Overcoming Jewish Illiteracy

January 29, 2015

Source: eJewish Philanthropy


The typical Jew in a Western country today may be a highly educated professional, but is Jewishly only semi-literate. His (or her) Jewish education was from a Sunday school, or afternoon congregational school. Forgetting about the quality of that education, it is extremely limited in its intensity, and usually not much reinforced at home or by the suburban environment in which so many Jews live. Many Jews cannot read Hebrew at all; of those who can, many can sound out the words, but without comprehension. Is this “The People of the Book?” Is it any wonder, then, that with so much Jewish illiteracy, so many Jews feel estranged from Jewish life, and do not have a strong stake in raising Jewish children?


But why is Jewish literacy so essential, you ask?

  • Our culture is so rich, so deep. It’s not bagels and lox, or “I have a little dreidel.” In today’s open marketplace of ideas, that song is just not attractive enough to convince Jews over the age of 5 that Judaism is worth a second look.The richness, nuance, and complexity of Jewish learning and practice is. If they’ve never studied Jewish text seriously, never had a Shabbat meal, never celebrated Purim, how could they know there is more to Judaism than chicken soup and “I have a little dreidel?”

  • Without Jewish literacy, Jewish tradition and practice is scary and off-putting. Which competent, bright, university-educated young Jewish person wants to feel illiterate and incompetent … and that is exactly what happens when such a person comes to a traditional shul or Shabbat dinner, or confronts Jewish texts in the original. (I am in awe of those students at Pardes who come with little or not Jewish educational background, and put themselves in such a vulnerable position.) We need literacy to insure a Jewish future.

  • Without Jewish literacy, there is much less chance for serious Jewish commitment. Someone who can appreciate our tradition in an intelligent, grown-up educated way is much more likely to be committed to raising Jewish children. The Pew Report concluded that 72% of non-Orthodox Jews in America (the group that is least literate Jewishly) are marrying non-Jews. What is wrong with intermarriage, you ask? Don’t two people who fall in love have a right to marry? Of course they do! But for the Jewish people, the results are disastrous: 93% of the grandchildren of intermarriage are being raised outside the Jewish religion! (Hence, the definition of “Who is a Jew?” may really be “S/he who has Jewish grandchildren!) And should they marry Jews, the average birth rate among non-Orthodox Jewish couples in America is 1.7. The largest group of American Jews are not even replacing themselves. And absent a powerful religious or national narrative, why have more children? They are expensive, time-consuming, distracting from work and fun. But a Jewishly educated, highly literate couple has more content to want to pass on to the next generation, and this is one of the factors motivating the Orthodox to have more children. I am sure this could be true of many of the non-Orthodox, too, if they were Jewishly literate.

  • R. Zadok haCohen of Lublin, who lived a little more than a century ago, said the following: the Jewish people is like a Sefer Torah; just as a SeferTorah is not complete if even one letter is not full, so the redemption of the Jewish people will only come when every Jew reaches his/her full Jewish potential. We don’t even know what Jewish contributions, in Jewish learning and in Jewish life, we are missing out on without the full participation of the majority of Jews in the Jewish conversation.

In the struggle for Soviet Jewry of the 1970’s and 1980’s, there was a slogan: “Let my people go!”

What if we used a slightly different slogan: “Let my people know!”

What if….

The Jewish community created a Birthright-scale model of a free month, or two, of Jewish learning for any adult Jew who wanted to study Judaism, with hundreds of choices in all flavors and denominations?

What if every shul had a Beginners’ Service on Friday nights and Shabbat mornings, to introduce people to a traditional tefilah?

What if there were free, intensive one-week crash basic Hebrew reading courses offered in every JCC, synagogue, and Hillel?

What if there were many new models that we have not yet thought of?

What if the leaders of our community proclaimed: ‘No Jew left behind?”

Botticini and Eckstein, the authors of The Chosen Few describe a time in Jewish history when our people drastically diminished in number due to the question of literacy. It seems that we are on that precipice again, though under radically different circumstances. When Jewish literacy will become the priority for Jewish funders and leaders, “The Chosen Few” will become “The Chosen Many,” and the quality of Jewish communal life will be radically improved.


Read more at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Feb. 12, 2015