Thursday, October 31, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level Ch. 3:
A Challenge to Change

And here we are with our third installment of reflections from HUC-JIR NYSOE students.
Yes Virginia, there is hope for Jewish Education!

- Ira

A Challenge to Change

By Arielle Branitsky

In reviewing blog posts from the calendar year thus far, it is clear to me that those who think about Jewish education are thinking about change. There have been discussions about informal versus formal education, religious school versus camp, and new models of Jewish education involving more individualized approaches to achieving goals. There is discussion of multiple intelligences, and the need to offer something compelling.

To me, all of this can be summarized as "what we are doing is not working" and "we need to regroup." Neither of these ideas is new or surprising, but they continue to reinforce the mindset that the system, as it currently exists, is not achieving its goals. Our challenge as a community of educators is to begin transitioning from "needing to regroup" to actually regrouping. Whether we apply ideas discussed previously or think of entirely new ones, we need to experiment with change.

Change is scary. It's difficult. In order for change to occur in these environments, not only do we need to change, but we need to convince others to change as well. We need to inspire our colleagues, the families we serve, and the leaders we partner with to join us in creating this change. Even if all of these individuals agree that change is necessary, inspiring them to join us in creating that change will be an uphill battle. There will be resistance. But despite this, as leaders, it is our job to manage this change and the resistance it might engender.

Jewish education takes place in many different environments. While the Day School model can offer the broadest and most in-depth offering of topical content, other models must spend more time deciding what to teach. I do not think this has to be the case. All Jewish education can and should include opportunities to learn Hebrew, Torah, customs and rituals, Jewish history, and ethics. In the schools that already do this, the question becomes: is it working? Are student actually learning the material or are they merely skimming the surface of it as a means to an end?

There are many educators who are implementing new models of Jewish education in their educational settings. There are religious schools trying Shabbat models and offering alternative options to students, including monthly trips to camp. There are schools shifting their curriculum to an experiential format, and programs are being created to allow the learner to design their own course of learning. However, there are also many who are being held back from trying out new ideas by fear. Fear of the many hours, months, or even years that it might take to change the culture of their institution. Fear of the nay-sayers in their communities and fear that what they achieve will not be any better than what currently exists.

I understand that often big ideas exist in a world of "easier said than done," but as we move through 5774, I offer this challenge to my colleagues: stomp out these fears. If you believe that what you are currently doing is not working, create something new and implement it. Test out your new and improved ideas for Jewish education. The more we test, the more support we can offer for the change we want to see. The sooner we learn what works in our changed models, the sooner we can improve them and get closer to a system that works.

My hope for this year is to learn about the new and innovative things that educators are doing. I hope that when I use the word "unique," I use it confidently, assured that a program truly is one of a kind. I want to know that the field of talented people I am joining is not just one where people talk about their challenges but rather, one where people work towards change and challenge me to join them in making Jewish Education work. 

Arielle Branitsky is in her final year of the Joint Masters in Jewish Education and Nonprofit Management at HUC-JIR's New York campus. Arielle grew up in Toronto, Ontario, where she attended Jewish Day School, and graduated from York University with a Bachelor of Arts in Religious Studies and Communications Studies. Prior to her studies at HUC-JIR, she worked for Hillel at the University at Albany, and was the Ontario Region Director for USD/Hagshama. Arielle is also a fellow in the MA Concentration through the iCenter, and is thinking a lot about Jewish camp and leadership development.

Monday, October 28, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level
Ch. 2: Media Portrayals of Disabilities.

Welcome back to a series of posts by Education students HUC-JIR's New York School of Education. I asked the director, Evie Rotstein to provide some context for this next piece:
This is from an assignment in a course on Diverse Learners taught by Rabbi Richie Address; which is the very first course we are offering around this topic.

Choose a text, film, book, play, TV episode that deals with issues related to diversity, inclusion, or disability, What is the dynamic involved? How do you related to it as a rabbi, educator or cantor?
Please continue to comment! The response to Ch. 1 was lovely!

