Getting Engaged, Part Two … or I wish there was an app for that.

Over coffee this morning, as I awaited Part Two of Esther K’s “Getting Engaged”, I ruminated over Isi Liebler’s piece which appeared today in Sheldon Adelson’s free daily Israel HaYom.  Not one to eschew a good, screaming hysterial headline, Liebler (safe in the Israeli Jewish consensus) wrote of “A looming Jewish leadership crisisin “the diaspora”.  Though AIPAC might be in good shape for a little while longer, Liebler observed, the American Jewish Committee, the Anti-Defamation League and the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations are headed by folks who are near retirement – and there does not seem to be ready heirs to these soon-to-be-vacant thrones.  This, Liebler believes, is bad for the Jews.

(He concludes by calling on the Israeli government help counterbalance / wrest control of the Jewish Agency and other diaspora organizations from the grasp of billionaire mega-donors… good luck with that and call me when the matter is resolved, mmkay?)

And not one to avoid an overly simplistic, glib pronouncement myself, I might agree with Liebler about the leadership vacuum … except that I do not.

Liebler’s view of North America Jewry is of a community led and anchored by big organizations.  But as I wrote in End Of The Jews, these organizations are crumbling and, for increasing numbers of Jews, they are increasingly irrelevant.  So, yes, if you look to the legacy organizations and succession and blabla blabla then there is indeed a leadership crisis in the North American Jewish community.  But if you regard the Jewish community differently, then this crisis is similar to the “disaster” facing New York horsecar drivers in 1917 or Betamax afficionados in 1988.  Or Blackberry users in 2014.  As in, not a disaster at all really…

I do not see a leadership lack or crisis – but a leadership shift.  Recalling Esther K’s point from Part One of “Getting Engaged” (or a similar articulation in End Of The Jews), the Next Jew jews differently.  She organizes without organizations.

So when Part Two dropped earlier today, I realized that the mere existence of Esther K’s piece was a repudiation of Liebler’s establishment-generation hysteria.  Esther K is one of those people Liebler considers absent from the Jewish scene.  Except she’s not.  She is one of today’s Jewish leaders… as are, say, the countless youngerish Jews who came up through Jewish camps who are dedicated to a viable and vibrant Jewish community.  Liebler is just looking in the wrong place.

So on to Part Two where, after a close read, I realized that Esther K may be making an argument that I have heard increasingly in the Jewverse: let’s emphasize quality over quantity, or, in other words, commitment over convenience.

By privileging engagement over attendance, as Esther does, one essentially raises the bar beyond voting with your feet (or your Jew-pon, Noam Neusner…) and acknowledges that, despite the urge to conflate the two (“Look at how many people came to this program!” or, from my wheelhouse, “Look how many kids are in this school!”), there is a threshold (small or low as it may be) that demands some level of commitment.

So coming to a program does not an “engagement” make.  The same is true for the child’s equivalent: education… Choosing to send a child to a day school is just the beginning – not the outsourcing – of a family’s commitment to Jewish learning.  (How to pay for it is another matter entirely…)  The bat or bar mitzvah is an official entry to – not an exit strategy from – involvement in collective worship.   Age or life stage, as Esther writes, does not matter.  (I would also add socio-economic status to this mix.)  Engaging with Jewishness is a challenge facing all Jews everywhere.  Even the Orthodox ones too…

The thing is… the commitment to face this challenge, embrace it, get up off the couch and do something about it, as minimal or low-bar as it is, cannot come from the programmers or professional educators.  Even with the lubrication of social networking, there still has to be an affirmative commitment on the part of the individual.  The programmers/educators are already committed.  (If they were not, they would be investment banking or lawyering or refrigerator repairing, professions that are more lucrative and, in the case of the latter, more prestigious…)  And, as I have said before, regular Jews are not commitment-phobic.  They take on all kinds of other commitments freely and willingly.  Some of them are downright onerous – like hockey.  So how do we get them to commit more to Jewishness?    Read on.  Read on.

Thou shall make an app for that.

