‘Jewish Head Start’ planned to bol­ster faith­ful

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY NATHAN PORTER

Fac­ing mount­ing ev­i­dence of grow­ing dis­af­fec­tion by Amer­i­can Jews with their re­li­gion and her­itage, lead­ers within the com­mu­nity are propos­ing an am­bi­tious “Jewish Head Start” pro­gram to teach the his­tory and re­li­gion of the Jewish peo­ple to preschool­ers — for free.

Prom­i­nent Jewish fig­ures pro­posed the ini­tia­tive, which would pro­vide JewishAmer­i­can par­ents with free preschool pro­grams with an em­pha­sis on Ju­daism.

“From the be­gin­ning, we need to ex­pose our chil­dren to the joys of be­ing in a Jewish en­vi­ron­ment,” said Jerry Sil­ver­man, CEO of the Jewish Fed­er­a­tions of North Amer­ica and one of the main pro­po­nents of the Jewish Head Start idea. Mr. Sil­ver­man and JFNA Chair­man Michael Sie­gal floated the pro­posal in an op-ed last week in The For­ward, the in­flu­en­tial Jewish-Amer­i­can news­pa­per.

Uni­ver­sal pre-K in­struc­tion “will dra­mat­i­cally widen the pipe­line of fam­i­lies en­ter­ing Jewish life through this crit­i­cal early gate­way,” the two men wrote. “And it will place many more peo­ple on a path to fur­ther Jewish con­nec­tion and Jewish ed­u­ca­tion — day school, re­li­gious school and in­for­mal and al­ter­na­tive Jewish ed­u­ca­tion.

Th­ese preschools would elim­i­nate the fi­nan­cial bur­den that of­ten in­hibits Jewish par­ents from send­ing their chil­dren to Jewish day care fa­cil­i­ties and preschools, which can of­ten cost as much as $8,000 a year.

The pro­posal comes as new stud­ies found a grow­ing dis­con­nect be­tween many Amer­i­can Jews and their her­itage, in­clud­ing an Amer­i­can Jewish Com­mit­tee poll re­leased last week.

Ac­cord­ing to the sur­vey, only 33 per­cent of those polled said that be­ing Jewish was “very im­por­tant,” while a sig­nif­i­cant mi­nor­ity — 36 per­cent — said it was “not too im­por­tant” or “not at all im­por­tant. The poll tracks broadly with find­ings of a much-dis­cussed sur­vey re­leased by the Pew Re­search Center ear­lier this month. That re­port, “A Por­trait of Jewish Amer­i­cans,” found a large gen­er­a­tional gap among Jews who iden­ti­fied with the re­li­gious as­pect of Jewish cul­ture.

“There are big dif­fer­ences in mil­len­nial Jews and Jews from the Great­est Gen­er­a­tion,” said Greg Smith, di­rec­tor of Pew’s U.S. Re­li­gion Sur­veys.

Ac­cord­ing to the Pew sur­vey, “Fully 93 per­cent of Jews in the ag­ing Great­est Gen­er­a­tion iden­tify as Jewish on the ba­sis of re­li­gion ... ; just 7 per­cent de­scribe them­selves as hav­ing no re­li­gion. By con­trast, among Jews in the youngest gen­er­a­tion of U.S. adults — the millennials — 68 per­cent iden­tify as Jews by re­li­gion, while 32 per­cent de­scribe them­selves as hav­ing no re­li­gion and iden­tify as Jewish on the ba­sis of an­ces­try, eth­nic­ity or cul­ture.”

“The re­sults from this sur­vey are not sur­pris­ing, but they are very sober­ing,” said Rabbi Sh­muel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The Na­tional Syn­a­gogue in North­west D.C. “There are no quick fixes or easy an­swers to the prob­lem.”

Wrote Mr. Sie­gal and Mr. Sil­ver­man, cit­ing the Pew find­ings, “If we go by num­bers alone, the non-Or­tho­dox Amer­i­can Jewish com­mu­nity is fac­ing an ex­is­ten­tial cri­sis.”

Many within the Jewish com­mu­nity point to in­ter­mar­riage for the de­cline in Jewish iden­tity pat­terns. Fifty-eight per­cent of Jews mar­ried since 2000 have mar­ried a non-Jewish spouse, com­pared to just less than per­cent in the 1980s and just 17 per­cent in the 1970s.

Ad­di­tion­ally, 37 per­cent of Jews mar­ried to a spouse of a dif­fer­ent eth­nic­ity say they are not rais­ing their chil­dren in the Jewish faith.

This shift in Jewish re­li­gios­ity is re­flec­tive of a na­tional trend. Over the past three decades, Amer­i­cans as a whole are shed­ding re­li­gious la­bels. Still, Ju­daism is unique be­cause of its cul­tural and re­li­gious in­ter­sec­tion.

De­spite the data, Mr. Sil­ver­man said he re­mains op­ti­mistic. One bright spot in the data: “Ninety-four per­cent of U.S. Jews (in­clud­ing 97 per­cent of Jews by re­li­gion and 83 per­cent of Jews of no re­li­gion) say they are proud to be Jewish,” ac­cord­ing to the Pew re­sults.

Mr. Sil­ver­man be­lieves that if in­di­vid­u­als con­tinue to work to­gether and sup­port var­i­ous re­li­gious and cul­tural ef­forts, it is a mat­ter of time be­fore things be­gin to progress.

“I’m a big be­liever that the glass is half-full,” he said. “We have the abil­ity to change Jewish his­tory and cre­ate a re­nais­sance life.”

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