- Ira

Media Portrayal of Disabilities 

Brian Nelson

"About 20 percent of people have disabilities, but only about 1 percent of speaking parts in television portray disability." - RJ Mitte

Walter “Flynn” White Jr., one of the main characters in the television show Breaking Bad, has Cerebral Palsy. From the very outset of the show, Walt Jr. is portrayed as a fairly typical teenager, although one of the earliest episodes depicts him being relentlessly teased while shopping because he has difficulty putting his own pants on in the dressing room. Walt Jr. is clearly upset by the harassment, and tries to ignore it. In that particular scene, Walt’s mother tries to discourage him from responding to the harassment, a suggestion he ignores.

At other various times throughout the run of the show Walt Jr. confronts the limitations of his disability as he lives a typical teenage life. One striking example of this is when he starts learning to drive a car. Walt Jr. struggles to learn the mechanics of driving without the full use of his legs. He eventually masters the task, eventually driving a Mustang.

Ultimately, Walt Jr.’s disability is not highlighted as a major obstacle in the narrative of this television show. Rather, Walt’s disability is portrayed as simply a part of his life, and his family’s life. What’s more, the actor selected to play Walt Jr. is an actor with Cerebral Palsy. According to an interview with RJ Mitte, he was in the right place at the right time to be cast in the role and he considers it as an incredible opportunity to advocate for people with disabilities.[1]

The situations portrayed in Breaking Bad bring to mind the commandment “Do not put a stumbling block in front of the blind” because situations on this show demonstrate ways in which a family may remove potential stumbling blocks, instead. In our positions as Jewish Educators it is our responsibility to treat our students with disabilities in a similar way. We must support those in need of help, and do all we can to help them have a typical learning experience.

Brian Nelson is a rabbinic/education student in the New York School of Education with residency on the Cincinnati campus. Brian grew in Minnetonka, Minnesota and attended college at the University of Minnesota where he studied History and Political Science. During and after college Brian worked in the Twin Cities Jewish community at Temple Israel, Bet Shalom, and Mount Zion in a variety of capacities, and spent numerous summers at Temple Israel's summer camp, Camp TEKO, before attending HUC-JIR. This year he is working as an Education Intern at Isaac M. Wise Temple in Cincinnati, OH.


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

They Will Take us to the Next Level
Ch. 1: Getting to Know Our Students - Really.

I received an interesting e-mail this morning from my friend, colleague and teacher, Evie Rotstein. Evie is the Director of the New York School of Education at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religious in New York. She wanted to invite her students to participate in a national conversation around Jewish education. So she asked a few of the professors to assign reflection papers and asked me to post a few of them here. I will try to post a few each week and we will also post the link to JEDLAB on Facebook and to #jedlab and #jed21 on Twitter. PLEASE COMMENT!! These are some of the people who will be figuring out what's next and what;s vital about Jewish living and Learning in the coming decades. Please join in their education, and more importantly let them see how they are adding to ours.

Remember, from our students we learn most of all!

Our first posting is from Sarah Marion.


Getting to Know Our Students - Really.

By Sarah Marion

Last week, I prepared and delivered a presentation for my Human Development class on systems theory and its role in educational contexts. I wanted to engage the class in a concrete discussion regarding the various systems our learners belong to, and the ways these systems might manifest in the classroom environment. 

I decided to facilitate an activity in which my classmates would receive a series of learner “profiles” and using the profiles, be asked to consider (a) which system(s) their learners belonged to, (b) how such systems might manifest in the religious school environment, and (c) the ways in which we might respond or react to such manifestations. For example, if student x’s family system includes a live-in grandparent, student x might connect especially well to lessons and values on honoring/caring for the elderly, and thus, a teacher might ask student x to deliver a presentation on that same topic.

In preparing for this presentation, my initial intention was to re-construct “real life” profiles of students I have encountered over the years as a religious school teacher in order to make the activity as realistic and relevant as possible. I wanted my profiles to be comprehensive, and thus include information such as family origin, current family characteristics and dynamics, student and family interests and activities, and more. 

