Shavuot celebrates the giving of the Torah to the Jewish people, the entire Jewish people in all generations.
While there are clearly many educational successes in Jewish life that should be celebrated and supported, we must also acknowledge that there is room for improvement in both quality and reach.
American Jewry, even with an estimated $30 billion infrastructure — all the buildings, land, budgets, staff, endowments, foundations and other assets — still has the highest attrition rate of any religious group in the United States.
Most educational leaders and philanthropists who have focused on Jewish education are only planning for modest, incremental improvements rather than developing sweeping, national strategies.
This is for three reasons: First, there is no national vision of Jewish education to rally around. Second, there is a lack of confidence in the ability of the educational systems to really change because of entrenched cultures. Third, there is a large and growing gap between the understanding of the philanthropists and planners and the actual, evolving market itself, meaning the million Jewish kids and their households.
Achieving universal lifelong Jewish education is attainable in a decade. Pursuing this vision is in alignment with what Shavuot is supposed to inspire us to achieve. As we stood at Sinai, God told Moses that we are to become "a kingdom of priests and a holy nation."
The term "kingdom of priests" is revolutionary both for its time and in our day as well. Coming out of Egypt, with a priestly class that served the Pharaoh, holiness and access to holiness were deeply hierarchical.
In the emptiness of the wilderness of Sinai, God painted a different aspiration for the Jewish people: that everyone has the potential and responsibility to be holy.
A "kingdom of priests" can only be achieved by a democratization of knowledge. And only once that is achieved, we can then truly be a holy nation. We are the first generation since the injunction at Sinai 3,500 years ago that can make quality and diverse Jewish education available to all, not just to our own priestly classes.
Through mainstream database mining, every Jewish home can be identified. Through new media strategies, every person and family can have a customized Jewish educational track created with them. For example, the CEO of the Jewish Education Service of North America, Jonathan Woocher, and I have developed a model of personal Jewish educational concierges — online, by telephone, and face to face — who can work with each individual and family to find a broad range of educational options.
Through business scalability models — strategies to create widespread growth — it can become cost-effective over time to provide educational opportunities for all, including the children of interfaith families, and see the existing educational infrastructures, schools, synagogues, JCCs, and other institutions, as a backbone.
There are many funders and institutions who are held back from embracing aggressive outreach strategy because of questions about people who are intermarried and their children. The Jewish world can put this question to rest by incorporating mikvah — the final step of conversion — as part of the bar and bat mitzvah preparation. Through this type of creativity and dedication, we can end the split in world Jewry based on personal status in an era when one out of every two children born into a Jewish home is coming from a home with a non-Jewish partner.
Through the mainstreaming of Jewish values in American culture — such as creating an American Jewish music category within the Grammys — we can reach every Jewish person in the contexts of their existing secular lives and provide new avenues for comfortable engagement.
Through adapting some of the person-to-person techniques of the rapidly growing Mormon and some fundamentalist movements — like regular home visits from mentors and creations of small chavurot, or informal, tightknit groups within communities — we can strengthen Jewish life in new ways and impact millions.
After the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey demonstrated that nearly half of marriages involving a Jew are to a non-Jew, about $’ billion in new monies have been invested in the continuity agenda.
Despite this unprecedented investment in Jewish education, the ‘001 survey and subsequent community surveys cannot easily demonstrate that communal efforts have reversed or slowed any of the significant negative demographic and affiliation trends in Jewish life. This does not mean that excellent or creative work was not done. Indeed, there was a flowering of innovation but it was in a thousand separate gardens and not coordinated.
The Jewish people as a whole have not been able to harvest productively our best ideas and initiatives. We stand at a new juncture in Jewish life, with even greater resources that are going to become available in the next decade. What are we going to be doing differently this time so that indeed Torah, in its broadest of terms, can be gifted to every Jewish child and their family? This Shavuot, let’s begin reframing the question in more systemic ways that will truly impact the future of Jewish life.