By Jacob Zionce.
With Rosh Hashanah in the books and Yom Kippur fast approaching, most Jews have had to take time off from work for the Jewish High Holidays. For rabbis, however, the past few weeks have been anything but a vacation. With much of the Jewish Community only attending synagogue for the two holidays, the High Holiday season marks the most important portion of many a rabbi’s calendar. As the signature part of many services, rabbi’s sermons for these weeks are, in turn, their most important of the year. These are their big shots to guide their flock going into the new year, not to mention their big chances to milk patrons for donations.
The question up for debate, therefore, is simple – what topic should rabbis focus on in their sermon?
Perhaps the most common answer is Israel. The subject is of great relevance to the Jewish community as a whole in light of the Gaza war and a terrifying number of Israel-related anti-Semitic incidents in the diaspora. The New York Times, however, recently reported on how rabbis who have taken stances on Israel that are unpopular with the congregation have found themselves seeking new employers. Meanwhile, a 2013 survey from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs reported that a third of rabbis are hesitant to speak honestly to their congregations regarding their feelings towards Israel. It seems that rabbis may be gun-shy to speak about the topic and, based off the results of some of their peers, those feelings may be justified.
Even if rabbis are not hesitant to speak on Israel it would be wise for them not to do so. As Peter Beinart recently wrote in Haaretz, the reason is simple – rabbis have no comparative advantage when it comes to Israel. At a recent synagogue service, for example, I heard a Rabbi question the goals of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) Movement by wondering why its supporters were not supporting boycotts against serious human rights abusers like North Korea and Iran. While I completely oppose the goals and the methods of the BDS movement, the problem in the rabbi’s logic is clear – the United States, Canada, and most of the Western world already have sanctions against both Iran and North Korea. As Beinart writes, “Although American rabbis may feel deeply about the politics and foreign policy of the Jewish state, it’s not their area of expertise. And by becoming B-grade pundits, they undermine their authority.” Perhaps even more problematic, rabbis inhibit other leaders in the Jewish community that are better suited to lead the discussion around Israel, such as Jewish political scientists, from being able to do so by hogging the pundit’s stage on the topic.
Beinart’s suggested topic for rabbis’ sermons, Torah study, makes sense at first glance. As he puts it, “young American Jews who choose not to raise Jewish families don’t even know what they’re discarding” because of the rise of textual illiteracy. The problem, however, is threefold. First, Torah is typical. Congregants expect to hear about the Bible from their rabbi, and therefore are more likely to tune out the speech as ‘just another sermon’. Second, Torah is complex. A half hour speech from a rabbi is not going to give congregants a real sense of Torah study. Third, and perhaps most unfortunate, Torah is somewhat boring. While a deep and meaningful conversation of the text can be fascinating and stimulating, simply touching on big themes, as rabbis are constrained to do while in front of a sizable congregation, is not going to light a lot of intellectual sparks for an audience that has not eaten all day. Rabbis should definitely try to encourage their congregants to take an interest in Torah. But using the Yom Kippur sermon to do so seems like a wasted opportunity to actually effectuate change in the community, and an ineffective way to inspire a passion for Jewish textual analysis.
So what’ a rabbi to talk about instead? Jewish education.
North American Jewish education is in a crisis. With limited resources, Jewish day schools across the continent provide a subpar product that is only superior to public schools in that it provides a Jewish education in addition to a secular one. This in turn has made parents likely to seek other options – either they can send their children to public school, where they will receive just as good of a secular education as they will in a Jewish school while saving their parents money, or they can choose to spend their income on a non-Jewish private school that actually offers a superior education than a public or Jewish school can offer. For a parent to choose a Jewish day school, they basically need to value Jewish education in and of itself at somewhere around $25,000 to $35,000 a year, an astronomical sum for many in the community.
The results of this unfortunate decision calculus have been staggering. In the US, only twelve percent of Jewish students attend a Jewish school, lower than in any other Western nation. And when Orthodox Jews are taken out of the equation, the number further drops to only three to four percent.
Despite the sorry state of Jewish schools, they still are of the utmost importance to the success of the Jewish people. A group of university professors recently found that nearly 40 percent of young Jewish leaders attended day school, while a study from the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education reported that Jewish day school students are more likely to be involved in Jewish communities after their graduation. At the same time, day schools provide an opportunity for Jews to improve upon their Jewish literacy, thereby combatting the same problems that led Peter Beinart to suggest Torah study as the topic for rabbi’s sermons in the first place.
Meanwhile, Beinart himself provided a model for a successful Jewish education system in looking at Melbourne, Australia, where over two thirds of Jewish students attend day school. As Beinart wrote during the Jewish holiday of Shavuot, “I’m writing this column from Melbourne, Australia, where last Tuesday I watched hundreds of teenagers from various Jewish youth movements – most of them not strictly observant – stay up deep into the night on Shavuot learning and arguing. They had named the rooms in which they held their study sessions after Jewish thinkers: Rosenzweig, Buber, Spinoza. Watching it all, I kept thinking: How many American Jewish eighteen year olds could identify those names, or, for that matter, identify Shavuot?”
So what needs to change? First, Jewish day schools need more funds to be academically successful. They need the resources in order to hire the educators, build the facilities, and allow for the educational opportunities that will allow Jewish day schools to compete with elite private schools on an academic front. At the same time, they also need the money to help keep schools affordable. The Canadian Jewish News outlined the problem perfectly last August – with rising day school costs, Jewish schools are becoming more unaffordable for the average Jewish family. But Jewish education, and Jewish living, cannot afford to become a luxury of the wealthy if Judaism is to survive into the future. Every Jew, rich or poor, secular or religious, needs to be able to afford it. Lastly, a concerted effort has to be made amongst the Jewish community to encourage Jewish parents to choose these improved Jewish schools.
Yom Kippur offers a unique opportunity for rabbis o help achieve these goals. Not only is the entirety of the Jewish community’s patrons sitting in the audience, but new parents considering their children’s future education are there too, and can be told of the importance of Jewish education. Their sermon can be the chance to start this crucial conversation amongst the community as a whole.
On this holiest of days, Jews around the world will read Chapter 57 of the book of Isaiah, which beings with a speech from God – “Build up, build up a highway! Clear the road! Remove all obstacles from the road of my people!” It’s time for rabbis to take up God’s and do their part to remove the obstacles in the way of a successful Jewish education, and a successful Jewish people.