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Archive for : JTA

Ending the Scandal of Hunger in America

The following op-ed was originally published at JTA. It was written by Leonard Fein and Jackie Levine, who are co-chairs of the 2011 Hunger Seders organized by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

The Hunger Seders take the powerful line from the seder, “Let all who are hungry come and eat,” and re-contextualize it in light of the world’s contemporary struggles with hunger and poverty. Find out more about JCPA’s Hunger Seders and how you can get involved here.
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What to do about Jewish teens

Observers of Jewish education for teens are increasingly concerned about a disparity between the participation of boys and girls. Lamenting the absence of boys in youth programs, Jewish educators and philanthropists have turned their attention more and more to enticing boys to become involved.

I wonder, however, whether the concern over boys masks a deeper issue that is more difficult to confront: Jewish teen participation rates are abysmal in general, regardless of gender.

Rather than lament the misguided notion that we have disenfranchised boys in the Jewish community, let’s focus on how to empower all Jewish teens.

Admittedly, most rational people fear teens. We fear their hormones and mood swings. We fear their experimentation with substances and sexuality. We fear their penchant for argument. We don’t know how to approach them or curry favor with them. Most professionals steer clear.

This seems to be true for many funders as well. Everyone is interested in primary Jewish education, with its crown Jewel of bar/bat mitzvah, and recently, major initiatives such as the reinvigoration of Hillel, the explosive growth of Chabad and the founding of Birthright Israel and Repair the World have targeted 18- to 26-year-olds.

Clearly, to be a young adult is hip. They get to dig ditches in Guatemala for spring break, fly to Israel for free, and choose a myriad of free activities at campus Jewish centers and Moishe Houses.

In contrast, options for Jewish high school students haven’t changed much since the 1950s, and despite impressive initiatives in Jewish camping and in particular Jewish communities, day school tuition and synagogue-based programs remain prohibitively expensive.

Nor do researchers take much interest in Jewish teens. The study that everyone cites on teen participation rates, “Being a Jewish Teenager in America: Trying to Make It,” already is 10 years old. I am hard-pressed to identify any rigorous large-scale studies that have been conducted since.

So what do we know about teens? Anyone who has taken Psychology 101 is aware that a defining aspect of teen development is a process of identity exploration, individuation and independence from parents, much of which occurs through the medium of a tightly knit peer group.

For the 85-88 percent of teens who do not attend Jewish day school, the 60-plus percent of teens whose families do not belong to a synagogue and the huge numbers of teens who do not participate in Jewish youth groups or camps, the peer group more often than not is a religiously, racially, ethnically and sometimes economically diverse group.

Faced with this reality, one option is to continue with business as usual: We can alienate a majority of Jewish teens by continuing to insist that they only bring their full Jewish selves to bear in Jewishly exclusive spaces. However, it is pretty clear that the standard model of ripping teens out of their everyday lives and placing them in artificial, Jewish-only peer groups has failed for all but the most affiliated teens.

Or we can promote Jewish learning that focuses on meaning-making and encourages teens to integrate their Jewish selves into every aspect of their lives.

To be sure, many believe that the purpose of American Jewish education is to prevent assimilation.

Wake up! We have already assimilated! Jewish teens see themselves in Rahm Emanuel, Sarah Silverman and Adam Lambert, among others. Jewish teens are smart, savvy and motivated. They understand complexity and fill their lives with myriad academic and extracurricular pursuits.

This is not a value judgment; it is simply reality. If we continue to frame Jewish learning as peripheral, as something to do in isolation from their friends and everyday activities, then how will Jewish values ever find a place in their lives?

Several initiatives have successfully developed models for Jewish learning in secular spaces.

The Curriculum Initiative partners with private high schools to introduce Jewish content into student clubs, all-school assemblies and classrooms. By partnering with Jewish student leaders and their teachers, TCI develops and teaches Jewish content that is rooted in student interests and developmental needs.

The Jewish Outreach Institute takes a similar approach by running Jewish programs in public spaces, where barriers to participation are lower than what is typically found in Jewish institutions. Even BBYO has conducted “Rock the Vote” programs at public high schools.

The beauty of Jewish tradition is that it imagines that every place and every act from the most mundane to the most extraordinary can be infused with meaning. This sense of integration should guide Jewish education.

Integration does not connote a “watering down” of Jewish learning. In-depth Jewish learning should be able to match the rigor of any learning and should energize Jewish teens and their friends. By way of comparison, wouldn’t it be absurd to assert that African-American studies are only relevant to African Americans? That African-American studies can only be rigorously pursued in historically African-American schools and colleges with exclusively African-American teachers?