But as I thought of different students from various religious school classes I have taught, I realized how little I actually knew about my learners. I couldn’t fill in all of this information, because I had never learned it. I had known who my students were inside the classroom, but I realized I had little or no idea who they were outside the classroom. Accordingly, I ended up constructing “fictional” profiles for my presentation. For example:
Ryan, who is in 8th grade, was adopted from Russia when he was three. He lives with his two moms, and his younger sister, Lucy, who was adopted from South Korea. Recently, Lucy was diagnosed with attention deficit disorder. Ryan enjoys swimming, and competes on the swim team at the JCC. Ryan’s mom, Kathy, runs a small after school day-care program in their house, and Ryan sometimes helps out with his mom’s business. Ryan’s other mom, Nancy, was raised Protestant and is involved in both her synagogue and church communities.
While writing these fictional profiles accomplished my goals for the presentation, I began contemplating the larger issue of how and why I didn’t fully know the systemic attributes of my students. I wondered if my experience was unique – and realized it probably wasn’t. I wondered - do part-time religious school teachers truly have the time and resources to get to know their students in the fullest sense? What is missed – and what are the consequences - when teachers are not aware of the various systems their learners belong to? 

Perhaps we miss opportunities to better engage and integrate our students into the learning process, perhaps we miss opportunities to connect the material to our students’ lives, perhaps we miss opportunities to inspire students to take ownership of their own learning, perhaps we make incorrect assumptions and hypotheses about who our students are. (For example, the teacher who is aware of student x’s family system will not miss the opportunity to integrate and connect this student’s experience of living with an aging grandparent into a class lesson on honoring the elderly). Therefore, the critical question becomes: how can we, as Jewish leaders and professional educators, inspire and assist our teachers in becoming fully aware of all the systems that impact our learners when they enter our classrooms?

As community-based and value-driven structures and institutions, synagogues are perhaps better equipped for and have more investment in promoting a holistic understanding of learners, in comparison to secular schools. I have been pondering some concrete, realistic ways in which synagogues and Jewish leaders can help religious school teachers become aware of the various systems their students belong to, in order to better understand their learners’ diverse needs and identities.

One idea I have stems from an Education Team meeting I attended a few years ago while working as a full-time youth educator at Temple Beth Elohim in Wellesley, MA. At this meeting, the team discussed the idea of a synagogue-based “Jewish Journey Project” in order to better “track” our students and connect them to the synagogue in meaningful ways. 

I’m not sure if this project ever fully came to fruition (as I left for rabbinical school when the project was in its first stages) but I remember the basic premise. Each student who entered the religious school would receive a Jewish journey advisor who would interview the student and his or her family in order to gather as much information about the student as possible. Interview questions would include family history, demographics, student interests and aspirations, past and current student and family involvement in temple life, etc. This information would then be entered into a database accessible to clergy, synagogue professionals, and other advisors. 

Student profiles would be updated regularly as students matured and became more or less involved in synagogue or other activities, as family dynamics shifted and changed, etc. Ideally, students would meet with their advisor every year to ensure that database information is current and up to date. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, synagogue professionals (i.e. clergy, education director) would share pertinent and relevant database information with religious school teachers.

Of course, this model is quite aspirational and might have some problems in terms of confidentiality. But it prompts us to consider how synagogues can best embody “whole person” learning communities, in which students and teachers are compelled to consider, integrate, connect, and explore the various facets of life that affect learning.

Sarah Marion is a rabbinic/education student at HUC-JIR's New York campus. She grew up in Westchester, NY and graduated from Brandeis University with bachelor's degrees in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies and Women's and Gender Studies. Prior to entering rabbinical school Sarah worked as a  youth educator in Boston, and has spent several summers at the URJ's Eisner and Crane Lake Camps, as a counselor and unit head. She is currently interning at Larchmont Temple in Larchmont, NY.    

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Marjorie Ingall: Ethical Parenting is Essential

So another reprint. A vital reprint. From Tablet Magazine - one of the best Jewish places on the web. Get their regular e-mail updates. Now. -- Ira

Ethical Parenting Is More Than Possible. It’s Essential, for Parents and Children Alike.

Don’t break the rules just to help your kids get ahead. Teach them to be mensches by setting an example with your own behavior.

By Marjorie Ingall

New York magazine ran an article by Lisa Miller last week called “Ethical Parenting.” At first I thought it was going to be a serious piece about the tough choices we parents have to make to raise mensches. Instead, it was a self-justifying piece of entitled crap wrapped up in fake hand-wringing. The central question: Can you be a decent human being and a parent at the same time? Miller’s answer—spoiler alert—is no. Let me quote some of Miller’s assertions so you can see why I’m drooling in fury on my keyboard right now.

