Friday, October 9, 2009

Opportunities for growth


“Who is wise: One who sees what will become.”
— Mishne Avot.

Barry Rosenberg, Executive Vice President of the Jewish Federation, must be credited for crafting an essay laying out his ideas for the future of the Jewish community in St. Louis. As the focus of my work is geared toward developing accessible and meaningful Jewish educational experiences for college students and young adults, much of the essay is beyond the scope of my work.
I wish to add two ideas to the discussion. A comment on attracting young Jews to St. Louis based on my discussions with young people; and a thought on a topic dear to me — and quite relevant to a thriving Jewish future — the need for increased Jewish literacy and education.
For St. Louis to be a “preferred community for young Jews,” the region as a whole must thrive.
Young Jews who come to St. Louis for college are mobile and unlikely to stay in St. Louis after they graduate if they will be unemployed or underemployed. Evidence backs this up — each year we survey grad students about what it would take to keep them in St. Louis after they graduate and the most common response is “jobs.” These jobs will emerge out of the overall health of the St. Louis regional economy. If our regional economy is sluggish, it will be that much more challenging for us to compete with larger Jewish metropolises such as New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles to attract young Jews. On a macro level, there is little we can do as an organized Jewish community to influence these external processes — instead, we ought to engage with civic progress groups to strengthen the general economic base, which, in turn, will directly influence the future of the St. Louis Jewish community.
Jewish literacy and education are topics near to my heart, and I think about them every day.
Much of what ails the Jewish community, such as declining affiliation, philanthropic shrinkage, societal assimilation, can be understood as symptoms of a larger problem — a lack of relevant Jewish education. We must reposition Jewish education as a centerpiece of our community, for investment in Jewish education pays dividends in many areas: leadership development, decision-making, and philanthropy, to name a few. Professor Steven M. Cohen sums it up well: “The results are in: Jewish education works. Studies of specific experiences (e.g., camps, or day schools, or Israel experiences) as well as studies of combinations of experiences document the impact of Jewish education in almost all its varieties shows a striking correlation between Jewish education and involvement.”
Let us develop a culture that values Jewish education of the young, old and everyone in between. Together, we can reclaim knowledge of the treasure-trove of literature that make up our rich spiritual and cultural legacy. This would translate into deepened communal involvement and a greater potential for a thriving Jewish community in St. Louis.
“It is not upon you to complete the task, but you are not free to idle from it,” — Mishne Avot. May we together stride into a Jewishly bright and literate future.

Rabbi Hershey Novack, is director of Chabad on Campus – Rohr Center for Jewish Life.

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