Vital Signs: Betting on Jewish Literacy

13 May, 2010

Source: Jewish Book Review


This is a concluding article of a series on people and places fostering commitment to Judaism and the Jewish people in the United States and elsewhere by Professor Jack Wertheimer of the Jewish Theological Seminary. In it he expresses optimism about the contribution of the new Jewish learning to the future vitality of American Jewish life.


In addition to the 800 day schools and over 2,000 supplementary schools established in the US over the last century, a multipronged movement has given birth to numerous initiatives which aim to enrich Jewish learning all across the board.


Wertheimer writes:


"Where children and young people are concerned, energy is being invested in a whole range of newly re-conceived early-childhood programs, a few of which even offer Hebrew. Summer camps are assuming increased responsibility as purveyors of Jewish knowledge. Though the denominational youth movements continue to attract only a small fraction of Jewish teens, synagogue and communal programs are filling the vacuum, as is the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization.  Teen and Birthright trips to Israel, often supported by local communities, are rounding out the opportunities for teens to continue their study, partially offsetting the scandalously low numbers receiving a formal Jewish education.


The greatest growth is occurring among young adults and adults. On hundreds of college campuses, students can engage in the academic study of Jewish civilization by taking courses that fifty years ago were available at only a small handful. Beyond the campus, Orthodox "outreach" organizations offer lectures and classes; independent minyanim provide peer teachers for their less well-versed congregants; service agencies introduce their professionals and volunteers to the major texts of the Jewish tradition; special educational programs are directed at young parents lacking the knowledge of how to raise Jewish children; family or adult education for parents of school-aged children is spreading. It is even possible for young adults to engage in Jewish study as an add-on to outdoor hiking and skiing programs. 


Most dramatically, adult education is now available through multiple venues, from synagogues and Jewish community centers to retreats and cruises—not to mention the Internet, with its huge assortment of sites geared toward every religious and secular comfort zone and every level of preparation. National curricula are being taught in cities across the country.


Considerable evidence, still anecdotal, suggests that something significant is already happening—that the new Jewish learning has indeed transformed and given beneficial direction to the lives of Jews. Both the philanthropists who support these efforts and, by extension, the larger community are wagering on a much larger and more lasting success. A very great deal remains to be done, but if their bet pays off, the consequences for the future vitality of American Jewish life will be enormous."

Updated: May. 30, 2010