I spent a lot of time around my house recently playing seder. With the aid of some very neat toys, my daughter Moriah, and my wife and I practiced for the big night when we all sat and told the story of the Exodus.
This involves a lot of singing of “Dayenu,” playing with the toys that represent the 10 plagues, hiding and finding the afikoman, rehearsing the recitation of the preface to the four questions in Hebrew and English, a lot of mock pouring of grape juice and the recitation of blessings, some of which are already familiar to her from Friday nights.
For my soon-to-be 4-year-old, it’s an entertaining game that dovetails nicely with the barrage of Passover books we’ve been reading to her. But for us, the fun and games have a serious purpose: We’re trying to turn a little girl into a Jew who not only takes her heritage and faith seriously, but who will ultimately draw the right conclusions from all of this, and make Jewish values and identity the keystones to decisions she’ll make about her life.
Living in a secular world where we are a tiny minority swimming in a sea of non-Jewish popular culture, it takes a nonstop conscious effort to ensure that Moriah knows who she is and what that means.
The demographic facts of life in this country tell us that not only are Jews a shrinking, aging population, but one whose children are often not receiving the sort of instruction that would enable them to make informed Jewish choices.
In Philadelphia, the news is worse than in most places. A smaller percentage of children here attend Jewish day schools – the best possible educational venue for combining intensive Jewish knowledge with a superior secular education – than the national average. More than 80 percent of our kids are instead getting their Jewish education at part-time congregational schools. And of these, the overwhelming majority are not continuing their Jewish education after their bar or bat mitzvah.
That means that just at the moment their identities are being formed, their exposure to Jewish learning ends. This is a recipe for disaster.
And that’s what we’ve reaped as American baby-boomers have come to maturity as perhaps the most accomplished generation in Jewish history in terms of secular knowledge, while simultaneously achieving the distinction of being the most Jewishly illiterate. We’ve earned that title with growing rates of disaffiliation and dropping rates of concern for Israel, Jewish observance and donating to Jewish philanthropies.
American Jews have become a collection of fourth sons, the character in the Passover narrative who is not even able to ask a question about the holiday. Many of us are as clueless as the slaves of Egypt about what it means to be a Jew. It took Moses, the greatest of teachers and prophets, to teach those slaves the meaning of freedom.
But we must teach ourselves again to choose to be Jews.
One answer is clearly to try and make the synagogue Hebrew schools better since the reason why so many young Jews are uninterested in learning more is that their initial experience was so unsatisfactory.
To that end, programs are being put in place to try and raise the standards for teaching in these schools and to give them more resources and better programs.
If we accept, as unfortunately we must, that many Jewish parents will not send their child to a day school no matter what the cost, then we must do something to transform afternoon Hebrew schools from being a symbol of Jewish communal failure into beacons of excellence.