Prerequisites For Jewish Literacy
The beginning of the annual cycle
of Torah readings, which began
with Simchat Torah, is a good
time to reflect on what it means
to be Jewishly literate. At its recent
annual conference, the Coalition
for the Advancement of Jewish
Education (www.caje.org) helped
1,200 formal and informal educa-
tors explore this topic through a
number of different lenses, includ-
ing texts, Israel, ethics and popu-
hat is Jewish literacy?
What does it mean to
be Jewishly literate?
Who is an educated Jew? Paula
Hyman, professor of modern
Jewish history at Yale University,
writes in an issue of Sh'ma
(February 2002), "There has been
no consensus on the issue of 'Who
is an educated Jew?' for more than
Clearly, our definitions have
changed over the centuries. But
where are we today? What must
we know to function as literate
Telushkin, in his intro-
duction to Jewish
Literacy: The Most
to Know About the
Its People, and Its
History, observes, "At
a time when Jewish life.
in the United States is
flourishing, Jewish igno-
rance is, too:'
He goes on to say that while
large numbers of Jews of all ages
are seeking Jewish involvement,
in many cases, they are secretly
Modern Jews, Rabbi Telushkin
writes, are either vaguely familiar
with or completely unaware of the
most basic terms and significant
facts about Jewish life and Jewish
The traditional definition of lit-
eracy is the ability to use language
— to read, write, listen and speak.
In modern contexts, the word
means reading and writing on a
level adequate for written com-
munication and generally a level
that enables one to successfully
function at certain
levels of a society.
For our purpose,
the phrase "suc-
at certain levels of a
society" is where we
must begin. What do
we need to know to
function in or create
a Jewish home, to
function in the syna-
gogue, to function
in Jewish communal life and to
function in the world as a knowl-
edgeable Jew? What should we
know, feel and be able to do, to be
considered a literate Jew?
Jewish educators wrestle with
these questions on a regular basis.
Whether working in a congrega-
tion, in a day school or in a gradu-
ate program in Jewish education,
the questions are the same,
although the answers may vary
greatly from setting to setting.
At The Beginning
Let's begin with some basic
categories: God, Torah, Jewish
nation, Israel, holidays, life cycle
and deeds. These categories, once
briefly explored, will form the
basis on which most Jewish learn-
ing, leading to Jewish literacy, is
• God: It is in this category
where ideas and concepts about
Jewish belief are explored.
Understanding God and spiritual-
ity is a process with which Jews
must wrestle. Discussion encom-
passes questions such as: What
is the nature of God? What is
Judaism? What do Jews believe?
•Torah: This category can be
expanded to focus on the "words"
— the ideas and concepts — of
Jewish life. It includes the Hebrew
alphabet and Hebrew language,
common expressions and greet-
ings, Jewish names and names
for God. It also includes: What is
the Torah? What are Torah read-
ings? What is in the Bible? What
are prayers and blessings? What is
Jewish liturgy? What are the basic
Jewish texts? What is biblical his-
tory and modern Jewish history?
• Jewish nation: Who is a
Jew? How many Jews are there in
the world? What are the move-
ments in Judaism? Who are
Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Oriental and
Ethiopian Jews? What is "Jewish"'
food? Who are the patriarchs and
matriarchs? Who are the prophets,
the sages and the scholars of the
• Israel: Why is Israel, the
spiritual homeland of the Jewish
people, important to all Jews?
What is the difference between
the land of Israel and the State of
Israel? Who lives in Israel?
• Holidays: This area begins
with a discussion of the Jewish
calendar. How is the Jewish
calendar the same and differ-
ent from the secular calendar?
What is Rosh Chodesh? What do
we need to know about Shabbat
and religious holidays? What
is Yom HaShoah? What is Yom
Ha'atzmaut? Which holidays are
celebrated at home? Which are
celebrated in the synagogue?
What is the history of the syna-
• Life cycle: What are the ritu-
als and traditions that accompany
each of the stages of the life cycle?
Birth, naming and the first month
of life are times of beginnings and
celebrations. Bar and bat mitzvah
and confirmation are milestones
Thinking Outside Of The Spice Box
illelphobia is the result
of a failure to include.
As described in the
Summer 2005 issue of Reform
Judaism,"Hillelphobia" is about
Reform Jews who generally avoid
college Hillels by spurning pro-
grams with a lot of Jewish ritual or
religious content. But Hillel avoid-
ance is not exclusive to Reform
Jews; many Conservative Jews also
find Hillel programming to be "too
Jewish" and also stay away.
For some Hillels, their pro-
gramming motif of "bagels and
bruchas" is OK — until you realize
that there are many interested only
in the "bagels:' Where program-
ming tends to cater to the more
observant segments of our popu-
lation with programs coinciding
with events on the Jewish calendar,
it may be at the expense of Reform
Jews and likely excludes some
Conservatives as well.
November 2 • 2006
But is this reasonable
when the Orthodox
the smallest percent-
age of our population
(18 percent) with
Reform Jews comprising
the majority? Should
target the needs of the
at the expense of those
who are not? Probably not, but it
seems to. Should Hillel exclude
anyone? No — certainly not.
It gets worse. Along the contin-
uum of BBYO-Hillel-YAD (Young
Adult Division of Federation), the
chain seems to break after high
school graduation. As the natural
feeder to Hillel, BBYO's AZA and
BBG groups are split fairly evenly
between Conservative and Reform
Jews. But what happens to them
once they graduate
high school and enter
college or university?
Confronted by pro-
as intimidating or
detracting from their
social needs and
objectives most often
expressed as "want-
ing to meet other
Jews," they may feel
alienated and exit the
remnants of a carefully cultivated
circle of friends already dispersed
to various institutions of higher
These are the groups most
at risk of intermarriage and we
cannot abandon them lest they
become oisvorfen (outcasts)!
Hillel must be inclusive and
should pay more attention to
those Jews who don't necessarily
believe that lighting candles, keep-
ing kosher or that going to shul is
essential to be and remain Jewish.
Never mind that Judaic rituals
have precious little to do with
either being a "good Jew" or even
being religious; to be a "good Jew','
you first have to be a good person.
Hillel's programming needs to
think outside of the spice box to
maximize opportunities for stu-
dents and young adults to meet
without an excess of "hard core
Jew stuff" that Jackie Mason calls
"too Jewish" and which chases our
young away from the very events
we want them to attend — the
same events they need to attend.
Reform Jews are still Jews, part
of our people, fellow Members of
the Tribe (M.0. -Es — an old-time
acronym), and Hillel needs to do
more to attract them! The same
goes for Conservative Jews who are
staying away for the same reasons.
Hillel is the place for Jewish stu-
dents and young adults to meet;
the rest is up to them. Let's get
back to basics where Hillel facili-
tates encounters where "Jewish
boy meets nice Jewish girl" and
"Jewish girl meets nice Jewish boy"
Keep it simple with programming
that "maximizes the number of
Jews doing Jewish with other Jews,"
with a clear majority of non-reli-
gious social events balanced by
an appropriate (small) amount of
educational, "religious" and other
It's just as important to recog-
nize what Hillel is not: Hillel is not
a synagogue; it is not a yeshivah or
midrashah, and it is not a recruiter
for religious institutions. Hillel is
the place for Jewish students and
young adults to meet; the rest is up
to them. (Yes, it needs repeating.)
With a birth rate below replace-
ment level and a national inter-
marriage rate over 50 percent,"Job