Jack Wertheimer

Apr 292019

By: Dr. Jack Wertheimer

Cross-posted from Gleanings, the ejournal of the William Davidson Graduate School of Jewish Education of The Jewish Theological Seminary. 

Observers of American Jewish life are divided about many issues, but there seems to be a solid consensus that Jewish religious life today differs radically from the past. On the one hand, rising numbers of Jews, like many of their Christian neighbors, eschew any religious identification, counting themselves among the “Nones.” Larger proportions of non-Orthodox Jews attend synagogue services only infrequently, if at all, a development that is all the more consequential because for many Jews, Judaism is largely absent from their homes. Ours, moreover, is an age of do-It-yourself religion, one in which individuals personalize their practices, often with no connection to any Jewish community, to the point where some celebrate major holiday landmarks such as Yom Kippur or the Passover seder on a date that fits their busy schedules, rather than in accordance with the dictates of the Jewish calendar and when Jews around the world mark those days.

On the other hand, declining or idiosyncratic religious participation in some quarters is partially offset by thriving pockets of Jewish religious renewal. Many synagogues of all denominations have rethought the music and choreography of religious services, offering attendees a more spirited prayer experience and more opportunities for active participation during tefillah. An explosion in the number of programs by Orthodox outreach professionals is drawing Jews of all ages into Jewish religious settings, even if only a small minority become fully observant. And a broad range of new minyanim, start-up religious programs, and “engagement” initiatives have sprung up to draw in younger Jews.

The assumption undergirding many of these efforts is a shared perception that the cause for religious decline is traceable to the failure of existing institutions to offer stimulating religious experiences. The remedy, many argue, is to package Judaism differently. Put in the crude terminology of the marketplace, synagogues, Jewish religious schools, and other Jewish settings are offering a product or experience that is “out of touch” with the actual lives of ordinary Jews. The solution, therefore, is to curate in accordance with the wants of consumers: if you build an enjoyable program, they will come.

This consumer orientation to Judaism can pose serious challenges to Jewish educators. To be sure, there is nothing wrong, per se, with packaging educational programs more enticingly or attending to the varied styles of learners or evincing sensitivity for the social and emotional dimensions of student’s lives. On the contrary, attunement to learners has brought many benefits to students and educators alike.

But it is problematic when the primary focus is on process, the “how” of Jewish education, sidestepping the “why” and “what” questions. What does it mean to be an educated Jew in 21st-century America? What should the content of a Jewish education be? And why is the chosen content important in shaping the next generation of Jews? To return to the language of the marketplace, it’s not enough to consider how an educational program will prove enticing to learners without also asking what today’s learners need to master in order to become active participants in Jewish life.

No doubt Jews of different outlooks will answer these questions in varied ways. My view begins with the conviction that Jewish education must state explicitly that to be Jewish is countercultural. Conveying this truth is necessary on pragmatic grounds: if being Jewish is simply a pale imitation of the prevailing culture, learners will rightfully wonder why they ought to bother with the whole enterprise. Unfortunately, so much of Jewish education today stresses how consonant the Jewish tradition is with everything that students already hold dear, and then tags on that Judaism promoted the proper values first—not a particularly compelling reason to live as a Jew.

On a deeper level, if we remove our blinders it is obvious that Jewish commitments are hardly in sync with the prevailing culture. To cite but a few examples, Jewish literacy is not the same as what passes for American cultural literacy. The Jewish New Year ushers in a period unlike New Year commemorations of other cultures. Jewish religious education is not about DIY religion, but a system of externally imposed commandments. Prayer is not a fun exercise but a discipline. Indeed, organized religion itself is held in contempt by the “woke.” And a commitment to the Jewish people and to Israel is no longer a feel-good enterprise, but one that is increasingly contested as “tribal,” if not worse. A Jewish education that avoids confronting the tensions between Jewish commitments and the outlook of the wider culture therefore will fail to prepare learners for the dissonance they will encounter.

If we focus the conversation around what Jews need in order to become active participants in Jewish religious and communal life, rather than what they may think they want, we will inevitably spark conversations about expectations and what kinds of literacy an active Jew requires. Our liturgy and formative texts of Jewish life are in Hebrew and these texts emerged in an environment entirely different from contemporary America. To make sense of such an alien religious culture requires knowledge. For this reason, recent trends in religious education that focus on positive experiences and/or social action activities dare not downgrade the acquisition of language and conceptual skills necessary to live as a Jew. There are, of course, more and less stimulating ways of teaching, and it is important to engage students in active learning. Yet if Jews are to live a religious life (however broadly defined), they will need to be knowledgeable about their religious tradition.

