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.


Consider this counterfactual

The following was crossposted at The Jewish Futures Blog as part of a thought experiment on the Jewish future.  Enjoy!

Consider this counterfactual.

In 1994, after having coffee with me, Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt decided, rather than funding flashy 10 day junkets to Israel, to create Areivut insteador as it came to be known: “The Pledge”.

“The Pledge” was simple.  In conjunction with the Israeli government, private philanthropists, the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Jewish Federations across North America, Areivut would provide every Jewish child in North America with a free Jewish education from junior kindergarden to Grade 8.

The launch announcement, made on Erev-Erev Shavuot, 5760, (or June 8, 2000), was met with typical Jewish verve.  In other words, many opinions were expressed.

Jewish parents committed to public education responded to the Pledge with a polite “no thank you”, but the legion of working and middle class Jewish parents who groaned under the rising costs of Jewish education (costs which far outstripped the rate of inflation) fervently signed up to become Areivim over the intervening summer months.  The surge in signups at threatened to bottleneck internet traffic anywhere east of the Mississippi.

Jewish day schools which saw numbers dwindle and communities which faced the loss of their sole educational institution were suddenly overwhelmed by demand.

Universities and teachers’ colleges in major metropolitan areas also rose to the challenge of this new demand, expanding their programs to train a new cohort of Jewish educators.

In the first five years of the Areivut, over 55% of Jewish children were enrolled in five-day-a-week programs across North America.  In Year Ten, the percentage rose to 70%.

In the meanwhile, day schools themselves were transformed.  Denominational education was still attractive to many families, but community institutions, representing the broadest spectrum of Jewish experience, began to command more attention.  Banding together was a move that was once driven by economics, but in this new age, creating “open tents” was inspired by the Pledge’s message of shared responsibility and mutual obligation.

And these community spaces evolved to serve different sectors of the community depending on the time of day, week or year.  In the early morning, as parents headed off to work, the day school provided day care.  During the school day, trained Jewish educators taught and learned with the next generation of kids.  And in the evening, a different cohort of educators learned with adults.  On the weekends, the space was open for people to congregate, pray and learn.  And, in the summer, the space housed a variety of Jewish day camps.

And though the financial debacles of 2008 could have easily resulted in the shuttering of many a Jewish school, Areivut had set aside funding to keep the program running at least until 2048, when they projected to have educated not only a (nearly) complete generation of Jewish children, but also theirchildren and grandchildren.

And thus, the words from Shir HaShirim Rabbah were fulfilled.  For when God said to Israel: “Bring Me good guarantors and I shall give you the Torah,” they said: “Indeed, our children will be our guarantors.”  And so, God said: “Your children are good guarantors. For their sake I give the Torah to you.”

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.

#beinartvgordis and the marketing of Jewish education

I was live-tweeting the Tablet sponsored Beinart-Gordis debate last night.

If you like, you can search #beinartvgordis on twitter and sift through the madness or just watch the debate here.

I might have blogged about the exchange itself but, well, we all know better than to do that…  but I digress.

Toward the end of the debate, someone posed the following question to both interlocutors:  If you were in an elevator with a Jew totally disaffected with Israel and Jewish tradition, what would you say to her?

I should say that, generally, I am not a fan of Daniel Gordis.  But something he said really resonated with me, especially in light of the piece forwarded to me by Chuck English – which I will address later.

Dr. Gordis recounted the story of the ger (lit. “stranger” although some translate it as convert) who came to Shammai then Hillel and asked each to explain the whole Torah to him “on one foot”.   In the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 31a), as the story goes, a cheeky ger decides to have some fun with the two greatest luminaries of his day.  So he goes to Shammai’s house first, pounds on the door, rouses the elder to pose the question: “Explain to me the Torah on one foot.”  Shammai chased him away angrily.  (Shammai always was a bit of a hard-ass.)  Hillel’s reaction is less hard: “Do not do unto others that which is hateful to you.  The rest is commentary.  Now go and learn.”  And the ger did.

Gordis explained that the ger’s question was obnoxious and insulting:

I wouldn’t take two minutes to try to convince someone to be a moral human being … I wouldn’t try to explain why loving someone is more complicated, but worth it. Two minutes isn’t enough to take the place of years of upbringing. We are too used to trying to fit big ideas on an iPhone screen.