Esther is quick to point out that youngerish folks’ interests vary.  Some just want a casual, “lite” cultural experience, an “Olive Garden Judaism”, while others are looking for something more intense.  But, I contend, how the individual intuits this is necessarily accomplished by thinking through one’s personal goals vis-a-vis Jewness … which requires some thought and some time and, even before that, some level of commitment to considering this “goal” question in a (semi-)serious way.  Or not.  Whatever.  It’s your party.  Cry if you want to.

So, with no recourse to magic potions (thanks, George R.R. Martin), perhaps what might help move things along (i.e., “Love takes time, and a little bit of luck.”) is the proprietary algorithm that makes eHarmony harmonize or PlentyofFish flow or lavalife percolate … WHAT IF WE HAD AN APP FOR THAT?   I am serious…

What if we could match the individual with the kinds of programs they (profess that they) need?  I have written before about the decision-making strategies some parents (seem to) employ when deciding upon a day school for their child.  I have also witnessed first-hand how families suffer through the bat/bar mitzvah process.  The dissonances and disturbances and stresses these misfits and misfires and miseries conjure do little (to nothing) to make Torah and Jewishness beloved by the Jews.   In fact, they are quite effective at accomplishing the opposite… So could an APP do any worse?  This sounds like a Jewcer project just waiting to happen…  Esther K, are you with me?

Jewish children : Education :: Jewish adults : Engagement

Besides being a back-cover blurbster for End Of The Jews, Esther Kustanowitz is a fabulous person.  She blogs.  She tweets.  Based in LA, she is a Senior Media Consultant and doyenne of the NextGen Engagement Initiative for the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.  So when she wrote today about “getting engaged”, I read closely and not just because of the head-fake in the title.

Many of us in the Jewish world – single and married, younger and older – are tasked with creating “Jewish engagement” opportunities every day. Some of us even have the actual word in our professional titles; for others, it’s implied. But the one thing everyone agrees on is that no one knows what “engagement” really means.

But we doWe just called it something else when the “Jewish engagement” opportunities were for Jews under the age of 18.  We called it education.   But I digress.  More from Esther…

She goes on to explore “engagement” (in the smoochy, rock-on-finger waving sense of the word) as a seemingly fit framing metaphor.   Many sociologists (this century’s rock star “theologians” according to Eli Valley) take the metaphor literally, counting inmarriages and baby-making beyond replacement level as one of the prime measures of success in the game of Jewish continuity.   But:

…Jewish engagement must be bigger than marital status or parenthood potential, otherwise it retroactively and tacitly deems those who do not meet their soulmates – or those who do meet soulmates but are not on a parenthood path – as engagement failures. It also conveys the false message that those who are married and/or on the parenthood track do not need to be engaged. So the success of Jewish engagement cannot be measured solely by marital status or parenthood potential.

I would go even farther and say that touting these measures is a distraction … much in the way that folks look at graduates of eight years of day school education and say: “Now that’s a viable Jew right there!”   But I digress.

Esther continues with BREAKING NEWS for some Jewish folks…  The Jewish community today is increasingly dominated by Next Jews for whom:

Affiliation is a choice. Civic engagement is a choice. Social activism is a choice. And when it comes to making space in their lives for those choices, many of which exist concurrently and definitely non-exclusively, most NextGen people don’t rely on organizations to do it for them, because they can do it better, faster, stronger and cheaper themselves. As Clay Shirky titled it in his book, Here Comes Everybody, this is the particular power of “organizing without organizations.” Is there any concept more terrifying to legacy organizations than the threat of their obsolescence?

And when I say “dominated”, I mean numerically – despite the “Fear of a Black Planet” narrative of an impending Orthodox takeover.  But even then, Next Jews do not dominate where, from a legacy organizational standpoint, it truly counts: in the Board Rooms. (But that, too, is changing… I guess.)

Esther concludes with two questions that provide the segue for the forthcoming second part:

1) How can we create experiences that encourage the formation and deepening of relationships among program participants as well as between them and Jewish organizational professionals?

