Was it Really That Bad?

Joel Grishaver

Joel Lurie GrishavA few weeks ago I wrote a blog entry “Redemption or a Service Industry,” One of my friends just hated it. It talked about the gap between Jewish educators’ seeing Jewish education as a “redemptive enterprise” while many parents see it as a “service industry.” It ended by saying, “In today’s Jewish world everyone needs to negotiate except the Prime Minister of Israel.” It tried to say that most parents try to renegotiate the school programs we offer in favor of the unique assembly of elective programs in which their child engages. I expected flack on my Zionist challenge. It didn’t come. Instead I got an e-mail from a hot new Jewish educator who saw it as a personal attack.

I said, “In social media where everyone gets a vote and an opinion, people learn to have it their way.” The educator responded. “And what’s wrong with ‘everyone gets a vote’? If what you offer is substandard and not engaging, then people will walk… What’s new about that?” I responded, “What’s wrong is ‘everything is a matter of a vote.’ it comes with no obligation.” The comeback was “What is the value of obligation? It’s a lovely word but I don’t know what you mean by it or why it’s good. Why should I feel obligated to something if it sucks? Obligation and choice are not mutually exclusive.”

I asked if my friend was saying “I” as a parent or an educator,” The response: “Parent.” “Right. So when someone quits the synagogue, they’re not quitting Judaism. They’re quitting the s*cky manifestation. What’s wrong with that?”

I said, we have a lot of data on Jewish life failing outside the synagogue. The Response: “You say the value is redemption. If I’m not getting a redemptive experience, why should I feel any obligation?…

“If BM is defined by how many hours I have to show up, then it isn’t redemptive. The synagogue caused that by treating BM as a commodity. Don’t blame millennials — that trend predates us by decades. You’re just seeing it taken to an extreme by people who are enabled, empowered, and demanding….

“If redemption was on the radar of any synagogues anywhere as a goal/mission/purpose, then maybe people wouldn’t be walking out.”

Then it entered my skull. What was being said, was, “My Jewish Education s*cked, and so did the Jewish Education of my whole peer group. Dropping out of Hebrew school is the only sane response.

Then I figured out why I freaked out. I was this Jewish Educator’s teacher. I provided the s*cky Jewish education. My friends who started CAJE provided a s*cky Jewish Education. Debbie Friedman and Craig Taubman wrote the soundtrack to a sucky Jewish Education. Our attempts to actualize and disseminate family education contributed to the s*ckiness. None of the innovation brought to Jewish life after the Six Day War meant anything. It was all s*ckey. Being Torah, Torah-Toons, Bim Bam and C.ha—my whole contribution s*cked. Everyone was right to quit. Forget Israel programs, lobbying trips to Washington, and the Concentration Camp to Yom ha-Atzma’ut marches. They don’t add up to anything.

But, then there is a second surprise. The original conversations that generated the blog entry came from peers of this Jewish Educator. By using an “I” that identified with parents who quit or renegotiated, the educator was saying that the new generation of Jewish educators and their innovations: Experiential Education, Projected Based Learning, Skyped Hebrew, StorahTelling. Jewish Tech (and all the rest) s*ck too. We have, and we continue to offer no notion or flavor of redemption in anything we do. Why not drop out?

My problem is simple. I don’t believe that “all” Jewish education s*cks and has always s*cked. I refuse to believe that my classrooms always failed. I refused to believe that the good schools I have visited didn’t exist. I won’t believe that all the caring teachers I’ve met through CAJE, Limmud Conferences, JEDLAB, etc. where teachers reach out with their innovations or to master the innovations of others, all s*cked. I am not going to claim that all Jewish education has been good, but there have been shining points of light and a pervasive sense of competence. I will not accept that everything that has come before drove all those who have left anyway. I do not believe that the past justified the complete mistrust of the present. There are good Jewish teachers and educators out there. I know them. And some of them have done excellent work.

“Teachers are expected to reach unattainable goals with inadequate tools. The miracle is that at times they accomplish this impossible task.” (Haim Ginott, Teachers: A Tribute)


A response from the anonymous millennial educator:

Then it entered my skull. What was being said, was, “My Jewish Education s*cked, and so did the Jewish Education of my whole peer group. Dropping out of Hebrew school is the only sane response.

Nope. Don’t be such a pessimist. What I’m saying is: My generation doesn’t accept crap. We know that we can — and should — demand excellence. So if synagogues are peddling something that isn’t excellent (that isn’t redemptive, that doesn’t bring us closer to community, that doesn’t give us the opportunity to find answers to important questions), then we’re going to walk. Period. Kal v’chomer for those of us who got a quality Jewish education when we were growing up — and I most certainly did. (Why do you think so much positive Jewish innovation has come from day school graduates and other kids who grew up in Jewishly engaged environments?)

So… if a synagogue is going to create a b’nai mitzvah paradigm that is ultimately about fulfilling requirements, then people are going to be demanding in pushing the limits of those requirements. The problem is that paradigm, not the congregants.

