Oct. 7 reveals the flaws in Jewish education

Can young Jews respond to the anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses?

Jewish Rutgers University students and members of the community gather holding placards and flags in solidarity and vigil for Israel on Oct. 25, 2023, in New Brunswick, N.J. (AP Photo/Andres Kudacki)

(RNS) — Let us imagine the following phone call.

On Tuesday, Oct. 10 — three days after the Oct. 7 pogrom — Ben, a Jewish college freshman, frantically calls his mother, Jennifer.

Ben: “Mom, this is horrible. Just horrible.”

Jennifer: “What? What’s horrible?”

Ben: “Well, you know what happened. The terrorists invaded Israel, and killed all those people, and took all those hostages. The kids in my classes, and some of my professors — they’re saying Israel had it coming. They are saying Israel is a colonialist, apartheid regime that does ethnic cleansing and has committed genocide against the Palestinian people. What am I supposed to say to them?”

Jennifer: “Ben, I can’t blame you for being angry and scared. I wish I knew what to tell you. I wish I knew how you could answer them.”

Ben and his fellow Jewish college students have found themselves in the middle of a war. That war is occurring in the dorms, quadrangles and lecture halls of the best universities in the United States.

The soldiers in that war do not use guns, tanks, bullets or bombs as weapons.

Rather, their weapons are ideas and words — words like “de-colonialize,” “apartheid” and “genocide.” All of those words, about Israel.

Ben and his friends, and their parents, want to fight back. But their intellectual and spiritual arsenals are empty.

As professor Rachel Fish said in a recent talk at Park Avenue Synagogue:

These are students, unfortunately, who have parents who don’t know how to help them. They themselves don’t have the language. … They didn’t prepare their students to walk through the world with a tall, strong spine, steeped in their particularism, while understanding their responsibility for universalism. … The grown-ups failed them, on multiple fronts. The university as a marketplace of ideas failed them. How do you ensure that the next generation of Jews maintain that ha-tikvah, that hope, in order to remain committed to the Jewish people?

“The grown-ups failed them, on multiple fronts.”

How did the grown-ups fail them?

Yes, of course, the adults at the universities — the professors and administrators — have failed our young people. On many campuses, the response to the Hamas attacks testifies to the intellectual and moral failures of the academic world.

But the failure of the grown-ups started way before that, and before those young people even unpacked their duffel bags in their dorm rooms.

Nancy L. Berman offers an overview of the educational situation. It is not pretty:

Presently, the majority of families consider b’nai mitzvah to be the end of formal Jewish education. The bar or bat mitzvah is often considered a finish line and a time when children and families leave synagogue life all together. The demands of the secular world, including academics and social concerns take precedence over the development of Jewish identity.

Supplementary school enrollment drops significantly following seventh grade or the benchmark year of 13 and continues to drop throughout the remainder of high school. Teens can point to an erosion in their religious observance in the years following the intense bar/bat mitzvah year… Out of 24 communities surveyed between 1993 and 2010, over half reported less than 50 percent of their children continued beyond bar or bat mitzvah education. Indeed, most Jewish adults over the age of 40 have no Jewish education beyond seventh grade.

For my entire rabbinical career, I tried to convince parents to be partners with their synagogues in creating literate, committed and connected Jewish young people. I was not as successful as I had hoped.

The result: We sent many Jewish teens into the world lacking an ability to use sophisticated Jewish ideas that would help them respond to the world and its challenges.

What happened?

Modernity stacked the cards against me and my colleagues in Jewish education. We could not fight the forces of modernity: rampant individualism, a loss of Jewish communal bonds, and the pressing nature of academic competition and careerism. At some point in the last 30 years, parents became obsessed with their children’s “resumes,” which they expected would lubricate the wheels of the American meritocracy. There would simply be no time or mental space for those things that did not lead to secular success.

Second, the Jewish community failed them. We failed to make supplementary Jewish education — “religious school” or “Sunday school” — a top Jewish communal priority. It wasn’t exciting enough.

Instead, we relied heavily on immersive Jewish experiences, such as summer camps, Hillel, Birthright, day schools. All good, but the overwhelming majority of American Jewish kids get their Jewish education in synagogues, and it is those programs that need power, passion and professionalism.

Oct. 7 should be a wake-up call — a shofar blast — on any number of levels.

In particular, I believe that Oct. 7 and its aftermath could signal a rebooting of teen youth education.

But, in order for this to happen, this is what will need to happen:

There will need to be more financial investment in supplementary Jewish education.

We will need those funds to create programs, to recruit and train educators and to entice families to make this a priority. Jewish foundations like the Jim Joseph Foundation, the Maimonides Fund and the Marcus Foundation are funding teen education. We need more such foundations and high-worth individuals to step up and to support supplemental Jewish education, specifically in synagogues.

There will need to be better resources for Israel education.

What do our young people know about Israel? Some can identify a few major landmarks, i.e., the Western Wall. Perhaps they can identify some key personalities in the history of Israel. Perhaps they can name some high-tech products that have come out of “startup nation.”

But, that is about all. Here is the pity: At precisely the age when our young people are starting to study world history; at precisely the age when our young people are able to think abstractly about ideas; at precisely the age when identity formation becomes key — the vast majority of Jewish young people are not receiving any kind of Jewish education.

I applaud the crucial work of the Center for Israel Education. The American Jewish community needs more and better Israel curriculum options. Textbooks will be insufficient. Those would have to be changed and updated every six months. Those resources need to be available online, and we need the best and the brightest Israel educators to create those online resources that supplemental schools can tailor for their own needs.

Not only that, but we need to put resources into the creation of better and more creative social media. We need to find and create TikTok and Instagram media influencers.

There will need to be better Israel education in youth programs and summer camps.

I first met Israelis during my summers at Camp Eisner, a Reform summer camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, when they came to work as camp counselors and other staff members. One of those Israeli counselors is still my close friend, 50 years later.

It is not enough to merely import Israeli counselors. Summer camps need to become more rigorous sites for Israel education. There needs to be more educational training for those Israeli staff members.

We are living through a time of great communal and spiritual crisis in American Judaism. It is not the first such crisis, and it will not be the last. But, today, the broader educational agenda is even more imperative than it has ever been.

It is not only about making sure young people can say “Sh’ma Yisrael.” It is also about whether they know, and can interpret, medinat Yisrael. Both are necessary.

But, ultimately it goes back to the parents, and their ability to influence — and even demand — that their young people continue their Jewish involvement in those crucial years that lead into college.

May the horrors of the past five weeks be the wake-up call we need.

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