“Parenthood, like war, is a state in which it’s impossible to be moral.”

“Always be kind and considerate of others, except in those cases where consideration impedes your own self-interest or convenience. Then, take care of yourself.”

“Parenthood means you cannot possibly behave as though society’s rules and norms apply equally to all.”

Shut up.

Now, New York magazine frequently makes me want to move into a Unabomber cabin in the woods. (Ditto the New York Times’s T Magazine, which I’m pretty sure did a feature on artisanal bespoke Unabomber cabins made by Bushwickians with luxuriant civet-conditioned beards.) But there’s always been just enough of a nudge-nudge, wink-wink element to the publication’s portrayals of wilding teens, entitled hedge-funders, and the next hot neighborhood you already couldn’t afford. We were supposed to be horrified by these caricatures of human beings; we normal people were actually all in it together, gaping at those who were destroying society. This piece seems to start in a homologous us-vs.-them vein, pretending to offer up “the corrupt child-rearing customs … of the aggressively rising class: the mother who, according to Urban Baby legend, slept with the admissions officer (with her husband’s consent!) to get her child into the Ivy League, or the one who sued an Upper East Side preschool for insufficiently preparing her 4-year-old for a private-school test,” but then it goes on to argue that the rest of us are pretty similar. “Schadenfreude elides a more difficult existential truth, which is that ever since Noah installed his own three sons upon the ark and left the rest of the world to drown, protecting and privileging one’s own kids at the expense of other people has been the name of the game. It’s what parents do.”

No, it’s not. And you did not just compare giving a fake address to get into a better public school district, or sending a kid to school with lice so that she won’t miss a state standardized test, to the Noah story. Let’s review: God ordered Noah to build an ark because the earth was full of wicked people. The people who deliberately lie and cheat so their kids can get ahead are the wicked people. Noah’s ark-building impulse did not come from a realization that there’d be less competition for Harvard if all the other teenagers drowned.

Please go to the original article on Tablet to read the rest of the article! It is worth it. 
(Fair usage issues prevent me from reproducing the entire article!)

Marjorie Ingall, a Life & Religion columnist for Tablet Magazine, is the author of The Field Guide to North American Males and the co-author of Hungry.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Pew 2.0: Moneyball Judaism

At this rate, I am not sure I will have new wisdom to add to the blogosphere about the Pew Report. Today I read two responses that I think are critical going forward. I will paraphrase the first from the Forward. They recognize the negatives in the report, but are emphasizing the datum that 94% responded that they are proud to be Jewish and are looking for stories about people in that demographic and their Jewish pride. Well done.

The second arrived via (are any of you still not reading that?) and I reprint it in its entirety below. As always, I urge you to make comments on the eJP site to be part of the larger conversation!

Moneyball Judaism: We’re Not Selling Jeans Here
If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization.
by Rabbi Joshua Rabin

My favorite summer pastime is baseball. Every day, I watch baseball, read about baseball, and pray that my beloved Baltimore Orioles will eventually win the World Series (hey, a guy can dream). However, while it has been years since I gave up my dream of ever playing in the major leagues, I still try, every day, to find ways to follow baseball more intelligently so that I might better understand what it takes for a player or a team to be successful. Without question, the single thing that allows me to better understand pathways to baseball success is sabermetrics, unofficially known as Moneyball.”

Moneyball, written by Michael Lewis, tells the story of the Oakland Athletics and their General Manager, Billy Beane, and the strategies Beane employs to position the A’s, with a relatively low payroll, to routinely make the playoffs over other teams with far deeper cash reserves. Beane’s strategies were taken from the sabermetric playbook, where objective data is used to measure baseball performance as a means of helping baseball professionals make their decisions based on evidence, rather than gut instincts. Sabermetrics currently impacts all major sports, Hollywood, and even politics, where Peter Orszag and John Bridgeland recently wrote an article in the The Atlantic Monthly asking, “Can the government play Moneyball?.”

I thought a great deal about Moneyball when I read the results and subsequent reactions to the Pew Forum’s recent report, A Portrait of Jewish Americans. On the one hand, I was not surprised to see so many bemoan the overall negative picture the survey paints about the current state of Judaism in America, articularly amongst liberal Judaism. At the same time, I find it ironic that, as a community, we pay far less attention to the data that helps tell us what works than we do the data that tells us what we are doing wrong.

