Every Hour Counts

The Australian Jewish Strategy

Last month, our Foundation undertook the first ever mission by any US Federation to explore Jewish Australia. It’s worth noting that normally our missions only visit communities that are the direct beneficiaries of our tzedakah – and the vibrant and well-resourced Australian Jewish community does not fit into that category.

So why did we go there? Simple: We went to see what we could learn. We went to compare notes with a successful Jewish community that operates differently from our own, and to observe what they do that really works, and – most importantly – to discern what practical lessons might be applied to our own circumstances.

So what did we discover? We found that in some areas our Pittsburgh Jewish community is exemplary in ways that clearly inspired our Australian hosts. No Jewish community in Australia has anything like the cohesiveness, the cooperation levels, the mutual respect, or the sense of closeness that we have in Pittsburgh. And no Jewish community in Australia has anything like our Federation – a body that raises funds jointly, that plans and allocates, that confers and convenes for the collective good. The Australians clearly envied our communal organization.

In one area, though, Australia has established a pattern of achievement that exceeds ours: the Jewish education of kids all the way through the end of high school. Let’s take Melbourne as an example. Melbourne is home to a very similar sized Jewish community to that of Pittsburgh (Melbourne has 55,000 Jews whereas the 2017 Pittsburgh study showed that we have 50,000 Jews).

Here, though, is the stark educational difference: Melbourne has eleven Jewish day schools, whereas Pittsburgh has three. Why do they need eleven Jewish day schools? Because 65% of K-12 aged Jewish kids in Melbourne attend Jewish day schools, with the majority going to Jewish schools all the way through their high school years. Bear in mind: overwhelmingly, these Australian students define themselves as secular or non-Orthodox when it comes to their religious observance. The corresponding number in Pittsburgh shows that 19% of our Jewish kids go to day schools. Amazingly, the Australians we met were busy lamenting that fifteen years ago their percentage attendance levels were at 80%, and that the figure has now declined to 65%!

But the numbers don’t tell the whole story. It’s also about what the Melbourne Jewish education system achieves with those numbers. Several of the day schools offer what’s called “Hebrew Immersion” – the opportunity for students to study all their subjects in Hebrew for two full years. Most students emerge from that experience with Hebrew fluency. Many of the schools make Jewish studies mandatory throughout the high school years, meaning that large numbers of Jewish kids graduate with a significant acquaintance with Jewish texts, traditions, practices, and thought. When it comes to Israel, the schools typically send their students to Israel on programs of considerable depth that last weeks, not days.

What’s the result of all this? It is plain that the impact of the Jewish day schools permeates the community. Higher levels of Jewish knowledge and identity mean increased participation in Jewish youth movements, a community with elevated rates of engagement with Jewish cultural and religious events, and a relatively low intermarriage rate. Intermarriage currently hovers around 25% in Australia, whereas in the US the rate is above 60%.

In our discussions in Australia, some thought that, given current trends, the Australian Jewish community will ultimately head in the same direction as that of the US, “just a generation or two behind”. This conclusion, however, seems unlikely. It ignores the fact that very few locations in the US have ever built an infrastructure of day schools or a communal culture of day school attendance that is anything like what the Australians have put together. While the attendance numbers may have dropped a little, Australian Jews still appear strongly devoted to reinforcing and funding the school system that has powerfully strengthened their communities.

There is a significant lesson to be learned here. Even if we can’t completely copy Australia by raising the percentage of our kids attending day schools, every additional hour spent in Jewish education – even in a part-time context – earns real dividends for Jewish identity.

Unfortunately, we are headed in the opposite direction. In recent years, virtually every time a new Jewish religious school program is introduced, it advertises that learning Judaism is possible with fewer hours, less sessions, and lighter content than ever before. Many of today’s part-time learning endeavors claim to be able to teach kids Judaism in considerably less than half the time that was normal a decade or two ago.

And why are the educators shrinking the size of the Jewish learning package? Because parents told them that their kids can’t commit to anything more. We are getting exactly what we requested, even though it may not serve us well.

Here’s the truth that we learned in Australia: when it comes to creating a serious love of Judaism and a rooted Jewish identity, hours count. Jewish learning is not magic. You can’t create an ever-improving outcome with an ever-shrinking curriculum. If we want more committed Jews with a knowledge of their tradition and a devotion to its future, time matters. It’s the Australian strategy, and perhaps it’s worth emulating.

Foundation Down Under 2019
Foundation Down Under 2019 Mission to Australia
(left to right) Daniel Brandeis, Sharon Perelman, Rabbi Danny Schiff
Rabbi Danny Schiff

If you have thoughts or reactions in connection with this piece, I would be pleased to hear from you. Feel free to leave a comment below or continue the conversation by contacting me directly at [email protected].

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2 Comments

  1. Alva Daffner on April 1, 2020 at 5:17 PM

    Generally speaking, Australia runs 15-20 years behind the United States in social change. It was true with drug use, growing violence, antisemitism and other areas too numerous to mention. The Australian Jewish community, sorry to say, has its eyes wide open when they see the described changes coming in Jewish commitment. It is not tied to the number of day schools or level of learning. Jews everywhere are a minority in a larger society and, in fact, pride ourselves on our ability to adapt and adjust. That is what will diminish the current richness of the Australian Jewish community. It saddens me (as does the state of our own US Jewish community), but I believe that they read clearly when they see the writing on the wall. We didn’t.

    My sister has lived in Melbourne for about 30 years and has been active in her (your) congregation for much of that time. She has done a considerable amount of outreach work, and I commend her for that. I do not, however, believe that bringing small outlying communities “into the fold” will change anything. They will drift away again as the larger communities, Sydney and Melbourne, diminish and can no longer lead, encourage and enrich.

  2. Ann Sheckter Powell on April 30, 2020 at 6:08 PM

    I hope that Alva Daffner’s prophesy about Australian Jewish life is wrong: that it is pessimistic rather than realistic. That we cannot know (who would have imagined synagogues shut and Seders spent alone in 2020?). But what is certain is that the abysmal state of Jewish education – or non-education – is taking United States Jewry on a deadly downward trajectory. What, other than wring our hands, will we do about it? If we truly had the sense of urgency that we ought to have, we would change course right now.

    My own experience has been that, whenever the subject comes up, everyone talks about the obstacles: where is the money for buildings, curricula, etc? But why can’t we take advantage of online education (now all the imposed rage) and cyber schools and build Jewish education onto them, so that we don’t need to hire a teacher for every secular subject? Why do we need even more buildings when we have unused spaces in the ones we already have? What about big old houses, for that matter? Or small ones? Why don’t we take a hard look at all the money spent by each of our Jewish institutions and allocate some of it for Jewish education? Why don’t we take advantage of talented college students and retired ones to teach a course or two? What are any of our programs worth if we lose our children? Where is our sense of urgency?

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