American Jews are learned in everything — except Jewish texts


The American Jewish community is one of the most learned and sophisticated communities in Jewish history – in everything except Jewish texts. As Jews, we are illiterate.

This phenomenon has its roots in our history over the last 150 years. During that time, the Jewish people underwent five events, each one of which can be counted as a major upheaval. These are the emergence of the Jews from the ghetto into the modern world, the mass movement of Jews from Europe to the United States, the systematic suppression of religion in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel.

These events went far in determining the nature of the Jewish world today and led to the fact that in the United States, we remain comfortable and sophisticated in the Western world and immature in our Jewish knowledge.
The Jewish educational establishment has tried to remedy this problem and, to some extent, has succeeded. The number of day schools certainly has grown. Still, as a community, we remain undertaught and illiterate.

Consequently, when youngsters go off to a university armed with the Jewish education they received in religious schools, or even many of our day schools, they are unable, by and large, to integrate their Jewish knowledge into their much more sophisticated secular knowledge. Even more so, they are unable to have them in equal dialogue with one another.

The basis of good education does not rest on supplying you with facts but on teaching you how to read. In a university, you do not learn science as much as how to function within science or how to read literature or how to write poetry or solve a mathematical problem.

In Jewish texts, by those criteria, we are illiterate. We do not learn how to read Bible but only learn the stories in the Bible. Rabbinic texts that are central in classical Jewish literature remain foreign to most of us. We celebrate holidays, but know nothing of the theology behind them. We pray, sometimes, but know nothing about the theology of the prayer book. Jewish survival relies on loyalty and nostalgia and not on meaning and value.

How can we proceed? I think the first step is an acknowledged awareness of the problem. The American Jewish community does not have literacy as a central focal point. It is spoken about, but the hard truth is not really expressed. I will give a number of examples.

Many years ago, I spoke at an Orthodox congregation on the West Coast. Most of the 200 people there were elderly, and many of them were European-born. I asked them how many of them read Hebrew fluently, and almost all of them raised their hands. I then asked how many understand what they are reading, and almost none raised their hands.
No other group of people would say that they read a language fluently without understanding a word of what they read. Yet this phenomenon continues. We train people to “read the Torah” but not always to understand what they are reading. We train people to “lead” the services but not really to understand the services.

We have Jewish leaders who speak about the importance of Jewish education, but who themselves are not educated or on the path to being educated. We have teachers who are underqualified.

Our expectations are low. If children enjoy going to religious school, that is enough, even though they are learning nothing. We would never tolerate those same criteria for our secular education. Imagine a high school student who loves going to school but cannot read basic texts.

The Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE) is one of the educational organizations that is trying to change this. Their recent conference at Duke University was dedicated to the theme of “Jewish Literacy.” This is the necessary beginning.

CAJE must define the question and press the individual schools and teachers to address the problem. At the same time, it must provide them with programs that will bring literacy to their teaching staff.

How can this be done? First, we have to set our goals higher. Teachers must know how to read the text. For example, the Bible has its own style, as do rabbinic and medieval texts. These styles must be taught and mastered. We should be cautious about separating between biblical story and midrash or rabbinical explanation.

We must also understand that the rabbis wrote in a very particular nonlinear style. Information was not given from beginning to end; their style was coded. The prayer book, which they composed, is a master composition, but in order to understand it, you have to know how biblical sections are chosen and put in different contexts and how the rabbis established specific forms of prayer.

The Jewish calendar is a complex theological statement and should be taught as such. Unlike the secular American calendar, all of the holidays are connected one to another.

All of this must be taught in connection to the other, secular education that these students are receiving. They should know the tremendous impact of the Bible on Western civilization and how the concept of history comes from it. They should understand Jewish theology in its many facets.

The impact of science and technology should be taught, along with their limitations. Jewish concepts of death, soul, responsibility and government should be studied.

Most important, by the time they finish high school, they should be able to examine concepts of knowledge and truth, beginning with the story of the Garden of Eden and working through modern theories of logical positivism, existentialism, chaos and theories of complexity. Why not?

I was once speaking to a principal of a community Jewish high school. He said that attracting students was very competitive. He had to assure the parents that their child would get a secular education that would enable them to get into Harvard, Yale or Princeton and, at the same time, would get a Jewish education. I said to him, “Why not tell them that here your child will master two alternative systems of truth, Jewish and Greek, upon which Western civilization was built. They will master both Aristotelian linear knowledge and rabbinic nonlinear knowledge and be all the wiser for it.”

It is not only possible to do both, but for Jews living in the modern world, it is necessary to do both. They will become literate Jews.