Jewish students may internalize and personalize Jewish learning differently from their peers, but that should not affect the quality of the learning nor the potential impact.

Jewish teen education is in need of a massive paradigm shift, but the hand wringing about what to do is silly. All we have to do is talk to teens. They understand their worlds better than we do.

Repair the World responds to Wertheimer’s criticism

In the current issue of Commentary Magazine, Jewish sociologist Jack Wertheimer argues that Jewish philanthropists should focus on their own community rather than “invest even more funding and direct still more volunteers to nonsectarian causes.

In doing so, he took a shot at Repair the World, the new initiative for which the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation and other major philanthropists have committed nearly $20 million dollars.

Writes Wertheimer:

Last spring, a partnership of Jewish foundations even saw fit to launch a new initiative, called “Repair the World,” with the self-declared “mission to make service to others a defining element of American Jewish life.” Who are these “others”? The organization’s website helpfully points people to six domestic and international service opportunities—not a single one of which is under Jewish auspices or serves specifically Jewish populations. A bit more exploration of the website, in fact, did unearth a list of Jewish organizations offering Jewish service opportunities, which then raises the question of why yet another effort is needed to convince Jews to engage in “healing the world” when they do so already, and in vast disproportion to the contributions of other groups. Indeed, surveys regularly make clear that big Jewish givers channel the preponderant bulk of their philanthropic largess to nonsectarian causes—such as universities, museums, and hospitals—and only a small percentage of their philanthropy to aid fellow Jews.

Repair the World’s CEO Jon Rosenberg has now responded to Wertheimer’s criticism:

In an article published in the March 2010 issue of Commentary, Jack Wertheimer, professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary, provides a thought-provoking critique of the high cost of a committed, traditional Jewish life in America. But after laying out his case at length, he takes an awkward and confusing turn, focusing his attention on our new organization, Repair the World, taking our founders to task for believing in the value of service, and questioning our rationale for existing.

Wertheimer fundamentally misunderstands and mischaracterizes our mission as ignoring service to Jews. If he were unclear about our purpose, then his only mistake would be in not having reached out to us for help understanding what we do; but he ironically makes our argument for us:

“Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s are deeply invested in contributing to the world at large — a commitment, we might add, many have imbibed from their parents. To get their attention, Jewish organizations must harness this idealism and teach young people that their quest to aid fellow human beings is in fact congruent with the deepest teachings of Judaism. In this way we can do good for the world, while simultaneously bringing together Jews of different backgrounds and educating them about their traditions.”

But then comes the puzzling question: “One could ask, of course, why this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews?” Short answer: it does.

As we work to inspire a commitment to service and make it a defining part of American Jewish life, all of us at Repair the World embrace the full breadth of what that entails: serving both Jews and non-Jews, working with Jewish and secular organizations — new and old — and engaging Jews who are already involved in the community and those who are not. Galvanizing American Jews to serve, as Jews and rooted in Jewish tradition and values, is a mission that we believe will have meaningful and long-lasting impact. And we’ve only just started the process.

In 2009, our first year and our first grant cycle, we granted almost $2 million to 12 Jewish organizations to support service opportunities. Seven of them have an explicit aim of serving within the Jewish community as part of their mission. Otzma? Jews serving Jews in Israel. Yeshiva University’s Center for the Jewish Future? Strengthening Jewish communities in North America and around the world. BINA, Hillel, JNF, and the Jewish Organizing Initiative all do great work within the Jewish world, and all are funded with the help of Repair the World.

The article recounts the story of a young volunteer whose service in the former Soviet Union was her first exposure to Jewish poverty. Repair the World is a generous supporter of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee’s Jewish service learning programs in the former Soviet Union and around the world.

Still, even were he right on the substance of his argument against us, his broader theme — that service outside the Jewish community is in some way illegitimate, and that we should instead be focusing all of our service inward — sells short a substantial part of Jewish tradition. On the just-past holiday of Purim, Jews are expected to give in two ways: gifts of food to friends (mishloach manot), and gifts of charity to the poor (matanot l’evyonim). This tension, between sustaining our relationships and reaching out beyond them, is also deeply rooted in the Jewish experience, and finding the right balance between the particular and the universal is part of our historical calling.

How Repair the World works to meet this challenge is, in sum, exactly in the way Wertheimer seems to seek. Our aim is to make service a core part of the American Jewish experience: an authentic, ongoing, commitment to serve Jews and non-Jews alike, not standing on its own, but informed by the full content of our rich tradition. Jack Wertheimer should be proud of that goal.