Over the past several months, I read debates about the relative merits of day school versus congregational schools, in-reach versus outreach, whether denominations have a future in Judaism, and a myriad of other big questions that can affect our community’s strategy for taking ownership of our future. However, in most cases, when I read these debates, or even share my own opinion on a question, I see the opinions of myself and others justified by an over-abundance of personal perspective, and a dearth of objective data.

The consequence of this is that the majority of conventional wisdom and conversations in the Jewish community are driven by what we believe to be true, rather than what concrete evidence we can offer to support our claims, in spite of the fact that we do have data that paints a picture of what works in creating meaningful, lasting Jewish experiences. As a result, as I watched the baseball playoffs, and thought about the implications of the Pew Forum’s survey, I wondered what it would take for the Jewish Community to play “Moneyball Judaism.”

Of course, we have organizations in the Jewish Community promoting data-driven decision-making, such as Measuring Success and J-Data, and researchers who use qualitative and quantitative data to measure emerging trends, such as Professors Steven M. Cohen and Leonard Saxe. However, producing data is the easy piece of the puzzle; the hard part is listening to what the data tells us. The Jewish Community lacks a culture that collectively promotes the essential principle behind Moneyball, namely that it matters, “less how much money you have than how well you spend it.”

When you have limited money, finite resources, and a competitive marketplace, you will succeed only through a shrewd understanding of how the marketplace based on objective data, which, if used properly, will challenge conventional wisdom and results in leaner, meaner pathways to success.
By extension, if the Jewish Community is to transform our vicious cycles into virtuous cycles, we must understand how to judge the relative value of organizations and strategies, and recognize our own fallibility as human beings who always bring our assumptions to the big Jewish questions of the day. While I am not a statistician, nor a sabermatician, I would like to suggest three principles as a starting point of enacting a strategy of Moneyball Judaism, each of which apply a major principle of sabermetrics to our Jewish Community:
  1. What matters most is getting on-base: One of the statistics deemed critical by sabermetrics in baseball is On-Base Percentage, otherwise known as OBP. The basic assumption behind the OBP is that getting on-base is more valuable than making an out, one of the reasons why Billy Beane hates when baseball players are asked to bunt, as bunting generally involves a team voluntarily relinquishing one of three precious outs to the other team. In contrast, even if a player draws a walk instead of getting a base hit, each of these acts are of similar value, since drawing a walk also gets the player on base (as an aside, this is the reason why Jonah Hill’s character in the movie Moneyball states several times that current New York Yankee, Kevin Youkilis, is the “Greek god of walks”). Ultimately, moving a player across the diamond is a skill of paramount importance when judging a player’s effectiveness.

    The value of OBP translates into the first principle of Moneyball Judaism, which is that an effective organization increases overall Jewish involvement. If an organization wants to argue that it is effective, it must demonstrate that participating with their organization results in an increase of measurable Jewish behaviors that build positive momentum towards a lifetime of Jewish living once the participant is no longer involved with their organization. If an organization brings participants together for an intensive experience, yet those participants do not or cannot independently engage in Jewish life once the program concludes, it would be difficult to argue that the organization’s program was effective at advancing that individual person’s Jewish involvement. By extension, if we want to compare organizations with one another, we should be able to compare how each succeeds, or fails, at getting Jewish people “on base.” We may not be able to judge the relative value of each act of Jewish living, but we can agree the more active your Jewish life, the more likely you are to be active your entire life.
  2. Measure Best and Worst-Case Scenarios: Before he became famous for predicting the results of political elections, Nate Silver was a baseball writer for Baseball Prospectus, a publication that uses sabermetric analysis to create statistical models to measure all aspects of a baseball player’s performance. Silver’s main contribution to this publication was a statistic called PECOTA, which stands for Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test and was named for former journeyman infielder Bill Pecota. Essentially, PECOTA allows us to measure the best-case, worst-case, and most-likely scenarios of a player’s performance. While you cannot know how a player will perform before choosing to draft him or sign him to a multi-million dollar contract, you can measure the probability of a player being a tremendous success, or have a sense of that player’s value even if they never fulfill their maximum potential.