This means that a sufficient Jewish education cannot be acquired in a few hours a week over three years prior to a bar/bat mitzvah. Jewish learning is a lifelong enterprise, starting in early childhood and continuing over the course of adolescence and beyond. The time invested in Jewish activities also matters. If “doing Jewish” is limited to a few occasional acts, it won’t get much traction and it also will be very difficult to transmit to the next generation. Frequency of participation in Jewish life matters, as does the “thickness” of Jewish culture experienced in the home and settings of worship and communal gathering.

For these reasons, Jewish education can succeed only if individuals and families practice Judaism meaningfully in the home and support what educational programs aim to attain. Except in unusual cases, schools, camps, and other settings alone cannot make up for the absence of Jewish life in the home. Winning over parents as allies and positive role models in the education of their children is an indispensable responsibility of educators.

Beyond the home, Jewish communal institutions reinforce identification with other Jews across the generations (synchronically) and in their current habitations around the globe (diachronically). A connection to generations past serves to anchor Jews in an ongoing historical trajectory they know will also continue after them; linking oneself to this chain of tradition provides a form of transcendence. And identification with Jewish people in other communities adds both to the cultural richness and diversity of Jewish civilization, and also inspires Jews to embrace a mission to aid kinfolk. Achieving a healthy balance between concern for universal causes and a commitment to Jewish particularistic ones is one of the great challenges confronting Jewish education in our time. For much of the past century, Jewish educators have understood the power of Jewish peoplehood to ground young people. They would do well to reject the voices falsely claiming that doing so is “tribal.”

The orientation outlined here applies equally to Jewish funders as it does to educators. Philanthropists who focus on the next generation of Jewish life must not solely ask the question, “What do consumers—students and parents—want?” Or, “How can our educational program create a fun atmosphere that will bring people back for more?” The task of funders and educators, indeed of all Jewish leaders, is to ask what the coming generation of Jews needs to experience and learn—what skills, sets of knowledge, and competencies—in order to internalize that Judaism is meaningful, and thus become active participants in Jewish life. In an age yearning for innovation, what could be more disruptive?

Jack Wertheimer is professor of American Jewish history at JTS. His most recent book The New American Judaism: How Jews Practice Their Religion Today was awarded a National Jewish Book award.

20 Case Studies Now Available: How Schools Enact Their Jewish Missions

 Posted by on March 26, 2015 at 11:52 am  No Responses »  Tagged with:  Categories:
Mar 262015

Case study card

Even as they inevitably pay close attention to financial issues, enrollment trends and the quality of general studies offerings, day school leaders—both professional and lay—are concerned about enacting their school’s Jewish mission. That mission, after all, is what justifies the existence of a Jewish day school and makes it so central to the health and vitality of Jewish communal life.

In the current milieu, the Jewish missions of day schools often come under severe pressures. Parent bodies are more diverse than ever before, and parents often lobby at cross-purposes to one another. Some want more and others want less of: Hebrew language instruction, prayer (tefillah), classical religious texts, prescriptive guidance about religious observances, Jewish thought or Israel studies – everything, in fact, that schools might offer.  Moreover, finite resources prompt internal debates about the best ways to spend money: Should another science teacher be hired or a Hebrew language instructor? Is the priority a specialist in Rabbinics or in contemporary Israel?

Pressures, moreover, are not only internal. Some emanate from profound changes in the larger educational scene. As new technologies, for example, bring masses of data to hand with a few clicks of the keyboard, what does learning even mean in the 21st century? Where once mastery of Jewish texts was highly prized, today those texts are digitized, translated and accessible to all. What then does it mean to engage in Jewish study? As the globe shrinks, how does a school justify its sharp focus on Jewish solidarity when so many other people are in need of support? And in an age of multi-tasking, how should Jewish studies, which traditionally has involved close textual reading and focused analysis, now be taught? These and other questions challenge educators as they consider their school’s Jewish mission.

The Case Studies Project

To understand how day schools are measuring up to their potential as incubators of Jewish commitment, a team of researchers undertook to visit some 19 schools and learn first-hand how they enact their Jewish mission. The eight-member team – consisting almost entirely of former day school heads who now work in other arenas in the field of Jewish education – spent time observing schools between the spring of 2012 and the end of the 2012-13 school year. Usually in teams of two, the observers focused their attention on the ways day schools enact their self-defined Jewish mission.  The Case Study team consisted of Michael Berger, Josh Elkin, Cheryl Finkel, Reuven Greenvald, Pearl Mattenson, Alex Pomson, Jack Wertheimer and Tali Zelkowicz.

