Recently, rural Americans identified a growing crisis: Fewer than half of the younger generation was choosing to go into farming. The best agrarian minds discussed what they could do to ensure their children remain behind the tractor. Surely, they thought, if there was better farm education, the chain of tradition would be maintained.
Of course, that didn’t really happen. The social, economic and political reality is that while some young people may choose to remain on the homestead, family farming will never again be the norm.
Likewise, in the Jewish community, we have seen substantial attrition in the last few generations. The result has been the elevation of the “continuity agenda” as the top priority for educational, cultural and social programming. Other goals, such as “having a rich Jewish life,” are justified by the extent to which they support “continuity,” generally understood to mean that Jews will 1) self-identify as Jews; 2) marry Jews; and 3) have children who will repeat the process.
The underlying assumption is that something is broken: If our educational institutions were functioning appropriately, we would see more Jews staying Jewish. After all, that’s the way things had worked in the past.
Or is it? More than we’re willing to admit, Jews may have remained Jews throughout history not because of a deep personal connection with the tradition, but because they had no other choice. Can we really assume that the legal, social and intellectual limitations on assimilation played no role in Jewish continuity? With the barriers to full participation in society gone, and universal exposure to alternative ideas and cultures, what kind of “continuity” should be expected as the norm, or even seen as a reasonable goal?
An agenda that is to have any chance of succeeding must be built around reasoned and reasonable expectations. What would it mean, then, to accept the possibility that the erosion of group identity is the ineluctable cost of entry into the modern world? I’d like to suggest a few possibilities:
First, we lose the discourse of blame and guilt. Many of our children will not believe in God, join a synagogue, celebrate Shabbat or marry a Jew, just as they are unwilling to follow lots of our advice. But generally, as long as they are reasonably happy, reasonably productive and reasonably mensch-like, we don’t think of their lives or our parenting as failures.
Second, we find other goals and justifications for our programming. Recent publicity for a Jewish high school touted the greater likelihood that day school graduates would
eventually have Jewish spouses. Is that the main reason for studying Bible? We support middle-school literary magazines, youth gymnastics, bands and camping because they are powerful, joyful, or meaningful experiences in themselves. What Jewish skills, texts and experiences could justify themselves similarly?
Finally, we define a different measure of success. Sometimes institutions, projects and organizations don’t last, but that doesn’t make them failures. The New York City Opera Company, for instance, went bankrupt. If its goal was to create great and accessible art, it was probably a success. And if its goal was to do nothing but last, who would even care?
Continuity without content is simply about brand. That is hollow and self-defeating, as it presents no compelling argument for itself. Why be Jewish? So there will be more Jews?
I don’t think so. What is Judaism supposed to do? What difference is it supposed to make to its members and followers? To the world around it? To history?
One vision may be impossible. So let’s come up with many visions. Let’s pick worthwhile goals, identify means of assessment and design strategies accordingly. We might end up making a real difference — to our students, our communities, our world. And that should be considered a success.
Rabbi Joshua Gutoff is assistant professor and director of the master’s program in Jewish education at Gratz College. A version of this piece originally appeared in eJewish Philanthropy.