    The principle behind PECOTA provides a model for thinking about how to judge one Jewish decision versus another. Every Jewish organization showers us with their success stories, individuals for whom participating in their program changed the entire trajectory of their Jewish life. However, we need to ask whether or not those success stories are a typical result, or a statistical aberration. Many organizations provide data about the portrait of their program’s alumni, and how much those alumni engage in Jewish life years after their participation in the program. Based on the data, we can create composite pictures of the best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios for how a person’s Jewish life will be impacted by that organization. If a program or organization claims substantial impact, yet the most likely scenario is a mediocre impact, it would be reasonable to conclude that this organization is not a worthy investment.
  3. We’re not selling jeans here” (Or- Value impact over image): Famously, Michael Lewis writes in Moneyball that when scouts at the Oakland Athletics would ignore statistical performance and state that a prospect “has a great body,” Billy Beane would respond “We’re not selling jeans here,” implying that the goal of a successful baseball team is to find players who produce the needed impact, not project a desired image. We might want a certain conclusion to be true, but if the data does not back it up, we need to consider a change in strategy.

    Not surprisingly, this final principle is key for own understanding of what a “Moneyball Judaism” should mean. When we comment upon and promote individual organizations and modes of Jewish engagement, we need to ask ourselves whether or not we are searching for impact, or whether we are “selling jeans,” valuing image over impact. On paper, if one organization closes, and another one receives a $10 million donation, our typical reaction is to assume that the former organization is a failure, while the latter is a success. However, at the moment, we have limited knowledge as to whether or not the organization flush with cash is successful because they have the right members on their Advisory Board, the right marketing strategy, or simply the right aura.

    While Moneyball may be about the numbers, ultimately we reap the benefits of Moneyball when we use data to recognize what works, what doesn’t, and where our own biases hold us back from seeing the difference between the two. Sometimes, the data might confirm what our collective wisdom suggests, and while other items it might challenge a well-established belief. In either case, the more willing we are to use data to identify effective strategies, the more likely we are to pursue the strategies that lead to maximum success.
In his introduction to The Signal and the Noise, Nate Silver writes that, “we must think differently about our ideas – and how to test them. We must think more carefully about the assumptions and beliefs that we bring to a problem.” At the present time, the Jewish Community faces a variety of challenges on a number of fronts, yet we cannot stem the tide of declines in almost every measure of Jewish participation unless we are willing to challenge the way we make decisions, analyze the assumptions behind our current strategies, and learn how to ask the right questions about judging talent, value, and performance. Moneyball sparked a movement of thinkers in sports, politics, and business who saw the importance of being smarter about how we determine what assets are valuable in a market with limited resources and fierce competition. If the Jewish Community wants to succeed in stemming the tide of declining involvement, then we must have the courage to embrace “Moneyball Judaism,” and do the same.

Rabbi Joshua Rabin is the Rabbi-in-Residence of the Schechter School of Long Island. You can read more of his writings at

Friday, October 4, 2013

The Pew Data And Us

Welcome back to the Next Level. I am afraid that a month of chagim and opening school make blogging in Tishrei a real challenge. This week has been dominated (outside the cocoons of my school and family) by the government shutdown and the Pew Report. I expect to have something to say about the report later this month (about the shutdown I can only hope someone we have elected will be adults and solve the impasse). This post from eJewishPhilanthropy crossed my desk and struck me as one of the best early pieces on the report. (BTW, the full 212 page report is here.)

Shall we discuss it?

Shabbat shalom,


The Pew Data And Us
by Daniel S. Horwitz

For the early classical Reform Jews who settled in this country, the broad assimilation (71% intermarriage rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews) reflected in the recently released Pew survey data would be seen as amazing. “You mean the non-Jews are marrying us willingly, and people are referring to Judeo-Christian values? What a success! We’ve finally made it!”

The Pew data is truly fascinating. While it should come as no surprise that due to historically high rates of intermarriage there are now more individuals who identify as Jewish in some way (think about it – there are now that many more households containing a Jewish person), the more telling data makes it clear that “identity” doesn’t inherently link to practice or active involvement as part of the Jewish community (the fact that over 30% of those surveyed indicated they felt that being Jewish and believing in Jesus are not mutually exclusive in their minds is particularly indicative of this point).

