Gary Rosenblatt, Editor of The Jewish Week, wrote an incredibly insightful and timely article today, that I felt compelled to finally write about, after giving this much thought for oh – 20+ years or so.
Even though the work I am doing is moving rapidly in that direction, I have been somewhat fearful of putting my exact thoughts in writing, because my feelings really don’t do anything to enhance the traditional synagogue’s reputation in educating our Jewish children. I just got another phone call from a local parent, lamenting about the poor quality of education, the “factory” type of experience, and the negative feeling she had from one of our local synagogues, and she was looking for a more engaging, personal, and meaningful experience for her roughly $20k investment in her child’s Hebrew School education.
Like it or not, families ARE belonging, just for the lifecycle. The majority of Jewish families choose to no longer associate and pay dues to synagogues, once their children become Bar or Bat Mitzvah. Even when families do continue to pay dues, however, the child more often than not ends his or her connection, inevitably to focus on activities in their secular lives, rather than their religious lives.
Overall, families complain to me that they are certainly not getting their 20 thousand dollars worth – Instead, they are relegated to ridiculously early services, only to be RUSHED out of the building, to make room for the NEXT group of Bar Mitzvah attendees – and then what? The service is over at 11 – and – they can’t even have the nice room to make a luncheon, if they weren’t FIRST on the lottery to get the room. Top that off with an impersonal service, a condescending Rabbi on the pulpit who doesn’t even know the child’s name, and a measly two or three aliyot, so they can barely honor grandparents, let alone the Aunts and Uncles and Cousins.
Gary writes, “One seeming disconnect that Wertheimer found in his study is that while most parents see the chief role of secondary schools as preparing children for bar or bat mitzvah, only 7 percent of the schools surveyed listed that as their primary goal. Most schools cited giving children positive Jewish experiences as their top objective.” I believe the disconnect is that synagogues are too busy trying to figure out how to balance the budget with overpaid clergy and Executive Directors, and not enough time actually figuring out how to actually deliver the positive Jewish experiences. Kids are bored, and tired of teachers who are incapable of managing behavior, and have to spend 80% of their time quieting the room, leaving only 20% of their time to effective lesson delivery.
Parents feel that the clergy is more concerned with they themselves want to GIVE, rather than what the families want or need to feel connected. Sermons on the bimah that seem like scolding, or subject material completely irrelevant to today leave families wondering WHY they pay 20k to belong. The whole experience is a disconnect, and all people really want, at the end of the day, is to feel GOOD about being Jewish.
We must define what it is – or will be – that makes us get those warm and fuzzy feelings about being Jewish. Why do huge monstrosities of churches pop up on every corner, with traffic jams EVERY Sunday, and we can’t get a full room at a Sisterhood opening event? Because synagogues aren’t giving families what they really want – and they haven’t even spent a minute trying to figure it out. They decide what the Rabbi will do, and dictate the programming to the congregants, and then wonder why they cannot fill rooms. They’re all coming at it from the wrong direction.
At the end of the day, today’s families want less rules and more engagement. I’m not sure if a synagogue can even possibly meet the needs of today’s families, but I do see more and more spiritual cheerleaders – like myself, popping up all over the U.S. People who want to bring the “feel good” stuff that Jewishness creates, without the annoyances of organization. Synagogues used to mean “community”. Today, we find and create our own little communities, without needing to go inside a building.
I believe, what we really want from Hebrew Schools is less structured, engaging material, that Jewish children can understand and enjoy. Let’s learn more about the 10 Mitzvot, about being a good Jew, about what V’Ahavta means, and why the Sh’ma is so incredibly important to us. Let’s learn less phonetic memorization, and more about what Abraham and Sara really stood for, and why they’re important to us today.
Let’s learn how to live our lives as good Jewish people, doing good deeds, repairing the world, healing the sick, and appreciating what our ancestors stood for. Let’s make Jewish prayer resonate within us through music, ruach, and FUN. It can be done. At least, I’m working on it – every day.
My Rabbi told me I can’t save the world. But, if I can save 20 Jewish families next year, it’s a job well done.