The Israeli newspaper Haaretz provided some takeaways from the ominous Pew Survey on U.S. Jews that said Judaism appears to be on the decline: 44 percent of married U.S. Jews are married to non-Jews; 40 percent of Jews believe that [the current land of] Israel was given to the Jewish people by God; 43 percent of Jews have been to Israel—only 23 percent more than once; only 38 percent of U.S. Jews believe the Israeli government is making a sincere effort to establish peace with the Palestinians; 43 percent of Jews believe caring about Israel is essential to being Jewish, while 42 percent believe that a good sense of humor is essential to being Jewish.
With intermarriage, a decline in synagogue attendance, and diminished concern for religious education, it’s valid to wonder whether the Jewish people will survive the next decade. However, as noted last month in JLife, synagogues are working to engage youth in Judaism and grow Judaism “outside the box” of Jewish education.
According to Congregation B’nai Israel’s Education Director, Rabbi Robin Hoffman, CBI is unique in its blending of tradition and modernity: “We offer creative services each week during religious school for our students as well as a traditional Shabbat experience where our students can gather for lunch with their families every Saturday.” Beyond the Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Hebrew High students in grades 8 to 12 have the opportunity to learn with the Rabbi and Cantor weekly and enjoy being a part of our religious school by serving as madrichim. The teens are role models for younger students—helping in the classroom, tutoring Hebrew, and demonstrating their commitment to Jewish learning. And, at CBI, it is a family affair: “We engage parents in our Religious School by offering opportunities for Family Education at all grade levels,” said Hoffman. Providing the students with the opportunity to personalize their Judaism, CBI has a unique art program, sponsored by the Zembrosky Youth in Art Fund, in which students of all ages create meaningful ritual objects that they use for their B’nai Mitzvah and at home.
According to Hoffman, “The most important thing that happens at CBI are the relationships that are born in our classrooms while they learn about being Jewish…. They create lifelong friendships and connection with CBI.”
“The first observation people often [make] about Temple Beth David is the music!” said Education Director Elliot Fein. “There’s something special about the way everyone gets involved singing together at TBD. That special quality starts early.”
Sharon Matalon, the religious school’s Creative Arts Director, leads an incredibly active youth choir where students participate in monthly Shabbat services and perform at a number of other special events. Graduates of the religious school often continue their involvement singing in the adult choir or performing in one of the ensemble of musicians that frequently assist Cantor Nancy Linder in setting the right melody for prayer.
In addition to a wonderful musical experience, TBD prides itself on the generous support it gives its youth to maximize their Jewish learning and involvement beyond the synagogue.
And, as we know that being Jewish can sometimes be expensive, Beth David is able to lend some financial assistance through the Temple Foundation Program to youth who stand out. In addition, Beth David tries to make youth involvement as easy as it can be on parents’ finances, including a Camp Newman or other Jewish summer camp experience, plus National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) SO CAL and Bureau of Jewish Education Teens Are Leaders In Training (BJE TALIT).
Finally, B’nai Tzedek in Fountain Valley keeps its youth engaged through B’nai Tzedek Temple Youth (BTZY), a youth group for high school teens. Affiliated with the Union for Reform Judaism’s National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY), BTZY offers Jewish leadership opportunities, social events and opportunities to participate in social action projects, such as Mitzvah Day, Walk to End Genocide, food drives, blood drives, and various Bar and Bat Mitzvah projects.
According to a message on B’nai Tzedek’s website from Pam Rosen, B’nai Tzedek’s Director of Religious School Education, “Religious School education should provide tools to allow students to feel capable and comfortable within any Jewish environment; depend upon employing knowledgeable, loving teachers and madrichim committed to making Jewish learning fun and meaningful; involve partnering with parents and caregivers to strengthen children’s Jewish identity, knowledge and commitment to the Jewish people and their Jewish community; impact students’ behaviors and decision making outside their Jewish community; and be inclusive and fun for everyone!”
It appears the Jewish youth of Orange County are in good hands. With all of the youth engagement going on in Jewish Orange County, perhaps it is possible our Jewish Community will survive the dreaded demise predicted by the Pew Report.
All of the synagogues mentioned and others in Orange County offer programming for adults and families as well. If you are interested in what the synagogues are doing, go to www.ocjewishlife.com and check out the Calendar of Events.
Dr. Lisa Grajewski is a psychologist working toward licensure. She is a therapist with Jewish Federation Family Services and is a psychological assistant for a private practice in Tustin. Dr. Grajewski has been writing for JLife since 2004.