To ask anyone to sum up in two minutes or less everything that gives one meaning in life (and then try to convince someone else of its meaningfulness) can only reduce that thing to meaninglessness.

In other words, (and gird yourself for a leap) marketing is the apogee (or nadir?) of superficiality.  Furthermore, reducing complex, human experience and feelings into anodyne soundbites is nothing less than soul crushing.  (Unless it is on an iPhone … then, it may be soul crushing, but still wicked cool.)

Was that a bit strong?  Then how’s this, toned down from eleven?

Marketing has the potential to suck the life out that which it is trying to sell – and it generally does.  Perhaps, then, we should not use marketing techniques to “sell” Judaism…?

And the story makes that point too… sort of… because, the tale, as generally recounted, makes for a nice sermon about being nice and welcoming (it’s how Chabad rolls…) – but it is a corruption of the story as it appears in the sources.  There is not one ger but three.  The first came to Shammai and said he would convert to Judaism but only on the condition that he be taught only the written Torah.  “I believe you with respect to the written,” the ger says, “but not with respect to the Spoken Torah.”  (As an educator of pre-adolescents, I cannot bring myself to say ‘Oral Torah’.)  Shammai “scolded and repulsed him in anger.”  Hillel used a different method: trickery.  He taught the ger with one method on one day, then used a different method the next.  When challenged, Hillel replied (and I am paraphrasing): “As your teacher, I guess you trust me as to what these letters are – so why not trust me on matters of Torah?”  The second ger was the Torah-on-one-foot guy.  The third ger, an ambitious fellow, came to Shammai and asked to be converted so he could, one day, become the High Priest.  Shammai “repulsed him with the builder’s cubit which was in his hand.”  Hillel agreed to teach him.  Eventually, the newly minted Jew realized that not only he could not be High Priest but neither could King David – so he was in good company.  The happy ending: Some time later, the three converts met up and agreed: “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Shechinah.”

So perhaps a pithy rejoinder is enough to make a difference … if only Daniel Gordis had a really good copywriter with him in the elevator… (Peggy, where are you when we need you?)

However, what sermonizers tend to elide in their telling of this tale is that after the quick-witted Hillelian quips, the gerim actually sit down and learn. (Perhaps they do so under false pretences as Hillel does resort to trickery in two cases, but that is a blogpost for another time.) The tale obscures all the hard, oftentimes mundane work – but does acknowledge that, after many years, the gerim accumulate enough cultural capital (if I may wax sociological for a moment) to be literate, functional Jews.  Hooray!

So what else might be learned from this oft-cited tale besides the need for a sexy quip?  A sexy quip might attract you (or at least not repel you) but it is merely the opening sentence of a longer, millennia-long epic.  And this epic, if it is to be engaged-with seriously, demands commitment – and, as in the case of Jewish education today, a lot of money.

So here comes Chuck English with a new marketing widget for 21st century education: Parents still want 20th century metrics so give them what they want.  Perhaps I am reducing his argument to a sexy quip, flattening out its complexity and sucking the life out of it.   But I re-read his piece again.  And, really, there is very little more to it.  Yes, there is some acknowledgement of the value of 21st century educational goals, to create learners nimble enough to contend with challenges as of yet conceived.  But, as he quotes Seth Godin from Stop Stealing Dreams:

Parents don’t ask their kids, “what did you figure out today?” They don’t wonder about which frustrating problem is no longer frustrating. No, parents have been sold on the notion that a two-digit number on a progress report is the goal—if it begins with a 9.

So rather than try to educate parents and encourage them to transcend the old tyranny of the two-digit number, English advises (Jewish or independent school) educators to ostensibly give in: “We can’t be deluded by our own marketing material.”  Tell parents what they want to hear about the school and their kids… just get them in the door.  And then, like Hillel, do the ol’ bait and switch.

Where Shammai would chase away the disaffected with a stick and Daniel Gordis would not attempt to engage in light breeziness,  Chuck English espouses Hillelian pithiness, empathy and… duplicitousness (?).

Is there a fourth path?  Could we conceive of campaign where a well-crafted, blingy tagline attracts parents, but does not obscure or hide the school’s core Jewish values and pedagogical approach?  Do tell – in the comments section below.