I think we’re seeing a massive polarization in synagogues right now. The ones who get it — who have transcended (the 1950s model that mutated into the perversion that is) transactional Judaism — are doing really, really well. The ones who are stuck with old ways of seeing the role and function of the synagogue… they’re struggling. I suppose that’s probably a good thing, though perhaps painful.

[The thing is: I know you don’t disagree with me. So I don’t understand why you’re taking on this overly-nostalgic, cranky old dude persona. I know there was a lot about the ‘good old days’ that rocked. But there was a lot that may have been lovely then but doesn’t work anymore — too much has changed. I think it looks obtuse to be ignorant of that, or to present oneself as being contrary to it.]


It talk[ed] about the gap between Jewish Educators’ seeing Jewish education as a “redemptive enterprise” while many parents see it as a “service industry.”

If we disagree, the disagreement is right here.

You believe that Jewish educators are on one side, and parents are on the other. You believe that Jewish educators are fighting for redemption, and Jewish parents just want a bar mitzvah with as little effort as possible.

I believe that parents see Jewish education as a “service industry” because synagogues created a system that is a service industry. They might not have realized they were doing so at the time, but that’s what happened. (Isa Aron calls it an “unintended consequence” for good reason… She believes it happened accidentally. She’s studied the history, so I take her word for it.) Evidence: Any synagogue that has a document entitled, “B’nai Mitzvah Requirements.” (And trust me: the vast majority of synagogues have them. See below for the results of two minutes with Google.)

The cynical version: Synagogues invented the modern bar mitzvah as a carrot to entice people to join. (There’s evidence for this, too.)

Synagogues — Jewish educators included — created a system by which people complete a transaction. Send your kid to religious school for X years, keep your membership up-to-date (pay your dues!), pay a bar/bat mitzvah fee, send your kids to b’nai mitzvah lessons, etc., and we’ll give you a bar mitzvah. It’s an essentially transactional model. So how can you blame people for treating the synagogue as a transactional — as opposed to a redemptive — enterprise? They’re just dishing back to us what we fed them.

Yes… there are really, really good educators out there. They are fighting a good fight, and they believe in their work being a redemptive enterprise. Indeed, it is just that. But those of them who are working for redemption within systems that are fundamentally transactional in nature are doomed to a much higher degree of failure than they deserve.








Paul A. Flexner wrote:

Once upon a time I was a very good Jewish educator — or at least some people thought I was. Once upon a time, the Bar Mitzvah was a meaningful event in the life of the 13 year old boy/man – or at least we all thought that was the case. Once upon a time, synagogues were communities of people who shared a common feeling and approach to life and Judaism. Once upon a time…. You can fill in the rest of the lines.

That was then. That was before the explosion of the suburbs and the expansion of the Synagogue or Temple and the demise of the community that brought the people together to share a common set of values and a way of life that included Judaism. That was a time long before the internet and social networking and facebook and…. That was a time when the nature of community remained much the same for generations at a time; when parents knew what their kids were going through because they went through it before; when communication was personal and face to face and people knew each others’ innermost dreams; when people could actually agree on what was right and wrong.

But, those days are long gone. In the 50 plus years since I graduated High School, we have gone through more changes in life and community than our people had gone through in the centuries before. As much as we have changed what we do as Jewish educators (or educators of all types), we continue to lag further and further behind the mindsets that have evolved over these 50 or so years. We have yet to figure out that what the normal, intelligent and educated adult is seeking for her/his child much less for her/himself.

You can talk about redemption and transaction all you want but that is not what people are seeking — not the vast majority of the people we see walking through the doors of our synagogues and day schools. For most, the word redemptive or redemption would drive them away from the conversation. For most, the whole idea that Judaism might teach them something important and that it might make their lives better, richer and more fulfilling is a non-starter to a meaningful conversation. Yes, we can look around us and say that for most of the middle and upper middle classes (and probably for most of the rest of the society), the raison d’etre for living is highly transactional.

Of course, this runs counter to all that we stand for and believe in; all that we have spent our lives working hard to make a difference. Maybe, just maybe, the entire paradigm of living has changed and left us behind. Maybe, the model of what might be needed in the modern, 21st century, society is something very different than what we grew up thinking was important. Maybe we have to shed our ‘old’ thinking and ways of doing things and think back to what worked in the early 20th century or even earlier. Or, maybe we have to come up with a new model, a new paradigm that incorporates all of the new ways of living that people encounter in the 21st century.

So, where do we go? How do we respond to the modern world and all the diversity and similarities that capture the minds of the Gen X’ers, Gen Y’ers and Millennials? Many of them are striking out in new ways, with new ideas and approaches to meeting the needs of their peer groups. But, do they really understand their own world, the world of the parents and the children/students? Are they seeing the world in new ways and with new ideas that might, just might, capture the minds of their peers?

If we only knew the answers….