Their work resulted in 20 case studies (one school is the subject of two case studies), all of which can be found online at the AVI CHAI website. Each case takes readers into a school to understand its particular set of circumstances. Appended to each case are questions designed to spur conversation among school leaders, teachers, board members and lay leaders of local Jewish education agencies and Federations, so that they can reflect on the implications of the case for their own circumstances. The open-ended nature of the cases is meant to stimulate discussion about possible take-aways from each case.

Some of the questions brought to life by the case studies include:

  1. How does your school stay true to its Jewish mission and continue to satisfy all stakeholders?
  2. What story does your school tell about its Jewish purpose?
  3. What key values and commitments motivate your school’s leadership team?
  4. How intentional is your school about learning outcomes in Jewish studies?

If these questions are of concern to you and your school, as we believe they are, please access the case studies on the AVI CHAI website and share with your board, leadership team, and wider school community. They are designed to spur conversation and reflection within your school communities about how best to enact and strengthen your school’s Jewish mission.

Dr. Jack Wertheimer will be hosting two upcoming webinars featuring school leaders speaking on the following topics:

Monday, April 20, 1-2pm EST
What story does your school tell about its Jewish purpose?
Sign up here

Wednesday, April 29, 1-2pm EST
What key values and commitments motivate your school’s leadership team?
Sign up here

We hope you will encourage your school’s leadership team, lay leaders, and others in your community who care about day schools to attend.

Aug 202014

This post is cross-posted from JTA.

By: Jack Wertheimer

A class at the Lippman School, a Jewish day school in Akron, Ohio, August 2013. (Uriel Heilman)

A class at the Lippman School, a Jewish day school in Akron, Ohio, August 2013.
(Uriel Heilman)

With the new school year nearly upon us, Jewish educational leaders are scrambling to prepare their teachers to discuss this summer’s Gaza War. The most pressing challenge is to design age-appropriate conversations: At which grade level might classroom discussions include potentially frightening topics, such as the wounding of non-combatants, kidnapping of young Israelis and sirens warning of incoming rockets? And how should teachers address the tough issues of civilian casualties in Gaza and the flagrant hostility toward Jews and Israel that has erupted in many parts of the world?

These questions are difficult enough, but are especially freighted with anxiety because they hold the potential to revive stereotypes of Israel that North American Jewish schools have been trying to counter. When Israel was forced to wage three major wars during its first quarter century, its image as an embattled enclave overshadowed everything else about its existence.

In recent decades, though, Jewish schools have endeavored to present a more rounded picture of Israeli life. Without denying the existential challenges facing the Jewish state, teachers have drawn attention to the rich tapestry of Israeli culture — its diverse inhabitants, culinary treats and eclectic music, for example — and, of course, its technological wizardry. School trips to Israel have highlighted the country’s natural beauty and its enjoyable recreational scene, even while exploring the strong connections between the land and the Jewish religion. Educators are understandably loath to resurrect the earlier imagery that simplistically portrayed Israel as a country permanently on war footing.

Responses to the Gaza war require North American Jewish schools to address a second topic that had been pushed to the background in recent years — anti-Semitism. Students in all likelihood are not oblivious of the virulent hostility to Israel and Jews surfacing in the media and on the Web. It’s not clear how prepared schools are to address this issue. In reaction to the overemphasis on the Holocaust from the 1960s through the 1980s, the pendulum of American Jewish fashion has swung away from discourse about anti-Semitism. Now, with the blatantly negative media coverage of Israel’s prosecution of the war and the resurgence of anti-Semitism around the globe, the subject warrants considerably more attention.

The dilemma facing schools in addressing the new anti-Semitism is how to avoid reviving what historian Salo Baron once described as “the lachrymose [tearful] conception of Jewish history.” The saga of the Jews is about a great deal more than persecution. Yet with the barely concealed animosity toward Jews evident in some quarters here in America and abroad, alas, the need to teach young people about the insidious nature of anti-Semitism has become pertinent again.

As they formulate a school response to the war, educators might consider three important lessons derived from “Hearts and Minds,” a recent report on Israel education in North American Jewish schools.

Read the rest of the article here on JTA.

Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, co-authored “Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools,” published last spring by The AVI CHAI Foundation.


May 012014

This post is cross-posted here on eJewishPhilanthropy.

By: Alex Pomson and Jack Wertheimer

Israel, we are informed with regularity, is a source of ongoing and bitter strife among American Jews. According to a cascade of press reports, rabbis feel themselves muzzled when it comes to speaking about Israel, communal institutions are wracked with divisive debates over Israel-related programs and Hillels on various campuses are convulsed by disagreements about what kind of talk about Israel is off-limits.