2) What can the organized Jewish community provide to this self-reliant and independent group of people that they cannot provide for themselves?

So, returning to my lead SAT analogy headline, does Jewish education have anything to say about this?

Jewish education is not a synonym for day school learning exclusively, although many folks look to day school to deliver the continuity goods.  (Insert usual caveats and critiques here.)  I would add Jewish summer camps as a site of powerful Jewish education as well.

What these programs do well and most effectively b’gadol is create an environment which values Jews as Jews, positioning Jewish experience as normative.

One could say dismissively: “What do you expect?  When you have a captive audience Monday through Friday for eight years or 24/7 for eight weeks, you can stir the heart and rouse the soul.  You can make a Jew out of anybody.”

Well, not really.

What one could say instead is: These meaningful normative experiences happen because there is time for it to happen… sometimes, by design, sometimes, on its own… which necessarily demands commitment (of time, at least) from everyone involved.

BREAKING NEWS #2: Next Jews are not commitment-averse.  They just need a compelling reason to commit.  (Hint: Inertia is not a reason.  Fear is also not a reason.)

This is where the challenge lies… and, despite appearances, it is not a challenge solely for those working with adults.

…which is why I, too, am eagerly awaiting “Getting Engaged: Part Two”.


A Jewish day school thought experiment

Inspired by Aurora Mendelsohn’s open-ended FB question about coming up with “a list of ways stuff that is taught in the classrooms of day schools is ignored by the day school community”, I thought of a different thought experiment…

With the malaise of Jewish education still as thick as malaise-ess (with its viscosity increasing exponentially since the 1989 Tikkun piece by Isa Aron on this subject), this is as good a time as any to start a free-wheeling discussion about the potential of a Jewish day school education.

But first, some rules of engagement.

Participants must agree that the tuition model as it currently exists is unsustainable, classist (But what’s wrong with being classy?) and excludes so many families from meaningfully engaging Jewish tradition on a daily basis.  So there is no need to further consider, discuss or condemn it any more than we already have…  We have other gefilte fish to boil.

Participants must agree that day school education is a content-rich linchpin for the future of a viable Jewish community.  (Summer camping is another…)

Participants must agree that despite all the hand-wringing, slickly produced brochures or Federation ads along Bathurst, day school education needs a good tweak, if not a solid kick in the pants.

So, let us call this imagined school BlueSky Jewish Academy.

NOT named after our beloved uncle Irving Bluesky

Where would BJA be located?

Which aged-children would attend?

How much would it cost?

How would classes be organized?

What is the flow of a typical day?

What would its building look like?  (Is this important?)

Should there be a flag flying from the roof?

What innovative practices would it adopt?

What aspects of existing school paradigms would it incorporate?

What would elements of the status quo would it dispense with altogether?

If there are more questions I did not ask, feel free to add them below.

Let the collective yiddishe köpfe begin to knock into each other and shake the earth with its profound wisdom and guilt-ridden indignation!  I look forward to the ensuing hilarity.

A moral argument for day school affordability

To say that day school tuition is breaking the Jewish middle class is not a contentious assertion.  It is practically axiomatic.  And yet… and yet…

So here is yet another cry for relief and a proposed solution – this time, from Rabbi Aryeh Klapper.

And, like the earlier proposal from Aurora Mendelsohn, it is based on a form of tithing.

Where Rabbi Klapper’s argument differs is not in outcome, but in tone.  His argument in favour is solely a moral one.  We must do something about day school affordability because inaction will destroy the community Jewish day schools are supposed to foster and nurture.

Rabbi Klapper explains:

Imagine that someone proposes a new Jewish practice that would have these consequences:

a. Parents take second jobs, or work longer hours, that deprive them of almost all weekday contact with their children and leave them too exhausted to make Shabbat meaningful.

b. Almost half of households are transformed, for years, from community contributors to charity recipients.

c. Children aspiring to intellectual, creative, or service work, such as teaching (especially Torah) or other helping professions, are told that these are not options because they will not produce enough money to sustain a committed Jewish lifestyle.

d. For economic reasons, families choose to have fewer children.

