Lessons in continuity

RABBI JAMES KENNARD

Extracts of summaries have a dangerous habit of quickly becoming accepted orthodoxy. So the comment in the AJN’s report on the Gen08 survey that “our biggest Jewish schools, in partnership with Jewish parents, are not getting it right if two-thirds of their graduates do not see their Jewish identity as central to who they are” needs proper scrutiny, before it forms the basis of critical but uninformed strategic decisions.

Not only does this generalisation ignore the complex and varied details of the report in favour of just one statistic, but even this conclusion is flawed. Any graduate of our schools who is also a parent can attest that the Jewish schools today are unrecognisable compared to just one generation ago. New curricula, pedagogies and programmes for pastoral care have transformed life at school. In particular, the time and resources devoted by each institution to informal Jewish education have created positive and meaningful Jewish experiences throughout a child’s school career.

Thus a survey of adult Jews, who attended school an average of 25 years ago, may tell us much about the respondents, but very little about the success of schools today. The surveys that schools undertake of their departing students each year tell a very different story.

In addition, while schools are happy to be judged on absolute numbers of graduates with strong Jewish identities, “added value” is a far more significant measure. Anecdotal and statistical evidence confirms that most of our students find their existing Jewish connection is enhanced and extended by their school programmes. When seen against the backdrop of the “secular” world and its seemingly ever-more attractive and available alternatives, and sometimes ambivalent support from parents, this is a considerable achievement. Jewish schools are getting it right.

The report rightly highlights the burden of school fees, as the costs incurred by schools continue to increase. But it bizarrely proposes to sit back and let day schools become the preserve of the wealthy instead of drawing the obvious conclusion – that the communal leadership needs a strategy to collectively reduce this burden. Throughout Jewish history and across the Jewish world, strong schools create strong communities. The very high proportion of our children attending day schools has been Australian Jewry’s greatest strength for sixty years, and we put that at risk at our peril.

There is one startling omission to the list of questions that the survey claims to answer. Whilst considering extensively the critical threats to Jewish continuity, it never once asks why we strive for continuity at all? It takes as a given that if young Jews exercise their free will and choose to be happily disengaged from Jewish life, that is a problem. But we do not mourn the myriad of ethnic groups that once built great cultures and live on today only in museums, so why exactly is Jewish life so important to preserve?

That question is so rarely asked because, tragically, many would struggle to find an answer. And therein lies precisely our problem and our challenge. It is because so many of our young people do not hear a positive reason to be Jewish and to create Jewish families that they are choosing another path. Let us be thankful for the dedicated teachers and educators in our schools whose role is to articulate the answer to this question. For the people of the book, education is the guarantor of continuity.

Rabbi James Kennard is principal of Mount Scopus Memorial College.