in community life.
At Risk, At Stake
oo many of our older children are spiritually lost,
alienated from feeling Jewish because of apathy,
inertia and ignorance among family and friends.
They have no one to share Judaism with and no
one to nurture it for them. There's no one they look to for
spiritual inspiration, yet we're a people. This crater in Jewish
education is sucking the continuity out of us. It's worse than
the anti-Jewish fervor around the globe.
So says a giant of Jewish philanthropy and one of American
Jewry's most daring thinkers, Michael Steinhardt, who made a
fortune on Wall Street. He's willing to invest in ideas with the
power to reverse the tides of indifference.
"Consider how little many of us know
about our history, our culture, our language,"
Steinhardt, president of the Jewish Leaders
Network, told 4,000 delegates to the 2004
General Assembly of North American feder-
ations last week in Jerusalem.
Notably, Steinhardt chose a forum in the
Jewish state, battling
ROBERT A. Palestinian terror for 38
months, to dissect the vulnera-
ble state of the diaspora.
"Young Jews today," he said,
"have a mere fraction of the attachment to Israel
of my generation."
He chastised delegates for not supporting
Birthright Israel, which he helped endow The
program has paid for 49,000 young adults to
visit Israel and, in many cases, become involved
in Jewish life.
But Jewish literacy, culturally and religiously,
may well be at an all-time low Intermarriage
remains common. Day and afternoon schools
still strut e financially. And unaffiliated Jews,
who are the majority, don't have a champion in
the organized Jewish world, Steinhardt said.
He focused on non-Orthodox Jews, who too often don't
know enough about Judaism to take pride in it.
"We remain Jewish on the vapors of cultural memory," he
said with chilling imagery.
It's painful to hear, but he's right: "We are no longer bound
by a sense of shared destiny or driven by a sense of crisis that
would lead to the emergence of real leadership."
He laments that in America, Federation annual campaigns
have remained flat while overall philanthropy has doubled.
Conflicts Aplen t y
Our older children yearn for a Judaism that nourishes Jewish
joy, Steinhardt said. They want their faith to penetrate the lay-
ers of competing ideas: Eastern cults, New Age movements,
Steinhardt worries about the non-Orthodox streams of
Judaism — streams with "generation after generation of
Steinhardt, 62, is chairman of Jewish Renaissance Media,
which owns the Detroit Jewish News. He grew up in Brooklyn,
then a shred where Jews with little chance to learn still were
spiritually connected. "We were immersed in Jewish culture:
the sounds of Yiddish, the aromas of Jewish cooking," he said.
"There was an influx of refugees with numbers on their
arms," he added. "Awareness of the immigrant experience on
the one hand and anti-Semitism on the other served to unite
He's right: Fewer immigrants and wider assimilation have
combined to break our natural ties to Jewish culture. We need
to be better educated in what it means to live as a Jew.
We do need to bring about "a Jewish renaissance for our
We need to care more about whether they'll embrace the
Jewish people than whether they'll lay tefillin or keep kosher,
significant as these rituals are.
We must demand quality in teaching at all grade levels,
whatever the setting. Steinhardt put it this way: "Most non-
Orthodox children receive but a token dose of Judaism and
do not even feel it inadequate."
From my vantage point, more teenagers and young adults,
however religious, are responding to Jewish experiences that
make Judaism relevant. But Steinhardt, a cultural Jew identify-
ing with secular humanism, is onto something in his belief
that lack of sustained interest in Jewish learning among too
many is eating away the core of our peoplehood.
I'm intrigued by Steinhardt's idea of creating a
Fund for Our Jewish Future in partnership
with federations and big givers. Once endowed
with $100 million, it would be a step toward
granting every Jewish child a free Jewish educa-
tion through school and camp experiences. He
would fund $10 million, or 10 percent.
But there's no mention of afternoon schools
in his plan. That bothers me. In metro Detroit,
synagogue-based schools have twice the enroll-
ment as day schools although most are losing
students and the ability to fund them. Not
standing pat -- for example, merging after-
noon schools with similar tenets, and makin g
what is taught appealing and interactive —
just might assure a critical mass of students.
Steinhardt's yen for innovative thought derives from his
determination to re-make Jewish education so it no longer is
He knows times are tough. He and other mega-philanthro-
pists are bombarded with funding requests. He also knows
endowing a Fund For Our Jewish Future is just an idea and
not necessarily the best one.
His intent in stirring up the G.A. was to begin to change
the lens and the model we use to teach our kids how to be
Jewish. He's onto something when he says to leaders of the
organized Jewish community, "We are at a point where the
reward for taking chances is far greater than the risks."
But let's be smart risk-takers.
Take it from Jenny Cohn, 23, of Southfield, who attended
the G.A. as a student intern with the Detroit Federation's
Alliance for Jewish Education. In our rush to spend, let's
know who's most at risk: kids in families on the edges of or
outside the Jewish community.
Cohn has a B.A. in Modern Jewish Studies from the Jewish
Theological Seminary in New York and is in the University of
Michigan School of Social Work's Sol Drachler Program in
Jewish Communal Leadership in Ann Arbor.
"Money alone is not going to encourage the large per-
centage of apathetic and ignorant Jews to suddenly
embrace Jewish education," Cohn told me Monday.
"We need new ideas, new outreach efforts and new total
immersion experiences that bring Jewish families together
and allow them to experience Judaism for themselves."
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