Amidst this narrative of communal schism, Jewish day schools appear to be islands of tranquility.  In an intensive study of 95 Jewish days schools situated all around North America and under different kinds of Jewish auspices,* we found little evidence of dissension or debate about the centrality of Israel to the educational mission of schools.

To the contrary, our conversations with parents and school administrators suggested that this mission is a source of broad consensus. Sixty-six years after its establishment, Israel remains a central feature of Jewish educational programing in North American Jewish day schools. Anyone visiting such schools cannot but be struck by the omnipresent physical reminders of Israel, daily messages about Israel and the many special programs convened to memorialize or celebrate developments in Israel, marking both historical occasions and current events. Some day schools begin every school day with the singing of “Hatikvah”; many “reward” their graduating students with a trip to Israel. Some schools bring Israeli emissaries, including recent high school graduates, to spend a year interacting with American Jewish students. Some utilize modern technologies to enable their students to twin with age peers in Israeli schools and study with Israel-based educators. The vast majority decorate the walls of their hallways and classrooms with images of Israel and the flag of the Jewish state. And all devote considerable attention to marking Israel Independence Day.

In our full report we explore the consequences of these efforts for how young people think and feel about Israel. Here, we’re interested in what such activity means for parents and schools. Not only is the emphasis on Israel not divisive, we found that it serves as a glue bonding together school communities. Especially outside the Orthodox schools, Israel is the most powerful common denominator among the parent body.  Day school families may differ profoundly in their commitments to Jewish observance, the kinds of Jewish subject matter they want their children to learn and just how Jewish the school ought to be. But Israel, generally, draws them together.

Perhaps nothing symbolizes this spirit of unity better than the large attendance of parents at school events concerning Israel. At times of crisis, day schools sponsor solidarity programs attended by parents, along with their children. And in quite a few day schools, the major community celebration of Yom Ha’atzmaut is held at the school, often attracting thousands of participants. It would appear, then, that Israel is good for nurturing warm connections within day school communities, and, in turn, day schools are good at promoting warm connections to Israel.

Does this mean, then, that all is rosy and uncomplicated when it comes to the relationship between day schools and Israel? Not at all, but the issue in these schools is not about whether to include Israel education, but rather how it ought to be conducted.  Parents hold differing views on the proper emphasis of Israel education.  Some are disappointed that their children graduate unprepared to become campus advocates for Israel. They would like schools to teach their children how to respond when Israel is criticized; they would like their children armed with information for confrontation they may experience on campuses. Other parents would like their children exposed to a more nuanced approach to the Israel/Arab conflict. They would like them to learn about missed opportunities on all sides of the conflict, the humanity of Palestinians and the convoluted politics of the region, including in Israel.

Day school teachers also differ with one another, not only in what to teach but also in how to teach about Israel. The majority of teachers want their students to experience Israel the way they have. They teach Israel by telling stories of their own relationships to Israel and Israelis. We call these kinds of teachers “exemplars”: they see their role as being models for how to approach Israel. A significant minority of teachers take a different tack: they encourage students to discover on their own what Israel means to them. We call these teachers “explorers” because they see learning about Israel as akin to any other subject where students are expected to form their own impressions.

Both explorers and exemplars may be found in different ideological camps. Some exemplars regale their students with accounts of their connections to the disputed territories of Yehuda and Shomron, while others tell of the unequal treatment of women at the Kotel or of Palestinians. Some explorers are highly committed to more dovish politics; and others align more with hawks.

Beneath these various disagreements is a profound commitment by parents and teachers across the divide: they want day schools to inculcate a love for Israel. All concur that as a first step, Israel education is a work of the heart. Where disagreements occur is on the next step: work on the minds of day school students. Which aspects of Israel should be taught and emphasized—the history of the conflict with Arabs, contemporary Israeli society and culture, Israel as homeland and haven, or Israel as a modern experiment in Jewish living?  Addressing this content and, ultimately, cognitive question is the current challenge facing Israel education in day schools and other settings.

* The study was conducted under the auspices of The AVI CHAI Foundation in cooperation with Rosov Consulting. It is entitled Hearts and Minds: Israel in North American Jewish Day Schools and may be downloaded here. We did not include Haredi or Hasidic schools that are non-Zionist in the sample.

Jack Wertheimer, Professor of American Jewish History at the Jewish Theological Seminary, directs the Center for Research and Policy at The AVI CHAI Foundation.

Alex Pomson is Director of Research and Evaluation at Rosov Consulting.