Relevance in the Age of Affordability

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.


I guess it’s time to weigh in on Drumpf…

I think that, as of today, I have seen more than a dozen items from various media outlets pondering whether Donald J Drumpf is a fascist.

Here’s one.  And another.  And another.  OK, that’s enough.  Google it for yourself, lazy bones…

My twitter stream nearly melted down after images from a March 5 Drumpf rally in Florida showed Drumpf supporters offering a quasi-fascist salute.  Now, to be fair, these folks weren’t saluting Drumpf.  Drumpf asked the good people of Florida in attendance to pledge to vote on Primary Day.   But it’s how he asked them to do it that evoked memories of a certain European regime.

And depending on your checklist, be it from Umberto Eco or the Holocaust reader I’m using in my Grade 12 Jewish history class, Drumpf either falls short or fits the definition of FASCIST. <Cue ominous music.>

[If you really want some historical perspective (or more wood to stoke the fires of hysteria), check out this news item from November 1922, the first time the New York Times reported on a Bavarian hothead named Adolf Hitler.]

My issue with Drumpf is different.  And it has everything to do with his campaign and the “heart and soul” of the Republican party.  Drumpf is portrayed as “not a true conservative” by the GOP establishment in an attempt to distance the party from Drumpf’s racism, xenophobia, misogyny, contempt for a free press and obsession with his hands-to-schvantz proportion.  As if, mainstream GOP bobbleheads assert, the GOP is not racist, xenophobic, misogynistic, hostile to the fifth estate or obsessed with Drumpf’s shmeckel.

But here’s the thing… not only is Drumpf all those things (and more), so, too, is the GOP.   One need not catalogue here how mainstream Republicans have touted ideas like “self-deportation“, mosque closures,  or denying women access to reproductive health care under the guise of protecting “women’s health” to acknowledge that Drumpf’s positions are only extreme in the degree of outrageousness, but not their intent.

[See what I did there?  It’s called paralipsis… the device of giving emphasis by professing to say little or nothing about a subject… hee hee.]

In other words, Drumpf is just the GOP “talking straight” on steroids.   And the message is unmistakeable.


Dare I say “PRIDE”?

For the first time, in a LONG time, I think of nationalism and the state and pride in the same sentence.  As in:

I am proud to be a Canadian.

My adopted country, touting the values that represent it as a state, has acted in a manner that sets a powerful example for this hemisphere when it comes to basic humanity.

We are welcoming 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada by the end of February.  As PM Trudeau said: ““Tonight they step off the plane as refugees, but they walk out of this terminal as permanent residents of Canada.”

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And I think, as a result of this action, folks in this hemisphere have become more aware of those values too.  Like folks at the New York Times who had a lot of nice things to say about my Prime Minister and the people with whom I share this piece of planet.

So, good on you, Canada.  Keep up the good work.




I am still a bit stunned – but in a good way.

If you haven’t heard by now, the US Supreme Court ruled 5-4 in Obergefell v. Hodges (and three related cases) that the Constitution guarantees a right to same sex marriage.  Justice Kennedy, writing for the majority, concluded that:

[The petitioners’] plea is that they do respect [marriage], respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. Their hope is not to be condemned to live in loneliness, excluded from one of civilization’s oldest institutions. They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right. The judgment of the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit is reversed. It is so ordered.

Incidentally, the same Roberts court ruled yesterday in King v. Burwell that the Affordable Care Act’s insurance subsidies are legal, thus saving Obamacare from yet another legal challenge.

And in the terrible aftermath of a racist/terrorist attack in Charleston, South Carolina on June 17, major US retailers as well as folks in almost a half a dozen southern states are questioning (or at least are beginning to question) the public display of the Confederate flag.  (Though I would be even more heartened by a spirited discussion about the ready availability of guns, it’s a good start…)

So with Shabbat coming soon to close out the week, I would say it ended better than it started.

Happy #Pride2015 and Shabbat shalom!