Jewish Education for Today´s Secular Age
The vast majority of Jews in Europe—and in many non-European countries worldwide—are what demographers call Cultural Jews. This is not a value statement of any kind; it is merely a statistical fact. Most of these Jews do not practice Halacha most or even some of the time. That they are the majority in Israel, the U.S., and Europe, is a fact supported by every major demographic study since the year 2000. The same is most likely true in South America and Australia.
Meanwhile, these same population surveys show a very steady and substantial demographic decline of Jewry. Quite obviously, there is a correlation between these disheartening statistics and another trend: the paltry state of secular Jewish education.
As far as I know, the European Jewish educational gatherings that take place each year do not address the subject of teaching secular European Jews a form of Judaism consistent with their lifestyle and beliefs (or non-beliefs). Why not? Is it any wonder, given the woeful state of education, that our numbers continue to decline—in some areas precipitously?
Take the UK, where I live. In 1939, there were over 400,000 Jews living here. When Rabbi Sacks took on the UK Jewish leadership in 1990, there were 313,000; and now we are down to 260,000, a number that decreases year by year, despite the robust Charedi birthrate.
The UK Jewish day schools, some of which are very good, even outstanding, in secular subjects, teach Judaism exclusively as a religion. Brachot are mainly learned by heart, often in a language not understood by students…who of course don’t practice such Judaism. This is the old fashioned religious system, with which I too grew up, and which was useful for students coming out of religiously observant homes.
But this style of Jewish education no longer makes sense for the non-religious majority. Statistically, it belongs to a different era. Why, then, are students still taught Jewish history from a religious rather than a cultural perspective? Why not teach them in a manner consistent with the beliefs and values of the homes these children come from—and go back to?
Such an experiment is going on as we speak. In Israel and the US, some high schools and universities are offering courses in the field of Cultural Judaism, using the approach, philosophy, and curriculum we call Judaism as Culture.
The Posen Foundation pioneered the OFAKIM program at Tel Aviv University, which trains undergraduate students in the teaching of Judaism as Culture. This has become increasingly popular in the Israel School system and is now taught in many schools in Israel. MA courses are now also available in Israel for teachers and superintendents of schools in Israel in two institutions. Open University in Israel also teaches a course in this field to undergraduates with a rich two-volume textbook (at the moment only in Hebrew).
Similar experiments are now beginning in the U.S., with OFAKIM-type courses taught in a Jewish high school. It is, as of yet, a small trend, but we expect that it will be adopted by other American Jewish day schools in time. Already, in South America, schools are doing something similar. As far as we know, no such school exists either in Europe or Australia. But given the Jewish populations of each country, there is no reason why such schools shouldn’t exist there.
One of the many challenges we face is creating a curriculum based on the Judaism as Culture approach, and a library of texts. The Posen Foundation’s largest single project is a ten-volume anthology, the Posen Library of Jewish Culture and Civilization (Yale University Press). So far only one volume has been published (all will be digitised), but the other nine volumes will be published probably at the rate of two per year starting in early 2017. Two additional manuscripts are nearly complete.
Clearly, Europe needs to think harder about Jewish education and plot its future course. The timing is right, since the vast majority of Jews living in Europe are generally Jewishly-unknowledgeable but otherwise successful. It would behoove the European Jewish leadership and day school teachers to examine this issue deeply, and with urgency. To teach Judaism only as a religion to a vast majority of children coming from non-religious homes must be doomed to failure: it will not keep these kids Jewish.