Is an Emphasis on Jewish Education Good or Bad?

Today we are seeing a growing number of Jews choosing to not affiliate with the Jewish community, yet still identifying as Jewish. Whereas in the past, community and shared experiences have defined what it means to be Jewish, Jews today seem to be shying away from many communal practices, such as synagogue affiliation and Jewish day school education, and finding their “Jewishness” elsewhere.

An article that was recently published on entitled “The Chosen Few” makes an interesting argument for returning to more traditional routes of Jewish connection: Jewish day school education leads to Jewish affiliation. The article introduces the idea that while in the past Jews sent their children to Jewish day schools because other education was not available or because it was easier to not be exposed to the general public, now, especially in America, the access to public education coupled with the lack of discrimination towards Jews has made the practice obsolete for the sake of education alone. However, since Jewish day school education is seen as one of the main vehicles for connecting to the Jewish community, are lower affiliation rates directly related to less Jewish children attending Jewish day schools? Maybe, but it doesn’t mean people feel any less Jewish.

Author Steven Weiss writes that “a majority of American Jews today are unaffiliated with the synagogues the Pharisaic rabbis emphasized, and yet 79 percent report feeling ‘very positive’ about being Jewish.” This then begs the question: why choose Jewish day school?

Here at Big Tent Judaism/Jewish Outreach Institute, we have noticed similar trends in decreasing affiliation, and have come to realize that Jewish community must address these issues in order to grow and thrive. Much of our work is designed to bring those who do not have formal Jewish education, but are willing to participate in Jewish life, into (or back into) the Jewish community. Although Jewish day school has been effective in promoting affiliation in the past, in a rapidly changing society it does not have to be the only way in to the community, particularly when it is often too expensive for families to afford.

So, we have to get creative. If Jewish institutions want to involve both newcomers and the less-engaged in their local Jewish communities, most of whom did not receive Jewish day school education, then that fact must be kept in mind when creating not just programming, but the marketing associated with it: explicitly stating who is welcome, and that prior Jewish knowledge isn’t necessary to attend. And if the program does, in fact, require prior Jewish knowledge, this should also be clearly stated, so that people know what the program involves.

We have to be welcoming to all who wish to enter the tent of the Jewish community, regardless of their affiliation or prior Jewish knowledge, and we have to understand that Jewish day school, at this point in time, is more of a luxury than a necessity.

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