I read Beyond BT’s recent article by Azriela Jaffe, Vaccinating Our Children Against Prayer, with great interest. Based on my own reform sunday school and temple experiences, I also felt that those experiences not only vaccinate Jewish children against prayer, but also against any interest in Judaism in general. My theory was that having no Jewish background, rather than a negative background, gives people more of a blank slate when it comes to approaching Judaism for the first time. I theorized that when these “blank slate Jews” do come into contact with frumkeit for the first time, it will be with a more open mind because they had no preconceived notions based on negative Jewish experiences.
But based on later experiences working with a number of Jewish, not-yet-religious college students, I have come to a different, though not mutually exclusive, conclusion.
I worked for three years in a community kollel in the United States. In the “kiruv” portion of my job, I worked primarily with Jewish college students at four different campuses running programs, giving classes, organizing Shabbatonim, organizing trips to New York, and trying to refer students to programs in Israel.
The students I was able to come into contact with were a minority of the Jewish student population at the campuses to begin with. They were a self-selected group of people who were interested in identifying with and participating in something Jewish, but I was never able to meet the majority of the Jewish students.
But within that already self-selected minority, it is interesting to note the Jewish “denominational” background of those minority of the Jewishly identified students. 90% of the these students were identified with either the conservative or reform movements. The remaining 10% or so came from an “unaffiliated” background.
Had I been a greater teacher, I would have been able to communicate with each person on their level and in a language that they understood. However, I was not such a great teacher. I found the conservative students the easiest to speak to about Jewish things. The next easiest group of students to speak to were the reform ones, but they were still harder to connect to, in general, than the conservative ones. And the most difficult to connect to were the ones from an unaffiliated background.
My impression was that the main thing that separated these groups was the extent to which there was any “common language” or “frame of reference” that they shared with Judaism and/or myself. To the extent that these students had any Jewish background at all, whether it be an awareness of the practice of certain mitzvos, certain famous stories in the Torah, or knowing a few common Hebrew words, I had some frame of reference, some common language with which to have some kind of jewish conversation with them.
The other problem with having no common language or frame of reference is that there were few values or morals that could be used as a frame of reference. Even without any specifically Jewish knowledge, someone with some of the values that are, on some level, shared by Judaism, is better equipped to relate to a Jewish message based on values, even if not based on more ostensibly “religious” aspects of Judaism.
So I think that having some Jewish background, even if it involves bad reform or conservative sunday school memories, gives those kids a leg up in two respects.
One, it gives them a somewhat greatly likelihood of having the propensity to expose themselves to occasional Jewish experiences during their lives to begin with. Without at least some jewish involvement, contact with frum people becomes less likely. You have to be in it to win it.
And two, those kids that had some Jewish background were, I think, more likely to have some common language or frame of reference, so that if and when they do come into contact with frumkeit, it enables at least some greater level of communication and connection. with Jewish people and Jewish ideas.
My main point is that even some level of affiliation by non-observant Jews is somewhat better than being unaffiliated. It’s at least a point to ponder!