Friday, November 23, 2001

Hit and Run Judaism

Smart people know that instant gratification is stupid, that a quick pay-off that provides fleeting satisfaction is far less desirable than the lasting benefits that accrue through extensive work, commitment and investment. Instant gratification is, in short, for losers. We Jews are obviously smart so instant gratification is not for us.

Smart or not, in an escalating fashion American Jewish life is characterized by a ton of activities that are transient and ephemeral, that give an immediate high and then are gone with the wind. I call this phenomenon hit and run Judaism.

An obvious example is the scholar-in-residence game that abounds in congregational life. For a couple of thousand dollars or so, synagogues invite outside rabbis or academic types to come for a Shabbos, to speak and teach a bit and to entertain. When the Sabbath departs, so do these ersatz residents, either with a check in hand or a promise that it will soon be in the mail. These exercises are popular not because they result in any real benefit – that isn’t their goal – but because they are trendy, the thing to do.

Admittedly, except for the cost, these visits are generally benign, although they can engender kvetching spells by congregants who compare their Rabbi unfavorably with the hit and runner. They want to know why their Rabbi isn’t as learned or as good a speaker or as friendly as the fellow who has already skipped town. Sic transit gloria. While the regular rabbi is being pummeled, likely as not he is comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick, giving counsel to those in distress, attending a communal meeting.

There are able Rabbis who have abandoned the draconian life of the pulpit and enlisted in the greener pastures of the hit and runners. The more we esteem and reward those who make life a fleeting stage, the more we create disincentives for talented people to stay on for the long haul in positions that are vital for the well-being of the Jewish people.

A different variety of hit and run Judaism is found in outreach activity where the tendency is to rely on transient experiences to draw the uncommitted or marginally religious closer to Judaism. There are quickie courses, visiting teams of yeshiva students, occasional drop-ins by an outreach maven and once-a-month classes. For all of the good intentions that motivate these activities, they scarcely allow prospective returnees to appreciate the glories of religious commitment. Is it any wonder that outreach is in crisis, unable to build on the advances of a decade or two ago?

This isn’t meant to denigrate those who toil in the field. They are dedicated and there are solid accomplishments. There also are activities that are more permanent and therefore more effective, such as Beginnings Services in synagogues. My point is to suggest that certain tactics widely employed by the kiruv movement cannot counteract the powerful assimilatory forces that every day permeate the lives of nearly all American Jews. A smart man said to me recently that Chabad is succeeding in so many communities because when its people come, that’s where they stay. There are no greener or other pastures. Where they are today is where they shall be tomorrow.

The most pernicious hit and runners are the educational experts who have carved out a lucrative niche for themselves that is fed by gullible foundations and private philanthropists. The donors have bought hook, line and sinker the ridiculous notion that the best way to support or improve Jewish education is not by providing support to schools and faculty but to fund projects that are conducted by outside experts. As a consequence, teachers continue to be woefully underpaid and, except for those that serve an affluent clientele, day schools are forced to provide a dual educational program on a shoe-string.

What qualifies this arrangement as hit and run is that the experts manage to squeeze into their sterile schedules of endless conferences, conventions, meetings, etc. quick visits to Jewish schools. They arrive with their handbooks of cliches and depart by making a contribution of their checklists of things that school officials should do. Some of what they suggest is plain wrong or stupid; nearly all of the rest cannot be done because our schools are generally small and remarkably under-funded. There is also the problem that the experts are usually inexpert on the institutional culture that drives so many of the decisions that may appear errant to outsiders. After all, a school must accommodate the diverse needs, aspirations and ideologies of students and parents.

Unlike the congregational scholars-in-resident, the educational hit and runners can cause serious damage because their advice may well undermine parental or lay leadership confidence in the educators who are on the firing line. One of the remarkable and frightening developments in Jewish education in the recent period is the astoundingly high turnover rate among Jewish school principals, too many of whom are forced to leave. Actually, some – and they are among the best – leave willingly to seek employment in the growing array of organizations and projects that are looking for Jewish educational experts. This has exacerbated the leadership crisis in Jewish schools.

Admittedly, there is a parallel development in public education, as the tenure of too many able principles is short-lived. The effectiveness of educational leadership is curtailed when outside experts and consultants tell school officials who are bereft of the necessary resources that they must implement the vision of the outsiders.

Right now, the trend toward hit and run Judaism seems irreversible, especially since it is in tune with the instincts and practices of the philanthropic sector. Instant gratification is venerated in organized American Jewish life.