Thursday, September 11, 2014

Quote of the Week: I wish I was Jewish

This semester for my field placement at JPDS, I am finally being forced to learn Hebrew in a real way. The third, fourth, and fifth graders know more Hebrew than I do, which makes it hard for me to help them with their Hebrew translations for Judaic Studies, but there are two new students to the school this year who have no Hebrew background, so I have volunteered to tutor them in the aleph-bet.

As an aside, I should mention that, while this is a Jewish Day School, it is also a community day school and they have a number of non-Jewish students enrolled (whether because it is better than their public school options, within walking distance of their homes, or any other reason that a parent would enroll their child in a private school). These two students - a boy and a girl - are not Jewish, so the Hebrew is new and hard for them, but they are so focused on learning it. Time for me to channel their drive, dust off my Rosetta Stone, and give Hebrew another try myself!

During our first lesson today, we reviewed the difference between בּ (a "b" sound) and ב (a "v" sound) and between ד (a "d" sound) and ר (an "r" sound), coupled with different vowels to make different sounds, like "da-beh" or "reh-va." Aside from the Hebrew, I also wound up teaching them about what it means to be Jewish. They were both shocked that I am not from Israel, have no family in Israel, and am not fluent in Hebrew. "But I thought you were Jewish!" the boy said with obvious confusion. We had a quick discussion about what it means to be Jewish, but the duality of Judaism as a people and a religion was a question that took me over a year to understand and three years later, I am still not good at articulating an answer. If the history of the Jewish people has taught us anything, it is that there is no easy answer to that question.

Later on in Judaic Studies, while my female student struggled determinedly to translate Parsha Vayetse - eyes flicking back and forth between the text and her vocabulary sheet to find סֻלָּם and scribble "ladder" above the Hebrew, circling the prefix and suffix on the word וְרֹאשׁוֹ in order to find the root meaning "head" in the middle of the word - she said in frustration, "I wish I was Jewish! Then I would already know Hebrew." If only being Jewish came with Hebrew proficiency that could be downloaded into your brain! Lacking that, we will have to stumble through the language together.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Pew: A Portrait of Millennial Jewish Americans

For my Contemporary Jewish Life class this week, we are reading and discussing the Pew Survery: A Portrait of Jewish Americans, published in October 2013, as well as five responses to the data, which were all new to me, despite the vast amount of reading I did on the subject when it was first published last year. Those articles, if you care to read them, can be found here (I reference this one specifically in my response below), here, here, here, and here, though there are many other great analyses of the survey out there as well. This class has forced me, after a year of trying, to put some of my own thoughts about the study into words. Those thoughts are below.

Pew Survey: A Portrait of Jewish Americans
Much has been written - both Jewish and secular - about the disengagement of the Millennial generation in almost every context. For Jewish purposes, this dovetails nicely with the ever-present concern of Jewish survival into the next generation. Whether it is our growing rates of intermarriage and secularization, decreasing support for Israel, or plummeting synagogue membership, we are a cause for concern about the Jewish future. Solutions to the Millennial problem have been varied.

Every generation since Abraham and Sarah has worried that it would be the last. In a sense, the numbers in the Pew survey can only serve to reinforce a fear that has never needed help gaining ground. Alarmists look at the numbers and predict the end of Judaism within the next two decades (or some equally short span of time). On the other hand, optimists see increasing pride in Jewish identity as a sign of the end of anti-Semitism in America. Others claim that the survey was flawed and, therefore, can be of little use. While the data can be interpreted in many conflicting ways, there can still be value in quantifying the obstacles we face on the road ahead, so that we can use our resources as efficiently and effectively as possible.

In response to continuity concerns following the publication of the 1990 National Jewish Population Study, the Jewish Federation pushed for better Jewish education, creating programs like Birthright and pushing Jewish summer camps (see Tobin, Loving Us to Death). As a result, the vast majority of my friends who were raised Jewish have wonderful memories of their trips to Israel (I do too!) and a working knowledge of Birkat Hamazon. These experiences have clearly left an impression, but, except in very rare cases, those organized Jewish opportunities disappear once we reach adulthood and we are left with the difficult task of continuing our Jewish education and maintaining a Jewish life all on our own. It is my guess that if a study addressed the age at which Jews disengage with Judaism, it would show a significant drop in engagement around age 22, when we leave college and truly enter adulthood.

If it is becoming easier for Jewish Millennials to assimilate into American society, it should be equally easy, if not more so, to feel welcomed in our own communities. I think that a push for experiential education aimed at Millennials and no-pressure opportunities to learn about Jewish ritual observance (like Chabad offers, but without the Rebbe) would go a long way toward keeping us in the fold. Where they exist, efforts to engage young Jewish adults seem to be incredibly successful. Washington DC has Sixth & I, Philadelphia has The Collaborative (and others), and Birmingham, Alabama has You Belong in Birmingham. Each of these organizations brings together young adults for social and philanthropic events, sometimes in a specifically Jewish context, but usually not. The successes of these programs should attest to the desire of Jewish Millennials to engage Jewishly.

To a certain extent, I have to agree with Tobin's analysis that outreach to Jews who are on the edges of Judaism (and their non-Jewish spouses) is a waste of our time, in the sense that it does little to engage individuals before they reach the outskirts of our communities. Perhaps, similar to the 1990s push for Jewish education, experiential educational opportunities for Jewish adults who are post-college and pre-parenthood would create a comfort with and knowledge of Judaism to maintain that Jewish identity into the next generation or, at least, into the next stage of life for Jewish Millennials.