We would consider such a practice stunningly irresponsible.

Yes we would – and yet, as Rabbi Klapper argues, this is what happens when we weigh down the Jewish middle class with skyrocketing day school costs.

Rabbi Klapper plays out the costs and benefits of the tithing scenario here.  It is very worth reading and considering.

One more point which really kicked me in the kishkes:

The system also undermines the schools’ Jewish effectiveness.  If our children lack Jewish passion, doesn’t that bespeak parental exhaustion?  If they are materialistic, isn’t this related to their being told that their career paths are limited because they are poor?  When they show signs of being “at risk,” doesn’t this reflect lessened parental involvement?  How can children internalize the core Jewish value of human dignity and the spiritual value of financial independence when their schools make them dependent?


I suppose we could continue on this path, arguing that the status quo has its problems but seems to be working just fine as we continue to bankrupt Jewish families and, as Rabbi Klapper argues, the values of the community in the process.

One can almost imagine, if the clamor grew loud enough, a letter from the local federation diplomatically addressing Rabbi Klapper’s argument.  The letter would empathize with the vast middle struggling to pay, agreeing that, in principle, yes, there is some financial distress out there.  (Would the letter also state that families must make sacrifices for Jewish education? – I wonder…) One can also imagine how further down the page, the letter would indicate the unprecedented levels of funding for day schools and how, with decrease in support for federation, funding could not increase any more than current levels.  One can also imagine no reference at all to Rabbi Klapper’s moral argument.

We have seen letters like this in the past and they are wholly besides the point.

Rabbi Klapper is not talking about philanthropy.  He is talking about fairness and equality – two consummate Jewish values. He is making the same argument that Occupy Wall Street made in Zuccotti Park (which was later adopted by Barack Obama under the guise of the “Buffett Rule”) and François Holland proferred during his run for the French presidency: Those with more need to pay their fair share – which means more.

If we are to have a community (and having one is another one of those pesky Jewish values), then we must ask ourselves what kind of community it will be if the price of admission ultimately turns away more people than it attracts.

Memo to David Hazony

Where Yehuda Kurtzer’s well-worded smackdown of AB Yehoshua was, as they say in “the Land”, bamakom, my only quibble with Kurtzer is his telling AB to “pipe down”… It was a bit… well… I do not know.  Strong.  AB is entitled to say whatever he likes about Diaspora Jews.  He is also entitled to receive a couple of cans of righteous whoopass from Kurtzer.  That’s how civilized discourse works.

So when David Hazony penned his memo to American Jews, urging them to learn Hebrew, I, too, pondered telling him to shut up.  Or, more appropriately: listom et ha’jora shelo… but that would be rude.

Instead, in the Kurtzerian mode, I will offer what hopes to be a more ad rem, or la’inyan rebuttal to the assertion that, to bridge the ever-widening gap, Diaspora Jews must learn Hebrew.

First, to the matter of Hazony himself.  (Note: This is not the ad hominem attack portion of the program…)  As an oleh, I had hoped that he would have a less wooden understanding of the Diaspora considering he was raised in it.  However, from Hazony’s cartoonish portrayal of American Jews from the outset, one could say that, perhaps, his klita (absorption) into Israeli society (and the embrace of many of its stereotypic conceptions of the diaspora) was a complete success.

What, after all, should this son of Israel do with all those people who are not curious about the real Israel? All they want to talk about is rockets in Sderot, Mofaz and the haredim.  Why don’t they know about Erev Tov with Guy Pinness or who broke out from the pack in Kochav Nolad or which government minister was being investigated for corruption?  Why don’t they know that Israeli culture is vibrant and hip?  Don’t they want to hear about the Israeli zeitgeist?  Nope.  Not one person seemingly does, according to Hazony, all they want to hear about are subjects that:

were either never that interesting to most Israelis, those that became obviated by events, or those that had their moment in the sun and then were lost to the public eye.