The big issue in my mind is that outside of a construct of commandedness (an area where the overwhelming majority of American Jews reside), we in the liberal Jewish community have failed to meaningfully express an appropriate answer to that most fundamental of questions: “Why be Jewish?”

When we say that we want people to be Jewish, what do we really mean?

Why is it so important to us to continue existing as a nation / faith / culture?

In liberal Judaism today, one of the favorite answers is “Tikkun Olam” – “repairing the world.” But the answer can’t simply be Tikkun Olam. Many faiths hold “repairing the world” – often viewed through a social justice and charitable lens – as a value. Frankly, many Americans who do not identify with a faith group share this value and view it as a secular humanistic one.

So how do we respond to the question “Why be Jewish?”

“Because it’s tradition” as an answer will fail.

“Because of the Holocaust” as an answer will fail.

“Because we have a Jewish State” as an answer will fail.

“Because who are you to break the chain” and other guilt-ridden answers will fail.

Not only do we often struggle to find the right words to answer what theoretically should be a very simple question, but what the Pew survey (and many of the already drafted responses from interested parties) also makes clear is that ultimately, we have a complete inability in the liberal Jewish world to define what “success” looks like.

Here is where our Orthodox brethren arguably have it easier. Living within the context of commandedness implies that producing offspring who lead mitzvah-observant lives is the ultimate measure of a parent’s success in transmitting Jewish identity, literacy and practice to their children. In the liberal Jewish community, each person often measures success differently, as we (arguably, overly) value the experience of the individual, and encourage people to learn, explore, and take on practices that are meaningful to them. Thus, as a “community” (and whether or not there really exists, or can exist, a centralized, idealized, “Jewish community” is another question in and of itself), it’s near impossible to determine whether or not our collective efforts have been successful, due to a lack of definition as to what success itself looks like.

What constitutes “success”?

Let’s look at a hypothetical that helps elucidate this issue.

There is an independent Jewish prayer community that exists in Manhattan, made up largely of young Jewish adults in their 20s. Its members are both well educated and very insular. They celebrate Shabbat and holidays together, in many ways function as a chavurah, give charitably (but only to the minyan itself), and have a general disdain for the Federation system, Synagogues, Day Schools, Jewish Summer Camps and any other mainstream Jewish institution (despite often being products of some or all of these institutions themselves), due to rejecting what they perceive as “pay to pray” and “pay to play” models.

Is the prayer community itself, and the members who comprise it, a Jewish communal success? Why or why not?

What if it existed in a small mid-western town as opposed to a major city? What if its members’ average age was 65? Would such factors make a difference in determining whether or not it was deemed a “success”?

Would the “organized” Jewish community even know that they exist?

It’s time to stop worrying and start rejoicing.

Rabbi Brad Artson is quoted in the Forward (10/1/13) as saying that for the Conservative movement, while affiliation numbers may be down, his focus is on enhancing quality. His message should be universally accepted amongst liberal Jews of all (or no) denominations.

Being Jewish can add meaning to life. Being Jewish can add joy to life. Being Jewish can provide you with the chance to be part of a community of shared purpose, support, and annual rhythm. And, there are other faith (and secular) groups that can do that too. Truly. Being Jewish isn’t for everyone – even if you were born Jewish. If Judaism doesn’t add meaning to your life, and the Jewish community is one that you aren’t particularly keen on being a part of, guess what?

It’s okay.

We should strive to make the liberal Jewish community one that is full of substance, meaning, learning, warmth and above all, joy. Rather than trying to retain Jews using our strong history of tradition and (unfortunately) guilt, we should strive to live our lives as individuals and as communities in such a way that exemplifies how being Jewish is something so wonderful and joyous that if you were raised in a Jewish home that was actively part of a Jewish community, you couldn’t imagine raising your children any other way; and if you were raised in a Jewish home that was not actively part of a Jewish community, that you wish you had been, and seek to create one for your own family.

There is no universal definition of success. There is no one-size-fits-all answer to “Why be Jewish?” – the answer will be different, and intensely personal, for each individual. All we can do is live our lives authentically, with purpose and with joy, and make sure that the word is out – and that our actions reflect our deeply held value – that all are welcome to join us.

Daniel S. Horwitz is the Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.