then maybe we have a chance of attracting the best and the brightest to contribute to the Jewish world.
Creating educational vehicles and curricula that tell this story—and integrate the religious with the secular—is one of my foundation’s major goals. Day schools need to play a role in accomplishing this goal. I imagine curricula and learning contexts in which students engage in study of the modern era in the way that our children currently learn about the Passover story, the Purim story, and the Hanukkah story. When they come to see the disproportionate presence of Jews at the forefront of so many realms of progress, I hope that will engender in them the kind of pride necessary and it will narrow the gap for them between our ancient tradition and their contemporary lives.
We need to engender in our young people a futuristic Jewishness, a sense of being Jewish that couples Jewish identity with every bold advancement in the overall culture. So when Einstein’s theories, a hundred years later, get proven in a contemporary experiment, we attach that to our Jewish identity. When Paul Simon wins his 12th Grammy Award and is acclaimed as the musical poet of a generation of Americans, that is a story of the ongoing American Jewish Experience. So, when Ralph Steinman and Bruce Beutler win the Nobel Prize in Medicine in 2011 for discoveries related to the immune system that are part of understanding processes that may one day be central to curing cancer, we teach about the Jewish value of life and saving life at all costs. There is a Jewish story in how Arnold Schoenberg, Leonard Bernstein, Phillip Glass, and even George Gershwin shaped classical music in the 20th century. And when my friend Len Abramson has the forethought and courage to write a book in 1990 that calls out the contradictions and dysfunctions of our health care system, after he developed a structure of health management that rewards healing and health and not the maximization of unnecessary procedures, I say there’s another American Jew achieving and contributing at an extraordinary level.
But there is more to Leonard than just that. In what might be considered his geriatric period, he has learned to play the piano, become a near expert in bonsai, and has become a remarkably good artist as well. Indeed, he has offered to paint the portrait of anyone here tonight, preferably in the nude, his fee going to the Barrack Academy.
So, the idea is to relate the great contributions and achievements of Jews with Jewishness and Jewish ideas in a way that’s authentic and to teach that to our children. We need to break down this strange wall that stands between who the Jews really are in the modern era and a perverse parochialism that pretends that the extraordinary accomplishments of the past 300 years are not a core Jewish story. Secular Jewish achievement is very much a Jewish story. It needs to be the Jewish story and we may need to transform Jewish education to accomplish it. And by doing so, we make Jewish education relevant.
I want to talk about another area in which Jewish education may be out of sync with a vanguard of Jewish achievement in the modern era, and that is Israel. Of course, our day schools are pro-Israel and committed to teaching a love of Israel. But I’m not sure the Israel that’s being taught in American Jewish schools fully embodies what the founding of Israel and its development entail. The import of Herzl’s words, “Im tirtzu, ayn zo agada—If you will it, it is no dream” is that the Jewish people could take history into its own hands and mold its future. The founding of Israel created a new kind of Jewish culture, a secular can-do culture, with perseverance and vitality at its center. This was and is profound. But I would not use the word “miracle” to describe this because doing so misses the point of what Jews as human beings were able to do. In the past 20 years Israel has spawned a remarkable environment for innovation in business and technology. With close to 6,000 innovation start-ups, Israel has the highest per capita number of startups of any country. It has the third-highest number of companies listed on the Nasdaq behind the United States and China. Israelis are forging new ground in technology, health care, and business. There is an innovative spirit and an intelligence of creativity pervading the secular creation that is Israel, unsurpassed by any other country or society. And that is a story worth telling our children. This should be a source of unbridled pride. When you consider what most Jews value in American life, this side of Israel has potential for resonance and inspiration.
My goal is to make Jewish education relevant to the cutting edge of who the Jewish people truly are. This will enable us to attract a far broader segment of the Jewish population to our day schools. When our educational apparatus tells the Jewish story in such a way so that the talented and capable, who are the mainstream of uncommitted American Jews, see themselves in that story, the talented and capable will want to be a part of that story. My great concern is that Jewish professional leadership, rabbis and educators, for the most part do not reflect that caliber of person. My hope is that tomorrow they will and the Jewish communal world might have a shot at being as cutting edge as American Jews are.
So, this is my challenge to the day-school world. I’m going to work on developing these ideas and the curricula to deliver them writ large. You tell me how day schools are going to change so that they speak to the Jewish condition of our day, to Jews who are not only part of the greater American context, but who want to excel in it and be leaders. How does a day-school education become more relevant? One way is to put our most recent history at the center of what schools teach because that is a history that we can see ourselves in, rather than a history that leaves us out. My dream is a Jewish communal world that does not sit in a parochial bubble removed from the reality of who our people truly is, but is as talented, creative and innovative as the Jewish people whom I love.
From the speech given April 12, 2016, at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School Gala and also at Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia in early March.
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Michael Steinhardt is a philanthropist active in Jewish causes, with a focus on Jewish education. He is a co-founder of Birthright Israel, and chairs The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life.