Illustration by Lior Zaltzman
In last week’s editorial, Jane Eisner once again fretted about the state of contemporary American Judaism, most pointedly about the purported declining fertility rate amongst non-Orthodox Jews as touted by the infamous (and frankly overplayed) 2013 Pew survey. While she proposed no actual, feasible solution to this problem (or rather, this set of statistics presented as a problem), she exhibited a paranoia about the extinction of American non-Orthodox Jewry mainly due to her arbitrary rubric of what an appropriate Jew can and should be.
Eisner severely delineates between Orthodox Jewry and non-Orthodox Jewry, the latter characterized as “progressive Jews,” ostensibly Jews that are a part of the Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist movements as well as the unaffiliated. In her piece, she points to comparisons of fertility rates between American Orthodox Jewry and the aforementioned subgroups of non-Orthodox Jewish strains, citing one analysis that “there are 5,000 more Orthodox Jews and 10,000 fewer non-Orthodox ones in America, every year.”
What Eisner fails to illustrate is the significance of how or why this is problematic.
As I listened to friends and family begrudgingly make decisions about Hebrew school for their kids this year, I started a conversation on my personal blog about alternatives to the typical after-school programs. As I mentioned, I was not asking on behalf of my own family.
My kids go to a non-Orthodox day school, attend shul every week and live in a home that I’ve described elsewhere as “Reformadox”. I was asking for new ideas on behalf of my friends and as a concerned member of the larger Jewish community. I felt that, with so many disgruntled customers out there, there had to be some newer, experimental models to try.
I heard from families in various cities who belong to Reform or Conservative synagogues, but send their kids to a Chabad-run religious/Hebrew school program on Sundays, meeting the call of Jews who want their kids to experience a Jewish education, but not at the expense of the taking over the family’s schedule for the week.
Some families in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago said they dropped out of their synagogue’s Hebrew school for a newer organization run by an Orthodox couple called Jewish Family Experience. Rabbi Yehuda Polstein and his wife, Mashi Polstein, run their own school which, like Chabad’s supplemental school, meets on Sundays. JFE, as the group’s members call it, is based on another popular program in Cleveland called Jewish Family Experience, commonly referred to as JFX. At JFX in Cleveland, entire families meet on Sundays for Jewish education. I heard from parents in both cities who raved about the passion for Judaism their kids felt and the depth of knowledge the kids and parents learned during the once-a-week sessions.
There are many ways I have grown as I raise my children. I have learned to love so deeply while struggling to maintain my autonomous self. I’ve also learned how to stand back, allowing my children to fail and flail, equipping them to prioritize growth and maturation over momentary satisfaction. Some of my own development as a mother, though, happens uniquely through raising my two boys; unlike my three daughters, they are adopted. (As my husband and I say, “We produce girls and import boys.”)
Our older son, Adar, who is now 14, came home when he was nine months old; our younger son, Zamir, 11, came home when he was four years old. They both ask big questions about loss, love and family — and not on a theoretical level. Why doesn’t God give someone what he wants even if he’s a good boy who asks for it? Or, Did it hurt my tummy-mommy when I was born? They make our family a window to God and life’s mysteries. Raising our sons in a world of brokenness, we have found traces of repair. Like Zamir looking up from amidst the cacophony of beginner’s orchestra, meeting my eyes, and missing a note on his trumpet because he can’t suppress a smile.