Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Forward framing

There were two unrelated articles in last week's Forward that told a chilling story when placed together. I'm sure that they weren't meant to be taken that way, but I couldn't miss the contrast.

The first regarded a survey of Jewish day school enrollment. Apparently the Avi Chai foundation has been compiling this data for a while, and the results are not cheery. While the decline in the last year is what Avi Chai calls "modest", the Forward's J.J. Goldberg noticed more disturbing information when looking back through 1998. Among his observations he says,
"Today’s total enrollment nationwide can therefore be estimated at roughly 242,000. About 14% are in non-Orthodox schools, 20% Modern Orthodox and 60% Haredi. In 1998, those numbers were 20% non-Orthodox, 26% Modern Orthodox and 47% Haredi... Satmar still accounts for about 10% of all day school enrollment. And it’s now about twice the size of Schechter. 
Here, then, is the most important insight to be found in Avi Chai’s numbers: Day schooling isn’t catching on among non-Orthodox Jews, despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea. The proposition that day schools are the answer to assimilation isn’t panning out. 
Some argue that while day schools won’t change the masses, they’ll provide the leadership. Unfortunately, the vast majority of day school growth occurs within a population that shows no interest in engaging with the rest of the community."
It's hard to argue with Goldberg's logic, no matter how bleak a picture it paints. One wonders how these trends will continue with the looming day school tuition crisis growing, and no serious solutions being proposed by American Jewish leadership. 
One could also wonder what percentage of Jewish youth are enrolled in day schools. But as Jonathan Sarna recently pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, the Jews of North America have become incapable of collecting meaningful survey data about themselves over the past decade. So here's our equation: 242,000 is what percentage of X? Show your work. 

I was worried what this decade's survey would uncover. Certainly, the 2001 version had a lot of bad news. But now, American Jewish leadership can't even pull off a new survey! Is it worse to get a bad news update, or discover that you're incapable of even researching it? Its hard to work on building a future for American Jews when we cannot even asses the demographics, let alone their needs. 
The other article described the anti-extremist movement in Beit Shemesh. It claims that members of the large American olim population comprise the leadership of the movement. In fact, they are perhaps the reason that it exits at all. Whereas in areas like Bnai Brak and Geula the secular and modern orthodox populations drifted away, in Beit Shemesh the Americans who recently put down roots have no intention of budging. And, many of them have had enough PR experience and "know-how" to do something about it. 
"'They messed with the wrong crowd this time,' my friend Sara Eisen, a marketing executive and member of that community, told me. 'This time, the bullies came up against Americans.'”
I think that there is more to it than that. Israelis were inured to a Middle East style of coexistence between different cultures. Perhaps that's why people simply drifted out of increasingly charedi neighborhoods. But Americans (and certainly middle class Jewish Americans) have been raised with intolerance for intolerance. The horrific behavior of these "sikrikim" has raised the hackles of these Americans and the response has gone international. 
There are many healthy aspects of American culture that are healthily spreading into Israeli life. Again, we know that the Nefesh B'Nefesh numbers are 2000-3000 a year, but we don't know what percentage this is. It is certainly a small one. I can't see how that could be a good thing for the Jewish people moving forward. 

A recent Jerusalem Post blog discussed the common occurrence of native Israelis asking American olim, "Why would you move here?" Perhaps part of the reason is the picture framed by these two articles in The Forward. There is little hope for a healthy long term future for the American Jewish community. Those who want to contribute to a Jewish future are desperately needed in Israel for the particular contribution Americans can make there. I'll end simply by quoting the JPost blogger:
"Small as the numbers are, the aliyah of American Jews is proof that Zionism is a living, contemporary movement. Defined by the ability to see a better society and the desire to bring it about, we know why we're here. Our future might still be unseen -- i.e. how will the plot of life in Israel unfold? -- and though we may not have all the answers, we know with relative certainty that there is nothing 'post-' about us."

Translation from yiddish: Jews! The Key to Zion Is In Your Hands - Open the Gates! Keren HaYesod:1921


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