Once in a great while, Peter Beinart writes an article I actually agree with. It happens whenever he takes a break from Israel-bashing to write about Judaism, which he usually does around the High Holidays. His thesis this year was that the High Holidays are a bad way to introduce children to Judaism, because the lengthy synagogue services bore them. A much better idea, he argued, is to let them experience fun holidays like Sukkot or Purim, which involve activities most children love: eating and sleeping outside (Sukkot) or wearing costumes and exchanging goodies (Purim). But while he’s completely correct, his idea is probably unfeasible. And the reasons why it’s unfeasible make clear what the only feasible solution is.
Beinart’s proposal is impractical because only parents who are already very Jewishly committed are likely to be willing to celebrate such holidays. Those who already aren’t generally know next to nothing about these holidays, not even when they occur. Moreover, observing any Jewish holiday in America often means taking a day off from work and school, which parents who aren’t already very Jewishly committed won’t be willing to do more than once or twice a year, on the High Holidays. Finally, unless you already live in a Jewishly active neighborhood and/or send your kids to a Jewishly active school, observing any of these holidays means doing something nobody around you is doing–an experience many people find unpleasant.
If you could somehow eliminate these obstacles, getting Jews to observe other holidays would be much easier, as the Israeli experience shows. Though only around 20 percent of Israeli Jews self-identify as Orthodox, a whopping 85 percent attribute importance to celebrating Jewish holidays “in the traditional manner,” i.e. by doing some traditional activity associated with the holiday. As one example, around 82 percent of self-defined secular Israeli Jews attend a Passover seder, compared to just 47 percent of U.S. Jews of no denomination (the closest American equivalent).
But that’s precisely because in Israel, celebrating holidays like Purim and Sukkot is easy. First, all Jewish holidays are automatically days off from work and school. Second, kindergartens and primary schools (and sometimes higher grades) all teach about and have activities relating to the holidays before they occur–for instance, kids always come to school in costume before Purim. So the whole community is celebrating together, rather than observance making your child the odd man out. Finally, the combination of those first two factors means there’s never any doubt about when the holidays occur or how to celebrate them; all parents keep track of when their child has school vacation, and the child himself comes home with instructions: Send me to school in a costume tomorrow; hang up the sukkah decorations I made. In other words, all the obstacles that exist in America don’t exist in Israel.
There is, of course, a way to replicate all these conditions, aside from the days off work– sending children to a Jewish day school. And that solution works in Europe, where many nonobservant Jews do send their kids to Jewish schools, because they like the combination of Jewish content with excellent secular studies. But in America, that, too, is unfeasible: Most American parents can’t afford the sky-high day school tuition, and therefore, there isn’t enough demand even to justify starting such a school in many non-Orthodox communities.
In short, a proposal like Beinart’s is unfeasible unless you first build a Jewish community that makes it easy. And the only way to build such a community is to make Jewish day schools affordable.
In much of Europe, day schools are affordable because parochial schools get government funding. But in America, the only way to make this happen would be for American Jewish leaders–those who understand just how serious the crisis facing American Jewry is–to finally reverse their opposition to school vouchers and start actively lobbying for them.
It’s hard to overstate the impact that making Jewish schools widely available and affordable could have. The Israeli experience offers one example. But for another, consider something that happened almost 100 years ago: An Orthodox woman went to her rabbi and told him he had to back her in starting a Jewish school for girls, because girls at that time were already getting secular educations, and a girl who was secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant wouldn’t stay Jewish for long. The rabbi agreed, and today, Sarah Schenirer’s Bais Yaakov schools are widely credited with helping to fuel the stunning revival of Haredi Jewry after the Holocaust.
Most American Jews aren’t Haredi, but Schenirer’s insight is no less relevant to them: A child who is secularly educated but Jewishly ignorant won’t stay Jewish long. That, unfortunately, describes the vast majority of American Jews today, and the result is just what Schenirer would have predicted: Intermarriage rates have soared, to 71 percent of all non-Orthodox marriages, and so has the percentage of Jews defining themselves as “Jews of no religion”–who, as a 2013 Pew Poll showed, are on a fast track to leaving Judaism altogether.
Jewish day schools are one of the only ways — along with Jewish camps and trips to Israel — to ensure that American Jews don’t grow up Jewishly ignorant. And the only way to make Jewish schools widely available and affordable is through vouchers that can be used at parochial schools. Consequently, school choice is literally a matter of life and death for American Jewry; without them, even sensible proposals like Beinart’s will be to no avail, and the American Jewish community will continue to hemorrhage. Yet rather than supporting vouchers, American Jewish organizations have consistently opposed them.
Still, a new year is a good time to turn over a new leaf. So let’s hope the new Jewish year that began this month will finally be the one in which American Jewish leaders stop trying to make Judaism hard and instead start lobbying for the one policy that would make it easier.
Originally published in Commentary on October 16, 2016