Especially in This Economy

A new game that has amused me and my friends in recent days is adding “…especially in this economy” to the end of any opinionated statement. The more ridiculous, the better.

Let’s take some examples from friends’ Facebook status updates (all names changed to protect the guilty): “Lisa Martin is really going to miss ‘Lost’ this summer, especially in this economy.” Not bad. “Richard Poe is struggling to stay awake, especially in this economy.” Decent. ”Trader Joe’s gazpacho is delicious, especially in this economy!” Nice. “Susan Portnoy is amazed by the logic a 4 year old will use not to take medicine, especially in this economy.” We have a winner!

I bring this up because just as this economy is leading people to question all kinds of political and economic assumptions, it’s also leading the Jewish community to question assumptions about some of its most enconsced institutions.

Yesterday, my colleague Robin Schwartz linked to Jacqueline Salmon’s story in the Washington Post about how some young, Jewishly motivated people are choosing independent minyans over synagogues. Minyans are grass-roots congregations that don’t have rabbis or membership dues and almost never own their own prayer space. As such, they’re cheap to run, cheap to join and open to experimentation. Even if they are not the future of Jewish religious life, their atmosphere of enhanced spirituality, democratic worship and DIY organization will influence established synagogues in the coming decades.

Over in the New Jersey Jewish News, the always-entertaining/insightful Andrew Silow-Carroll wonders whether traditional Hebrew school is causing more harm than good:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by Hebrew school. Okay, I exaggerate. Many of them weren’t the best minds at all, and most spent way too much of their time watching Brady Bunch reruns.

But they hated Hebrew school, and it turned them off to Jewish life, sometimes for good.

And I’ll even say this: Bad Hebrew school experiences not only shaped the Jewish worldview of alienated baby boomers, but helped establish the priorities of our most active, most highly identified Jews. I have a hunch that the rise of the day school movement in the past 20 years is owed in no small part to Jewish professionals and philanthropists who, drawing on their own childhood trauma, felt the supplementary school model was unsalvageable. The best minds, and the big bucks, went into the day schools, attracting, in turn, parents with grim Hebrew school memories of their own.

His case has merit. At least for myself, I had to get rid of the bitter taste of Hebrew school before I was comfortable engaging with Judaism again in my early 20s. For generations of Jewish-American children, Hebrew school has provided a place to goof off far away from the all-knowing antenna of public school’s fearsome PERMANENT RECORD. Silow-Carroll points to research that shows that one-third of children stop their Hebrew education after their bar or bat mitzvah, and more than half are done with Jewish education two years after their bar ot bat mitzvah.

There are a few hopeful outliers. Silow-Carroll points to a study from the Avi Chai Foundation that looks at model Hebrew schools. According to the report, the best schools have “vision” and are marked by the characteristics of developing community, taking Jewish study seriously, making Jewish education experiential, engaging the entire family, and making both teachers and students feel valued. In Salmon’s piece, she writes about how some synagogues are opening their doors to minyans, providing free prayer space in exchange for new energy and ideas. Perhaps minyan participants could also provide the injection of enthusiasm and seriousness that Hebrew schools need?

Whatever the solution, calcified institutions that have been half-heartedly following the status quo for decades need to change if they want to keep Judaism alive… especially in this economy.

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