Emphasis on education is a tenet of Judaism, embedded in thousands of years of Jewish history and culture. Despite the value we place on education, fewer and fewer Jewish families access it today. According to a 2013 Pew study, secular or cultural Jews who are not maintaining Jewish traditions at home, and are much less connected to Jewish organizations, are growing in numbers. The study also suggests two-thirds of these Jews are not raising their children as Jews. Without investment in Jewish education the future of Jewish peoplehood will be in crisis.
With the launch of its new education initiative, the Merage JCC is investing in the future of Jewish education for all in Orange County.
According to Jewish Federation & Family Services (JFFS), approximately 100,000 Jewish people call Orange County home. Of the 100,000, only 10,000 are affiliated with congregations and Jewish institutions. Because Orange County is such a young community—our population has doubled in 30 years—there is little history of affiliation to build upon. Multi-generation families are few and far between, and we cannot count on tradition to keep us strong. Unfortunately, like many across the country, our Bureau of Jewish Education was forced to close, leaving no central resource in Orange County for Jewish education for the 90,000 or so unaffiliated.
As more Jews move away from denominational life and eschew formal Jewish education, the need for informal Jewish education is clear. The JCC is positioned to deliver multiple and flexible forms of Jewish education to all ages.
Hailing from Israel, Mark Lazar, a professional Jewish educator with more than 20 years’ experience spanning diverse global settings, topics, and audiences, has joined the JCC team to provide creative leadership to this new enterprise. Mark is known for his hands-on, experiential learning style. He has been a member of the Screen Actors Guild, the Writers’ Guild and the American Guild of Variety Artists. With long hair and a penchant for tie-dyed t-shirts, Mark promises to surprise Orange County in many ways.
The JCC is not starting small. It plans to launch the first year of the education initiative with a robust professional development curriculum for teachers and staff at all 14 preschools in Orange County. Religious and Hebrew school teachers in Orange County will participate in professional development, to which they would otherwise not have access. Research confirms that the quality of teachers is the most important factor contributing to a student’s success, and the same can be said of having a lasting impact on a student’s Jewish identity. Further research suggests that effective teaching is the result of study, reflection and practice.
Just as the JCC aims to fortify teachers, they intend to provide Jewish education to our families and youth, through a menu of learning experiences, including Young Philanthropists, a giving circle for teens; concerted and family social action experiences based on the JCC Cares Family Initiative which recently received the 2016 Zahav Award, or gold medal, nationally for inspirational programming; and JCC Global Teen Fellows-Amitim, an exchange program for teens with partnein Mexico and Israel.
As noted in a 2013 Pew study, 58 percent of Jewish people marry non-Jewish spouses. The new initiative includes Interfaith Connections providing interfaith couples with information and resources, empowering them to make Jewish choices for their families.
One of the education initiative’s strategic goals is to strengthen (through numbers) the community’s connections to Israel. Hosting outstanding speakers and offering seminars on various aspects of Israeli life, arts, and culture, will increase Jewish OC’s knowledge of the modern State of Israel, and foster a stronger connection to their Jewish homeland.
If the year-one goals are ambitious, plans for years two and three are equally so. The JCC reports it will put a Teacher Resource Library online with a blog, resources and links, as well as
• Lead educational tours to Israel
• Host teen, tween and family weekend retreats/Shabbatons
• Establish an Israel program desk dedicated to providing individuals with information, resources and links to Israel-related organizations
• Add a teen trip to Poland and Israel with a focus on in-depth Holocaust education
• Develop teen and adult programs on leadership and models of Jewish leaders
According to Merage JCC’s Dan Bernstein, President and CEO, “The JCC’s mark of innovation on Jewish education lies in expanding from the traditional JCC priorities on fitness, early childhood education and camps to include equal emphasis on Jewish space and Jewish education. Under this new strategy, we embrace the concept of becoming a ‘destination’ for Jews—a Jewish space to experience and learn Judaism in everyday activities. We intend to pioneer Jewish space strategies in Orange County.”