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A Plan for Jewish Literacy by Ira Berkowitz
A Plan for Jewish Literacy by Ira Berkowitz

Volume 2 , Issue 1

Last year, when I was teaching at Hofstra University, a Jewish young man struck up a conversation with me because he had seen my yarmulke. He told me he could read Hebrew fluently, though he didn't understand it, and he told me he had received a good Jewish education. He asked me if I had been bar-mitzvah.

?Sure,? I said.

?I was bar-mitzvah, too. And I was confirmed.?

?Obviously, I didn't go through that,? I said.

?You weren't confirmed!? he said. ?And you consider yourself religious'??

This anecdote points out an obvious problem. Jews in America no longer speak the same language. A common set of basic names, facts, and concepts no longer unites us, and weare drifting (or hurtling) further apart.

I don't think this is an extreme statement. Though I have no statistics at hand, I would guess that fewer than half a million Jews -- out of five million -- can name the Ten Commandments. More of them, I'm sure, can name the nine planets or the seven dwarfs.

I could be wrong. But take an informal survey of Jewish friends and acquaintances and ask them to list the ten commandments. Don't even hold them to any order. If more than a third score under 100%, I think there is reason to worry.

But why? After all, it seems trivial to bring up Jewish ignorance in a time when more American Jews intermarry, and a schism over law and practice threatens to divide us permanently. What's more worrisome to us: that Scott Levine is marrying a non-Jewish woman next week or that he has to go to the Syosset Public Library to look up the Ten Commandments?

The answer is that the two problems are closely related. At the end of the twentieth century, a common Jewish tradition no longer unites us. If a young Jewish man falls in love with a non-Jewish woman. there is nothing to prevent his marriage other than his parents' sadness and bewildered cries of ?We told you not to.? No strong core of Jewish education is there to deter him from going out with her, from falling in loveor from marrying her.

Furthermore, because we don't share a specific background of Jewish knowledge, there is not enough glue to prevent the formation of two hostile Jewish camps in America.

In brief, Orthodox Jews can accept neither the conversions of other denominations, nor Reform's policy of patrilineal descent. Thus, as non-Orthodox conversions increase and non-Jewish mothers become harder to trace in family lineages, Orthodox Jews may deem suspicious members of all the other denominations.

To prevent this schism from occurring, it is not enough that a worthwhile organization like CLAL brings together representatives of the different Jewish groups. I believe it is helpful if an Orthodox and Reform rabbi discuss the authority of halakha. But most American Jews don't know what ?halakha? means, and they may never know. If I depend completely on increased ration between Jewish leaders and hope for a trickle-down effect, I may never have a language in common with most of my fellow Jews. Like former lovers. we become strangers to each other, even if our parents keep in touch.

Of course, some say that Jews still share a common fate, if not a common faith, and that this awareness will keep us together despite religious differences. I am not so certain. Even if every American Jew felt a kinship with Soviet Jews or with Israel, our political differences on issues such as glasnost and the Palestinian uprising would be enough to keep us divided.

Right now, before the coming schism, a Jew who votes Republican can still feel she has more in common with her fellow Jew ( though he votes Democrat) than with other Republicans. When Jews no longer consider each other family. however, their agreement or disagreement over political and social issues will hardly be important. And we will no longer share a Jewish vocabulary and a set of common Jewish values.

And if we cannot depend on a common fate to bind us. certainly we can not rely on the ?Jewish soul? to connect us. Those who make it their business to attract Jews to Orthodoxy say that every Jew has a soul that yearns for God and Torah. I agree. But if most American Jews don't hear their souls clamoring for spirituality, the issue is nearly academic. Try telling Scott Levine a week before his wedding that his Jewish soul doesn't want a Christian wife. Clearly, we need something more tangible to unite us. And that is a basic Jewish education. a schema of ideas that we all have in common.

How should it work? First of all, representatives from all the Jewish denominations have to convene and agree that their overwhelming priority is Jewish education. Then, they have to agree to pour all of their resources, temporal and spiritual. into the renewal and establishment of Jewish schools. Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist leaders will have to abandon the part-time Talmud Torah model and create excellent full-time schools that offer both Jewish and secular studies. Modem Orthodox yeshivoth will also have to shape up. and start taking Jewish studies more seriously. All Jewish schools will have to raise a tremendous amount of money to attract and keep superior teachers and administrators.

Most importantly. all cooperating denominations must agree on a core curriculum. Though Orthodox yeshivoth and Reconstructionist seminaries will disagree on matters of practice and faith. they must agree on certain basic texts and ideas. For example. Jews of different denominations will differ widely on how Sukkoth should be observed. But those in charge of Jewish education must make sure that every Jew knows what Sukkoth is. Satmar chasidim and Orthodox Zionists will disagree vettentently about Jewish statehood. But all of them should know who Chaim Weizman was, and all of them should be familiar with the other side's point of view.

Of course. more traditional Lithuanian and chasidic yeshivoth who are the least likely to cooperate in a joint venture with non-Orthodox Jews mill most likely go their own way. But the more modern of these traditional schools may still be influenced by other Jewish schools. At the least, they will spend more on secular studies in order to keep borderline students who may defect to Modern Orthodox schools. This improvement in secular learning, along with a common Judaic background, may he enough to bring together yeshivishe Jews and their more assimilated brothers.

Within the limits of this article. I cannot supply a model curriculum for Jewish schools. That will have to be worked out over time by shrewd. committed Jewish leaders. But, in imitation of a popular book on education, I offer an appendix. Here are a few items (see adjoining box) I believe every Jew should know. I admit that my criteria for choosing these numbers, names. and ideas are a reflection of my own limited education and biases. In addition. this appendix should not be considered comprehensive or exhaustive. Some aspects of Jewish life I have ignored. such as the fine arts. and because this is only a sample. I have left out many important items.

Go ahead. Test yourself. A score of 90 or over is passing.



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