Jewish teen education is our responsibility
The JFGO May 16th article, “What’s next for Jewish teen education?” does not provide a thorough analysis of the main issues facing supplementary Hebrew high school education and offers no solutions. The Federation indicates that in 2005-2006 over 230 students were enrolled in our Beit Hamidrash and now a maximum of 35 students come. Then it indicates that three key reasons for the decline in numbers in 8 years: 1) greater high school student competition for colleges and extracurricular involvement, 2) high school student increased synagogue involvement and 3) the community Hebrew high school situation is a national crisis.
Eight years has not significantly changed high school competition for colleges nor increased extracurricular involvement. There is a difference today for high school student time and pressures compared with a generation ago but not over this much shorter duration. High school student involvement in synagogue life has not changed much over this time. Attend any synagogue in Orlando on Friday night or Shabbat morning and one would be hard pressed to find more than a few teens in attendance unless there is a teen program. Yes, the community Hebrew school situation is a national crisis now but it has been steadily becoming this way for a long time.
The real reasons for the decline of community Hebrew high schools are the crises of intermarriage and assimilation, the failure of aggressive outreach to a largely unaffiliated Jewish community and the inability to communicate a coherent thoughtful message on “Why Be Jewish” and the value of a Jewish education. It is not enough for the Federation and other Jewish institutions to have an open door policy to a diverse Jewish community. Beit Hamidrash needs to more aggressively reach out to unaffiliated Jews using all the tools including social media. To engage more Jewish students to enroll in the Beit Hamidrash consider offering classes on Sunday morning and provide opportunities for community service hours.
We need to have a community conversation about the “Why of being Jewish.” For some the traditional views of G-d, Torah, the chosen people and Jewish redemption are sufficient. For others consider a few thoughts: 1) Israel or modern Zionism with Jerusalem as a spiritual center for all Jews, 2) Tikkun Olam or social justice through the Jewish view of putting deeds before creed, 3) Judaism is a beautiful faith that transforms daily routine into sacred moments and 4) Jews are part of a community to share in lifecycle events and to be actors in the life story of a People with history of standing together at Sinai.
Community Jewish education is a necessity for all of us. What is especially important about community Jewish education is that it is open to all Jews regardless of denomination or affiliation and is most of all affordable. Our Jewish community should renew efforts to expand opportunities of Jewish education for our teens.