OR: How Michael Steinhardt is doing it wrong.
I have tremendous respect for Michael Steinhardt. He has invested a lot of time, thought and money in Jewish education. If you google “Steinhardt” and “Jewish education”, the first ten hits highlight the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development which has robust degree programs in Jewish Studies and Education. He co-founded Taglit-Birthright Israel.
So he cares.
And that’s wonderful.
So when a Tablet piece came across my feed, reproducing a March 9th speech Steinhardt delivered at the Jack Barrack Hebrew Academy in Philadelphia, I was piqued… but ultimately disappointed.
I was dismayed not because of what Steinhardt asserted. He made a passionate argument for a vision of secular Judaism that could proudly take its place alongside the traditional vision of Judaism-as-religious-tradition. Secular Jewish Education has been Steinhardt’s thing going back to the late aughts, and it is a compelling idea which has curricular implications as well as cultural ones.
At the same time, Steinhardt has been very critical of liberal Judaism’s (failed) efforts to educate the next generation of Jews.
So with all of this churning away in the background, I thought Steinhardt would drop some science on us, and perhaps (once again) open up a new frontier in Jewish education. But Make Jewish Education Relevant fell down before it even got rolling.
One cannot have a serious discussion about relevance in Jewish education, about creating learning opportunities that speak to the next generation of Jews and foster viable Jewish identification without addressing the most pressing issue of 21st century Jewish education.
One cannot be alive in 2016, eight years after the 2008 Financial Crisis and two Obama presidencies of tepid recovery, and not be cognizant of the fact that Jewish families, liberal Jewish families, even with the best of intentions, cannot afford to send their children to Jewish day schools.
They cannot get their kids into the room where relevant (or irrelevant) Jewish learning takes place. Their kids cannot take advantage of the best practices and all the opportunities available in day school settings because their salaries cannot keep up with the increasing cost of day school tuition.
I feel this issue in my bones, my kishkes, and my bank account. I have three Jewish children. I even wrote a counterfactual history of Birthright where Steinhardt decided to fund day school education in the same manner as he planned to fund Birthright trips.
So it strikes me as tone deaf when Steinhardt writes:
Most attribute the [declining] 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.
Really? More important than affordability?
I could go into a numbers rant here but Michael Steinhardt is a hedge fund guy. And perhaps he even looked at the numbers. But I would argue that for every Jewish family who preferred to send their child to a school with a more haimishe view on universalism (say, a Quaker school) than a parochial Jewish day school, there are at least THREE to FIVE Jewish families who would have loved to fill that open spot in the Jewish classroom but simply could not afford it.
Let’s get everyone into the room first. Once we accomplish that, we can discuss what we should learn and how best to learn it. And Steinhardt is just the guy to figure out how to achieve both goals, but in their proper order.
FDR said that people who are hungry and out of a job are the stuff of which dictatorships are made. We cannot expect to have a viable Jewish community if vast number of us are ignorant of our history, culture, language and tradition. This is the stuff of which irrelevance is made… and extinction.