So I girded my loins for yet another round of “Scold the Diaspora Jew”, delivered by a knowing (naturalized) Israeli who, from his side of the gap, is more than happy to tell us on the other side how we should behave differently.  Fine.  Game on.  (Just as long as we can return the favour… but I digress…)

In a nutshell, here is what Diaspora Jews are doing wrong:  We are not consuming enough Israeli culture.

And how do we rectify this problem?  Learn Hebrew!

Because, Hazony asserts, if we do not get on the “Israeli-civilization bus” (which requires fluent Hebrew), then

the less qualified they become to say anything at all about who we are and what we should or shouldn’t do.

Incidentally, the “they” in the previous sentence is referring to Diaspora Jews, and  the “we” refers to Hazony and the Israelis in case you were wondering… (Upon rereading the quote, I wondered: Were “we” ever qualified enough to say anything, re: Israel that “we” can now become even less qualified to say?  Hmm…)

!כלב, דבר עברית

Hazony goes on to present Diasporaniks with an ultimatum:  Either love Israel completely, including the embrace of every unpalatable aspect of Israeli society, or love a “saucy dream”.  (Perhaps I am overstating the love-it-or-leave-itness of Hazony’s statement – but not by much.)  And the simple way to transcend the dreamy sauciness is the “800-pound falafel ball sitting in the room”: learning Hebrew.  Because, I suddenly realized, learning Hebrew has the potential to make the Rabbinate’s hatred of liberal Judaism, Lieberman’s racism, etc. etc. all magically disappear – and then everyone, Diasporaniks of all shapes and stripes, can love Israel for the perfect sparkly unicorn that she is!!! (…Except that I already speak Hebrew and the not-so-nice aspects of Israel have not become, like frosted Lucky Charms, magically delicious… [frown]  Perhaps I am oversimplifying…)

I do not think Hazony should be grateful (which is how he regards the Diaspora-Israel dynamic – either you make demands or be grateful) – but I do think that perhaps, sitting in Israel, he might take a bit more pause before demanding that Jewish educators everywhere revise the American Jewish educational agenda.  He goes on to say that, perhaps, this demand is not really so outlandish at all.

And, in fact, it is not.  In the Greater Toronto Area, practically every Jewish day school is dedicated to Hebrew language instruction.  There are almost a half-dozen schools that are dedicated to teaching all Jewish subjects Ivrit b’Ivrit.  This is a tremendous achievement and a powerful statement about the priorities of Toronto’s Jewish community.

But there is a difference between developing a working knowledge of Hebrew which Hazony advocates and being fluent which is what you really need if you are going to ride on the Israeli-civilization bus – and not sit in the back of it.  But to do the latter well requires a lot more time and will inevitably come at the expense of other subjects, skills and experiences.  (You can fill in the blank here on your own:  “More Hebrew immersion time, means less of _________ .”)

So perhaps day schools, the potential flagships of the Jewish community’s fleet of the future (if they could be accessible without destroying the Jewish middle class in the process), should stop enculturating North American Jews and make Israelis-in-absentia…?  Wouldn’t David Hazony be proud of us then!

Sadly, day schools cannot do both nor should they.  For starters, the last time I checked, North American day schools were located in North America.  They should probably focus on teaching young Jews how to be Jewish in North America first – but I could be wrong about this one…

The challenges facing the viability of North American Judaism cannot be solved by learning Hebrew.   (I wish it was that easy…)  Similarly, the gap between North America and Israel cannot be surmounted by watching more Arutz HaYisraeli on cable.

The substantive issues that threaten viability or widen the gap have nothing to do with language barriers.  (Some of them have to do with concrete barriers, but that is a post for another, less toxic time.)   For Hazony to reduce everything to a hunch and a wagging finger is classical Zionism at its worst.  I thought we were done with shlilat hagolah (negation of the Diaspora) with Yosef Haim Brenner and Micha Josef Berdyczewski – but I guess not.  Khaval, David.  Khaval me’od…