Yosef Leibowitz, director and founder of the Yad Yaakov Fund, received ordination from Yeshiva University and a doctorate from UC Berkeley. He served as a rabbi in Berkeley before moving to Israel. Leibowitz was the keynote speaker on the subject of Jewish texts at the recent CAJE conference focusing on Jewish literacy.

Promoting Jewish Learning


On a recent Friday afternoon, the chapel bells at Duke University chimed “Shalom Aleichem” as about 1,300 educators gathered for the 31st annual conference of the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education (CAJE).

Billed as “Jewish Literacy: A Learned Community and a Community of Learners,” CAJE 31 was a raw, messy, creative affair, with 20 sessions held every hour for five days on such wide-reaching topics as “God Shopping,” “The Jews of Sing-Sing,” “Assessing Our Relationship to Israel” and “Jews as Global Citizens.” Many of the sessions focused on teaching methodology, text-based learning and creative approaches to Judaism. Participants also met for in-depth discussions on every Jewish theme imaginable, all with the goal of energizing teachers and students for the coming year.

Teachers, storytellers, dancers, rabbis and teenagers training for future leadership positions ran through the southern heat across the sprawling campus looking for classrooms, some of which were buried two floors underground. They also browsed through Duke’s Bryan Center and an array of vendors displaying items such as teaching materials, custom-made crossword puzzles, jewelry and handmade Jewish arts and crafts.

Most of the sessions and evening keynote speeches addressed the issue of Jewish literacy, focusing on how being Jewishly literate means familiarity not just with texts, a bar mitzvah portion, Israeli history or Jewish dance, but with a stew of all those elements and much more.

In a session on adult learners led by Betsy Dolgin Katz, North American director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini-School, one participant said, “Something that changed my life was learning to read Torah at age 40.”

The session also focused on how much emphasis is placed on children’s preparation for b’nei mitzvah and becoming full participants in Jewish life, while parents might not have had an equivalent education and may feel left behind.

Cherie Koller-Fox, a founder of CAJE, held a session on the challenges young teachers face when deciding whether or not to enter the field of Jewish education at all. She encouraged them to assert themselves when asking for the salaries and support they would need to make a career in Jewish education work for them, and urged them to take the reins of CAJE for a new generation.

“CAJE looks old and decrepit, but it needs to be yours,” she told them. “You desperately need it, but it desperately needs you.”

A special session was held each night where teachers and community leaders discussed how to teach the war in Lebanon in the upcoming school year and shared personal feelings about Israel. Some educators stressed the importance of promoting a connection between children and Israel. One participant said, “They should identify with Israel like it’s their own home being bombed, because it is their home being bombed.” Another participant grew pensive over the thought that peace in the Middle East would truly not be achieved in his lifetime.

A few teachers worried that children would grow up with negative impressions of Israel due to media coverage or bias, while others expressed happiness that some of the myths about Israel as only a heroic nation might dissipate.

The war in Lebanon aside, some educators, especially from small communities, were happy to be surrounded by so many fellow travelers.

Ellen Ben-Naim, a teacher at Los Alamos Jewish Center in New Mexico that draws much of its congregation from the nearby research laboratory, said that in her school of 20 students, 7,000 feet up a mountain, even the rabbi is also a full-time physicist.

“This is like a mecca for me. Well, maybe that’s not the right word,” she said, adding that the diversity of Jewish life exhibited at CAJE astounded her. Back home, she said, “there is only one tent in town for everybody.”

Lynne Diwinsky, a teacher at the New City Jewish Center in New City, N.Y., enjoyed CAJE as a prelude to the school year.

“I see [CAJE] as a renewal. It happens right before Rosh Hashanah to get ready for the coming year,” she said. “I love the interchange with other professionals.”

Eliot Spack, CAJE’s outgoing executive director, said, “CAJE provides a recharging of their batteries,” referring to the educators who attend.

He called the conference “a celebration of Jewish teaching: “CAJE has inspired people not in a manipulative or proselytizing way, but it’s helped people come to grips with their own Judaism.”

Carolyn Starman Hessel, director of the Jewish Book Council and longtime CAJE-goer, said that making connections and being able to access new materials is important for educators.

“West of the Hudson River, where are people going to get this plethora of books and materials?” she asked.

Avraham Infeld, outgoing president of Hillel, delivered a fiery keynote address on the topic of Jewish identity. He said out of five legs of Judaism — memory, family, Sinai, the people and land of Israel and the Hebrew language — each Jew should learn three. That way, everyone would have at least one Jewish connection in common.

Infeld also mentioned a phrase his late father used to repeat that subtly echoed the conference’s theme: “A Jew has to know more today than he did yesterday.”

Reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week.