Stepping into the Unknown
Rabbi Andrew Shaw
Chief Executive, Mizrachi UK
You know Corona has changed everything when I start writing my Machshavot article on Thursday!
First, may we wish a speedy refuah shleimah to the planet and pray that humanity with Hashem’s help finds a way to halt the spread of the deadly virus.
There is so much to say, never has humanity experienced anything like this on a completely global scale.
Everything has changed.
However, what I want to write about this week is Jewish people specific. It was sparked by something that was sent on a Rabbis WhatsApp group which I will quote later. This is not an essay about Corona specifically or what we should be doing or thinking right now – it is a piece meant to make us think about what can we learn from what we are experiencing at the moment and what should potentially change to the way we educate our young people, when we resume Jewish education after the crisis passes.
To explain what I am talking about, I need to take you back to September 18th 2014. I remember that day so vividly, not just because it was my birthday, but because I went to an event which gave tremendous support to a central idea that I had been saying for 15 years or longer and I believed that what I heard that night would change everything for the better.
What event was I at?
It was the launch of the JPR report on ‘Strengthening Jewish Identity – What works?’
It was a fascinating evening.
The report began ‘Motivated by a clear desire to secure the continuity and vitality of Jewish life in the United Kingdom, the Jewish community has, for the past twenty-five years, channelled considerable investment into Jewish educational programming. Now, almost a generation on, this report asks a simple but important question: to what extent has this investment in education ‘worked’? Whilst there is more than one way to approach the issue, our focus is on measuring the ‘value added’ component of Jewish identity using a sample of British Jewish university students.’
The report explained how they had surveyed a thousand Jewish students (a very significant percentage) with a detailed survey on their various Jewish experiences that they had throughout their child and teenage lives and how those experiences had impacted their Jewish identity either positively or negatively.
As the report said. ‘Using other statistical techniques, we were able to put controls in place which not only ensured the direction of the relationship could be reasonably asserted, but also allowed us to measure the likely impact several major British Jewish educational programmes have independently had on student Jewish identity.’
They selected seven major educational programmes to see their impact.
• Synagogue Cheder
• Jewish schooling
• Youth movement involvement
• Israel tour
• Youth summer camps
• Gap year in Israel (non-Yeshiva/Sem)
• Year in Yeshiva/ Seminary
What they found, remarkably, was that while these seven educational programmes had some positive impacts, (although some did have actual negative impacts) they were not a major factor on the positive Jewish identity of the student. As the paper concluded:
‘In other words, whilst Jewish education does have a collective, independent impact on Jewish identity, this impact is comparatively weak; indeed, we found that the impact of Jewish educational programmes combined was six times weaker than the impact of Jewish upbringing on most aspects of Jewish identity. Indeed, of all the items that were measured, it is what happens in our homes that is paramount. If we are concerned about the Jewishness of the next generation, we need to internalise this critical finding. It strongly suggests that the task of forging our children’s Jewish identities cannot simply be delegated to others – teachers, youth workers, etc. – but must be a central preoccupation of parents, and possibly grandparents, as well.’
I sat there thinking to myself, this changes everything. We as a community, now have the evidence that we need to focus our attention on finding ways to impact the Jewish home, that is where the battle for Jewish identity will be won or lost. My whole career at Stanmore Synagogue had been about inspiring youth and their parents because we believed that through family education we were impacting the Jewish homes they came from. As I phrased it, ‘You can’t just teach Judaism, you have to live Judaism’. Surely now we would realise the need to change direction.
After that report was released… nothing changed, there were no focus groups, no strategic decisions, no major changes in how British Jewry attempted to inspire the next generation.
We all went back to same old same old, carried on running the programmes that had either neutral or negative impacts on Jewish identity, according to the report, while not really creating blue sky thinking of how to do it better and impact the Jewish home more.
And then Coronavirus came.
Look at those seven educational establishments again, at the moment, they are all closed or cancelled! We have from today no schools, no chedarim, no students on gap years. It is just too much to comprehend. It is as if we are being told – do it another way. To read the letters sent out by Rabbis to their congregants this week were heart-breaking.
Rabbi Lew from Stanmore wrote ‘Shul and community runs deep in my blood. I have been blessed to be a community Rabbi for practically my entire adult life. I have been there for my community – rejoicing in their happiness, grieving in their tragedies and just being there for them. Never could I have imagined that a functioning Synagogue building would be closed – and that I would back that move 100%.’
And that brings me to the article posted on the Rabbis group which was from the introduction to the seminal work Horeb by Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch which was written nearly 200 years ago. In the introduction to the work which was wonderfully written by Dayan Grunfeld in 1981 (page lxix) he writes:
In an attempt to assimilate Judaism to the dominant faith, the German – Jewish Reformers of the last century introduced the idea into modern Jewish though that the worship of God in the synagogue is the central point in Jewish life, whereas in reality the law of the Torah should permeate and rule the whole of life. Against this fundamental error of ‘localizing’ God in the house of Worship instead of allowing Him to become a central force in our life, Hirsch wrote some of his most trenchant essays, in one of which he had the courage to exclaim ‘If I had the power, I would provisionally close all synagogues for a hundred years. Do not tremble at the thought of it, Jewish heart. What would happen? Jews and Jewesses without synagogues, desiring to remain such, would be forced to concentrate on a Jewish life and a Jewish home. The Jewish officials connected with the synagogue would have to look to the only opportunity now open to them – to teach young and old how to live a Jewish life and how to build a Jewish home. All synagogues closed by Jewish hands would constitute the strongest protest against the abandonment of the Torah in home and life’.
JPR said it.
Rav Hirsch said it.
And now due the Coronavirus – unbelievably that is all we have left – but it is the most important one of all. The one that everything will grow from. The one that will create a revolution for Judaism the world over if we understand what we need to do.
Thankfully we do have the remarkable ability of technology to still link people back to their schools and shuls through mediums such as facebook live and Zoom conferencing at this unprecedented time. However, nothing will ever substitute for a strong Jewish home which imbues Jewish values throughout. A Jewish home that you can see the sefarim shelves, smell the food cooking for Shabbat, taste the Kosher food on a daily basis, touch the lulav and Etrog and hear the sounds of Zemirot every Friday night and Shabbat day.
A living breathing home of Torah – and where everybody is at the moment watching the inspirational shiurim and programmes from shuls and schools!
The Chief Rabbi spoke to Rabbis in the UK this week and he told us that in the same way that we refer to a ‘post war generation’ we will be the ‘post corona generation’.
The question is – how will it change us? Hopefully in many positive ways.
However, the biggest hope I have is that we will finally realise that as a community, it is the Jewish home that is the most important place for Jewish education and experience and that even when the schools, the shuls, the youth movements all open again – we will promise to invest in new strategies and new ideas (the exciting news is that Mizrachi UK has them ready to roll out with the right support and funding) to finally fall in line with what Rav Hirsch said in 1850 and what JPR said in 2014 and what Corona in 2020 has finally made us realise.
It really is all about the Jewish home.
Stay safe and look after each other.