Recently I was back East. I did a workshop for some educators, and was surprised by the pessimism that was exhibited. The secret to this pessimism are statements like, “I try to make a difference with each student,” or “I work with students one at a time.” It is rough out there. Rabbis are not getting rehired left and right. Parents are endlessly critical and demanding. We are raising a generation of students who believe in everything (and nothing might be an improvement). And the demographics show the slope slipping quickly away under us.
Given a day that starts with hundreds of complaining e-mails and a big stack of pink slip phone messages, educators are doing the only thing that makes sense, they compartmentalize. They will tell you with great excitement about the program they pulled off that was amazing. They will talk about the difference they feel that they have made in individual family’s lives. They will count the successes they can count. But few will beat their chests and shout that their school is a great school. Rather, they will say something like, “My school is the best it can be” and then list their own set of “givens.”
The truth is—it is rough out there. Survey after survey validates the shifts in Jewish identification that makes the job of the Jewish educator more difficult. Recently I did a program for a Synagogue High School program where all I heard all night, “Whatever I believe is right—is right.” “Whatever anyone else believes is right—is their beliefs—and is right.” They enter, not rejecting the limits that Judaism suggests, but rather, rejecting—because their culture told them to—any sense of limits (other than one person hurting another.)
So here is my first ultimatum. We got to struggle to make our schools good enough to brag about. We deal with parents who want and pay-for “the best” for their children.” For them, “the good enough” school is not good enough—and the best we can—is not enough. Against all odds, we got to struggle for excellence.
My other ultimatum goes the opposite way. Expect to succeed with probably no more than twenty percent of those we now teach. That is the way all the numbers are going. We are going to look at a dramatic shrinkage of the American Jewish population. But, we can keep this from being a tragedy if we have given enough to that twenty percent. It is foolish to believe that a nominal Jewish education will keep students Jewish. That is a twinky defense. Our job is to make sure that we give enough meaningful Judaism to those who will accept and work for it because the Jewish future will be in dosage not volume. It is time to make a stand. A stand for schools of which we can be unabashedly proud—school that teach and motivate enough to make a difference—to those who are there to accept it.