I've spent a lot of time around my house lately playing seder.
With the aid of some very neat toys, my daughter Moriah, and my wife and I
have been practicing for the big night when we will sit and tell the story of
This involves a lot of singing of "Dayenu," playing with the toys that
represent the 10 plagues, hiding and finding the afikoman, rehearsing the
recitation of the preface to the four questions in Hebrew and English, a lot of mock
pouring of grape juice and the recitation of blessings, some of which are
already familiar to her from Friday nights.
For my soon-to-be 4-year-old, it's an entertaining game that dovetails nicely
with the barrage of Passover books we've been reading to her. But for us, the
fun and games have a serious purpose: We're trying to turn a little girl into
a Jew who not only takes her heritage and faith seriously, but who will
ultimately draw the right conclusions from all of this, and make Jewish values and
identity the keystones to decisions she'll make about her life.
Living in a secular world where we are a tiny minority swimming in a sea of
non-Jewish popular culture, it takes a nonstop conscious effort to ensure that
Moriah knows who she is and what that means.
The demographic facts of life in this country tell us that not only are Jews
a shrinking, aging population, but one whose children are often not receiving
the sort of instruction that would enable them to make informed Jewish choices.
In Philadelphia, the news is worse than in most places. A smaller percentage
of children here attend Jewish day schools the best possible educational
venue for combining intensive Jewish knowledge with a superior secular education
than the national average. More than 80 percent of our kids are instead
getting their Jewish education at part-time congregational schools. And of these,
the overwhelming majority are not continuing their Jewish education after
their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
That means that just at the moment their identities are being formed, their
exposure to Jewish learning ends. This is a recipe for disaster.
And that's what we've reaped as American baby-boomers have come to maturity
as perhaps the most accomplished generation in Jewish history in terms of
secular knowledge, while simultaneously achieving the distinction of being the
most Jewishly illiterate. We've earned that title with growing rates of
disaffiliation and dropping rates of concern for Israel, Jewish observance and donating
to Jewish philanthropies.
American Jews have become a collection of fourth sons, the character in the
Passover narrative who is not even able to ask a question about the holiday.
Many of us are as clueless as the slaves of Egypt about what it means to be a
Jew. It took Moses the greatest of teachers and prophets to teach those
slaves the meaning of freedom.
But we must teach ourselves again to choose to be Jews.
One answer is clearly to try and make the synagogue Hebrew schools better
since the reason why so many young Jews are uninterested in learning more is that
their initial experience was so unsatisfactory.
To that end, programs are being put in place to try and raise the standards
for teaching in these schools and to give them more resources and better
If we accept, as unfortunately we must, that many Jewish parents will not
send their child to a day school no matter what the cost, then we must do
something to transform afternoon Hebrew schools from being a symbol of Jewish
communal failure into beacons of excellence.
But is that a panacea for all that ails American Jewry?
Clearly not. Day schools remain our best investment in Jewish continuity, and
making them more affordable for the middle-class must also receive priority
funding and attention.
Jewish camps and trips to Israel are other vital tools in this battle that
are also battling for scarce funds. But unfortunately, the process of changing
communal policy to give education the greatest share of our resources is far
Yet even the best of schools or camps cannot make up for a lack of interest
in the home and on the part of parents, many of whom are themselves Jewishly
ignorant. If children are merely dropped off at these schools with no follow-up
by their families, then the quality of the school will, in the long run, won't
As it so happens, a few nights ago, at bedtime during my reading of a
Passover book, my daughter interrupted me to say that she now wanted to do something.
Inspired by the story, she said she wanted to go to Israel to see the Burning
Bush and meet Moses. But that wasn't all! We also needed to go with Moses to
see Pharaoh and take him to see the bush, and that maybe then he wouldn't be
so mean to the Jewish slaves.
While her grasp of the timeline of Jewish history will improve in the years
to come, I don't think she'll do better in getting at the essence of Jewish
values, even if I fear she is a trifle optimistic about unhardening the hearts
of the wicked.
Let's hope the rest of her generation will do as well in the future.