I recently returned from a conference in Uniondale, N.Y., sponsored by the Yeshiva University School Partnership and the Solomon Schechter School Network. Spending three days in intensive discussions with personnel from Partners for Excellence in Jewish Education, I cannot help but think of the immediate crisis facing the Jewish community as the costs of education continue to escalate and the number of students enrolled in our schools continues to diminish.
But one must also think of a bigger and more encompassing question: Is the Jewish future of our communities sustainable? In other words, with the continued growth of assimilation and the increasing abandonment of Judaism that the 2013 Pew Research Center Survey of U.S. Jews notes among the non-Orthodox and non-affiliated, can the Jewish community sustain itself? Similarly, in the Orthodox community, the number of drop-outs continues to rise, although the high birth rate among Charedim and Chasidim offsets that number.
Let it be said emphatically that the question of sustainability does not only revolve around money, although obviously it is a big factor in ensuring the survivability of our schools. Sustainability revolves around commitment that starts in the home, or dies in the home. What are Jewish homes providing the members of their household in terms of practical Jewish living?
As we approach Pesach, we become acutely aware that this holiday is home-centred. Ideally, the seder is not to be held in a catering hall, synagogue or community centre. While Jewish communities do phenomenal work in providing seders for those who do not have a place to go, the bottom line is that the home is the place for the seder.
A seder at home is symbolic of the commitment to Judaism that begins there. The four children of the seder reflect on the various types of ‘children’ there are in the Jewish community. Even the contrary child is taught by the parent, and is not chased out of the house. We welcome all of our children in the Jewish home. That is the beginning of sustainability. We teach them. We do not abandon them.
Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the great Talmudist and philosopher of the 20th century, commenting on the burgeoning kiruv (outreach movement), said one can reach uncommitted Jews by not engaging in theological discussions. Instead, one should introduce them to the writings of the Ketzot and the Netivot, complex commentaries on the volumes of Jewish law dealing with business matters. For the Rav, as he was known, the very essence of the study of Torah and all of its complexities was enough to ensure continuity and sustainability.
In truth, there are many different ways for kiruv to work, cognitively, affectively or gastronomically. Halachah tells us that, at the end of the seder, we are not to eat anything after the last bite of the matzo of the afikoman. We are supposed to retain the taste of the matzo in our mouths, and in our minds. The afikoman in a sense reflects on the taste of Torah that we are to retain. In essence, we want that taste to be sustained. Sustainability does not only come in the shape of needed dollars for Jewish education. It comes, if you will, in the eating of the afikoman, reflecting on the ta’am (taste) of Torah itself.