A B’nai Mitzvah Birthright: Betting the House on Immersive Jewish Education

While we should never assume that any statistical trend immutably reveals the future, if we want to take ownership of our reality, we need to think strategically about how to play our hand.

by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

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If a Conservative Jew wants to read the Pew Study and find cause to believe that the future looks worse than the present, all he or she needs to do is read the third chapter on Jewish identity. While the study shows that 18% of American Jews currently affiliate with the Conservative Movement, the highest percentage of identified Conservative Jews (24%) are over the age of 65, and the lowest percentage (11%) are between the ages of 18-29. While we should never assume that any statistical trend immutably reveals the future, if we want to take ownership of our reality, we need to think strategically about how to play our hand.

In a recent a forum on the future of Conservative Judaism, Professor Jonathan Sarna of Brandeis University remarked that our movement should take a cue from the playbook of Orthodox Judaism in the mid-twentieth century, a time when their extinction was prematurely predicted. Sarna said:

“The Orthodox did what no investment counselor would ever [recommend]: it bet the house on day schools. Education is its rank and file, and it became the backbone of revitalization.”

When I look at the landscape of Orthodox Judaism today, I see a heavy investment in day schools, youth groups, gap-year Israel programs, opportunities for intensive Jewish study, and outreach (keruv) programs on college campuses that dwarf any comparative effort by other denominations (if you don’t believe me, read this).  Making a long-term investment in immersive Jewish education makes a statement that a generation of well-educated, passionate Jews well-versed in Jewish practice and literate in Jewish texts are the best bet for a bright future.  And indeed, Orthodoxy’s bet paid off in big ways.

In theory, the Conservative Movement should be able to place the same bet, as every Conservative Jew knows that our greatest gems are found in USY, the Schechter Day Schools, and Camp Ramah. Furthermore, it is inspiring just to imagine how our movement would be transformed if we fostered a realistic expectation that every child in a Conservative Synagogue should participate in USY, Schechter, or Camp Ramah, should seriously consider spending a gap-year in Israel after high school on a program like Nativ, and know that immersive study of Jewish texts in an egalitarian yeshiva will pay dividends for the rest of their Jewish life.

However, the reality is that the total number of teenagers who currently participate in USY, Schechter, and Camp Ramah is a drop in the bucket compared to the number who could. Furthermore, the cost to participate in any one of these programs can be prohibitively expensive, and impossibly expensive if participating in a few. As a result, if the Conservative Movement wants to bet the house on immersive Jewish education, we need to transform the conversation around these programs, making it a question of when, rather than if, a child will participate in them, yet that conversation that cannot begin until we address the affordability roadblock.

In an attempt to strategize how the Jewish Community might increase the total number of Jewish youth traveling to Israel, Stephen Muss, the chairman of Alexander Muss High School in Israel program, wrote in eJewishPhilanthropy that a wide umbrella of Jewish organizations should create “a universal voucher, enabling young people to choose from a wide range of high school, college, and post-college programs that promise to connect them to Israel.” While Muss wrote his proposal for the Jewish community at large, his audacious idea should inspire us to be in  the forefront of encouraging post-b’nai mitzvah children to experience the best of what we have to offer by creating what I can only call “B’nai Mitzvah Birthright,” a gift from the Conservative Movement to every child as they become a bar or bat mitzvah that will allow them to participate in a one-month experience with USY or Camp Ramah, or a tuition voucher to help attend a Schechter school in their area. The number of post-b’nai mitzvah children who drop out of involvement in Conservative synagogues is embarrassing, but fixable, if and when we make it easier and more affordable to engage with what the best of what we have to offer. Making that bet will be the choice that transforms the next generation of Conservative Jews.

This week, USY is holding its International Convention in New Orleans, an event that is frequently the largest gathering of Conservative Jews in the world. USY produced many of our movement’s current institutional leaders, such as Rabbi Steven Wernick of United Synagogue and Chancellor Arnold Eisen of JTS; current innovators and communal leaders, such as John Ruskay and Peter Geffen; and countless lay leaders, rabbis, hazzanim and educators, including myself.

However, while every teenager at International Convention is a success story, we cannot deny that we are not sprouting enough success stories, and must ask ourselves what we can do to ensure that every child considers these rich, life-changing experiences to be an attractive and realistic option for them. Let’s start by letting our children know that serious engagement with Judaism is their responsibility and their birthright, and give every family the means to provide the experience for them. Making that investment will be the best decision our movement will ever make.