The Adult Approach to Jewish Continuity

November 13, 2014

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


In recent days, Jack Wertheimer and Steven Cohen have offered a salutary reminder that non-Orthodox American Jews are “standing on a demographic precipice.” And backing away from the cliff’s edge, they tell us, will require focusing squarely on the young. According to their prescription, a return to Jewish flourishing will be secured by stressing the importance of day schools, residential summer camps that offer “serious Jewish content,” Israel trips “for sixteen and seventeen year-olds,” youth groups, organized campus activities, and efforts to stimulate in-marriage or convert gentile partners. It is hard to dispute that these are top priority agenda items – as they have been for some time. And Wertheimer and Cohen are right to sound the alarm; with the ground moving fast under our feet, it is too late for complacency. 


And yet… And yet, given that the average life expectancy now exceeds four score years, does it really make sense to concentrate our Jewish capital and energy almost solely on the first quarter of life, glossing over the rest as if it didn’t count? Wertheimer and Cohen do hold that there need to be “more opportunities for Jews at every age level to come together with their peers for purposes of Jewish enrichment.” But, reflective of the current norm, they are specific and determined when it comes to programs for the young, but vague and sketchy when relating to the other three quarters of the life span.


Let’s be clear: educating the young, and helping to shape their loyalties and attitudes during their most formative years – at a time when they can indisputably absorb the most material – ought to be the prime focus of our efforts. A “prime focus” though, is not the same thing as a “sole focus.” And making the first quarter of life our “sole focus,” as seems to be the trend for many funders and communities, may well diminish, rather than strengthen, our chances of success.


Wertheimer and Cohen inform us that “on every measure of Jewish identity, those between thirty and forty-nine trail substantially behind those between fifty and sixty-nine. …The preponderance of so many inactive non-Orthodox Jews in their prime childbearing years cannot but foreshadow further declines in the next generation.” Yet the resources and programmatic initiatives devoted to the 1.2 million American Jews in the thirty to forty-nine year old cohort pale into insignificance when compared to those directed towards the under-25s. Wertheimer and Cohen also reveal that “among non-Orthodox Jews between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine, nearly half have received either no Jewish education or just six years or less of supplementary schooling.” What is to be offered to this “half” as they proceed into their thirties and begin families of their own?


Research has already discerned that “the role model parents can provide their children as engaged learners is invaluable in demonstrating the seriousness of Jewish education” (International Handbook of Jewish Education). If we are to gain traction in strengthening Jewish identity, then “demonstrating seriousness” will indeed be paramount. And seriousness demands focusing not just on the next generation but also on their many potential role models and mentors. To put it another way, if we do not involve those over thirty in the embrace of Jewish tradition and learning, it will be considerably less likely that we will create lasting commitments among the young.


The hour may indeed be late, but an effective strategy calls upon us to expand the reach of adult learning beyond its existing scope, and to engage in the tough grassroots effort to make Talmud Torah a significant part of the non-Orthodox adult landscape. It may not be “priority number one”, but, in the current environment, we need to take more than just one step back from the crumbling cliff.


Read more at eJewish Philanthropy

Updated: Nov. 24, 2014