Invitation and Obligation (or “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation”)

(cross posted to TAPBB)

I am getting old. I learned that at the CAJE conference. We were out to dinner with a number of young educators and I got into an argument. It took a few days to realize that I was wrong (and that is sad). Sad not cause I can’t handle being wrong, but sad because more of the world I believe in is disappearing.

A while ago Steven M. Cohen wrote an important article called “Outreach to the Marginally Affiliated” (Steven M. Cohen, “Outreach to the Marginally Affiliated: Evidence and Implications for Policy-makers in Jewish Education,” Journal of Jewish Communal Service 62, No. 2 (Winter 1985): 147-157). It appeared in the original Torah Aura volume, What We Know About Jewish Education. He has a new article in the new volume, What We Now Know About Jewish Education. In “Outreach” he teaches two important lessons. First, that we need to realize that many more Jews have contact with the Jewish community that we imagine. If you look over a lifetime we find that most Jews have contact (and affiliation) with the Jewish community over the course of their lifetime. If we take a snapshot of affiliation and participation at a given moment, we find that the number is less than fifty percent. His conclusion is that we do a very bad job of holding on to Jews who come to us at a given moment in their life and then drift away. He suggests that our major outreach needs to be not to the unaffiliated but to the marginally affiliated. His second insight is the one that proved me wrong, that we need to speak the language of “invitation” rather than the language of “obligation.”

Here was the argument. One of the educators proudly stated that she has expanded the number of students who participate in her synagogue’s madrikhim program by changing the obligation that they continue their own Jewish education at the same time. The educator went on to say that they will credit any Jewish experience as valid high school learning. You don’t have to come to our classes. You can do youth group, belong to a Jewish club at school, etc.

Having been raised with (and sometimes still trapped in) the “language of obligation,” I objected. I would like to see every Jewish teacher with an obligation to continue their Jewish education, let alone a high school student we are training.

My mistake was in thinking (and there is no sarcasm here) that students who opt to be madrikhim (and take on that responsibility) can be thought of as insiders and asked to do more. My mistake was in not realizing that in this day and age, leadership high school kids are still marginally affiliated and need “invitations.” I think that it is both sad and true. In The Jew Within, (Steven M. Cohen and Arnold Eisen, The Jew Within: Self, Family, and Community in the United States, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000) we learn that there are no guarantees. No one who makes a Jewish commitment can ever be assumed to continue that commitment forever. Rather, they subscribe to the sovereign-self, an absolute ability to make their own choices regardless of pressure or “assumption” from the Jewish community.

What I forgot that night, even though I may have once been right, that in the physics of our new universe (in the string-theory of Jewish affiliation) “invitation” always trumps “obligation.” While I really want Jewish learning post Bar Mitzvah and hope that it is deep and transformative, none of us can mandate it. While I believe that the community built by a combination of Jewish activities is the most powerful force for Jewish continuity, a strong “No” can easily lead to a “goodbye.”

So here is my apology. To a younger and vibrant group of Jewish professionals, I am glad that you are around, and force me—even if slowly—to reconsider the truths I hold too true.

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One Response to Invitation and Obligation (or “What I Learned on My Summer Vacation”)

  1. Robert l Smith says:

    As a retired college faculty member, I also am sad that my world is disappearing. The key word in University circles is retention. Instead of marginal affiliation we are now asked to validate the marginally succeeding student. This is leading to a deterioration of American leadership in Science and Technology. Is there a lesson here for Judaism as well?

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