Chanukah or Christmas?


George Hanus



There is an eight hundred pound elephant in the room. Everyone is pretending that it is not there and acting indifferently. The eight hundred pound elephant represents the current massive and devastating exodus of Jewish youth from any Jewish affiliation. The ignoring observers are the organized Jewish community, its leaders, Rabbis and self-ordained spokesmen. The ramifications of this crisis are enormous and far reaching while the organized Jewish community sits on its corporate backside and does nothing Herculean. There is plenty of room to point fingers but that won’t solve the problem. It is as if no one really cares about Jewish children or the continuity of the Jewish people. The certainty of the published and re-certified population statistics is real and unrelenting:  A majority of today’s young Jewish parents will be celebrating future December family gatherings around a Christmas tree together with their grandchildren’s other non-Jewish grandparents. 

The forecasts are absolutely merciless in predicting that approximately 80% of the children of these marriages will not be Jewishly affiliated, will not visit nor care about Israel, will not contribute to Jewish charities, will not raise their children as Jews, and will not attend synagogue. 

These ominous predictions have been well known for almost two decades and Jewish leadership have done absolutely nothing substantial to counter this trajectory. They have convened blue ribbon commissions that report to no one and then do nothing. They have redefined the meaning of being Jewish so that the intermarriage rate statistics don’t look so discouraging. They have wringed their hands and proclaimed the issue to be important while following up with no meaningful budgetary resource to do anything. 

The remedy is really simple, hugely expensive, but something we can not afford to ignore. If high quality universal intensive affordable Jewish education was available for all children who seek it regardless of their family’s stream of religious affiliation or financial resources, the problems of assimilation and intermarriage would be substantially resolved. If we paid a dignified living wage to our teachers, the best and the brightest would continue to enter the field.  Everyone agrees, but leadership remains silent. It is as if, no one cares about our Jewish kids.  

Obviously, little children don’t make educational or medical decisions for themselves. It is their parents that decide where and how their children will be educated. If the parents aren’t super rich or ready to make extraordinary financial sacrifices, they are not sending their children to Jewish day schools. How can they? The annual tuition ranges from $10,000 to $15,000 per year per student, which statistically places it out of the affordability range of 80% of the families. How many young families can afford that annual economic drain? There are tens of thousands of Jewish children that cannot receive an intensive Jewish education because their parents are not rich. The organized Jewish community is doing nothing substantial to provide scholarship assistance to all Jewish children who need it. 

Clearly, it is in the self-preservation interests of the Jewish community to have Jewish youth educated because it is those children who grow up becoming Jewishly committed adults.

Even though it is unmistakably in the interest of every Jewish institution to have children educated and become Jewishly committed, there is a deafening, communal silence. Even though the number of new young donors is decreasing annually, there is not one national Jewish philanthropic fund that has dramatically reprioritized its budget to try to raise massive amounts of funds to provide scholarship assistance to Jewish children. Not one of these communal charities chests has seriously commenced a second line campaign to try to tackle funding Jewish schools in earnest. There has been no national initiative by any of the rabbinic movements to openly declare war on Jewish illiteracy and demand that intensive Jewish education be communally funded.   No national Jewish leaders have spoken at their communal plenary to declare a “Manhattan project” to fund Jewish education for all Jewish children and then followed through in a serious manner to move massive funds into local school budgets.

There are many reasons for the massive spiritual withdrawal by our young people. It is not a black and white direct causal occurrence. We Jews are not a monolith: many factors enter into the equation of religious choices including peer group and family support. 

But we do know that most of today’s adults were Jewishly educated in the Hebrew school bar mitzvah factories established by the synagogues. 

The typical cycle was initiated by young Jews being sent to Hebrew school or Sunday school; the family joined the synagogue just in time for the child to be “Bar Mitzvahed” and then they were rarely seen again in the temple, except for the occasional High Holiday visit.  

Of course, there are many exceptions and there are many deeply committed Jews who experienced the Hebrew school system. But the common experiential thread of most of today’s Jewish adults is that their Hebrew school education was horrendous. There are many Jews who still cringe when they recall those years. Even nostalgic revisionism is not enough to overcome the uneasy memory of the dislike of being sentenced to that after school environment of Jewish learning. The teachers were well meaning, but ill prepared to teach those American students who saw their musings irrelevant to modern America. This was all happening in the context of the “other children” engaging in fun after school activities such as girl scouts, baseball, or chess club.

No one is to blame. The afternoon school system was the post World War II response of American Jewry’s craving to blend into the larger secular society. The primary family focus was to get a fancy college education and get a prestigious job, or better yet to become a doctor, lawyer or accountant. Don’t stick out or don’t be “too Jewish.” 

The afternoon Hebrew school system became a place where parents dropped off their children to warehouse them and hope that they come out with a full knowledge of everything they need to know Jewish. At a minimum, they were supposed to learn their Torah readings, give the famous “Today I am a fountain pen speech” and have a fancy party. For most Jewish kids, the system did not work.   

Gather any random Jewish adults and they will tell you their Hebrew school horror stories. Not only did those experiences not create of a love of Torah, but rather an almost Pavlovian, negative response to anything that resembles Jewish ritual. From World War II until the late 1990s, the majority of Jewish children were educated in these classroom settings while a minority was educated in the day school environment.

It is the product of these afternoon Hebrew school experiences that are running away from Jewish affiliation and either totally assimilating or intermarrying. The products of the day schools are the Jews that are staying affiliated and marrying other Jews. A vast majority of these day school graduates not only have succeeded in their secular studies but have also developed special spiritual connections to their heritage and history. In most cases, the children of these day school graduates are sending their own children to day schools. 

It is interesting to further note that participation in Jewish education has declined so much that more children are currently enrolled in day schools than in afternoon Hebrew schools. 

Maybe it is too late. Maybe the trajectory of communal indifference is so far gone that we won’t be able educate all of our children. Maybe Torah education will be limited to the twenty per cent of the children currently enrolled in Jewish day schools. Maybe future Jewish affiliation will be limited to those children whose parents were very rich or who made extraordinary financial sacrifices to give their children an opportunity to learn about their 4,000 year heritage. 

But the one thing we must never allow to continue is to prevent Jewish children to learn about their heritage because they couldn’t afford an education. If we do, history must maintain a clear record that our institutions knew the ramifications of their budgetary priorities.