As the American Jewish population assimilates, author readings at synagogues, camping trips, cooking classes, happy hours and dating apps targeted at Jews are often praised for keeping otherwise unaffiliated Jews in the fold.
Erica Brown is a pointed skeptic of such efforts.
“There’s a deep and pervasive hunger for meaning that is not adequately addressed with big-name celebrity speakers and, you know, alcohol-based events,” says Brown, director of the Mayberg Center for Jewish Education and Leadership at the George Washington University.
Brown, who is Modern Orthodox, believes the increasing number of Jews who identify as “just Jewish” points to a lack of specific knowledge. Many Jews, Brown believes, don’t know enough about their faith of culture to identify as anything else.
“Often when people say, ‘I’m a cultural Jew,’ it’s a mask for saying, ‘I don’t know anything about Judaism, nor do I engage in Jewish behaviors,’” she says.
Brown, a prolific author, is finishing a new commentary on the Book of Esther, subtitled “power, fate and fragility in exile.” She says the book speaks to the perils of Jews in the
Diaspora — including assimilation.
“We don’t know how assimilated the Jews of ancient Persia were, but one opinion in the Talmud suggests that they felt too at home at Ahasuerus’ party, the scene that opens the book,” Brown wrote in an email.
Though she called out “uninformed Jewish pride” in an article last year for the Jewish Review of Books, Brown says that pride is good — and stands in stark contrast to a 20th-centuryidentity largely shaped by the “experience of Jewish misery and persecution.”
“That we have been able to overcome that and create a sort of Judaism that is associated with community and joy is an enormous accomplishment,” Brown says. “Now it’s time to take that to the next stage of Jewish knowledge so we’re not just drowning in Jewish clichés.”
To address that knowledge, the Mayberg Center recently launched two programs aimed at better educating Jewish children and adults.
This summer marked the start of a new master’s degree in curriculum and instruction with a concentration in Jewish education. Brown, who studies pedagogy and education at GWU, says that day schools and synagogues are facing a massive shortage of teachers — especially qualified ones — due to poor pay and demanding parents. More, knowledgeable Jewish studies educators often have little training in classroom management, curriculum management and the other nuts of bolts of teaching.
Brown hopes the program will equip a new generation of Jewish studies teachers with the tools they need for a meaningful career.
The center is also starting a “blended-learning” program next year for senior professionals at Jewish nonprofits to learn about Jewish values, rituals and foundational concepts. Brown says she witnessed a lack of religious literacy among many Jewish organizational leaders during her nearly two decades at Jewish federations in Boston and Washington.
While these nonprofit leaders were skilled at running the organizing, they hit a wall when it came to Judaism itself.
“They freeze up and read something that someone else wrote that they just copied wholesale online,” Brown says.
Offering high-level Jewish education for organizational leaders speaks to another of Brown’s priorities: showing that Judaism has the same kind of universal wisdom to offer that people often receive in the form of inspirational quotes from figures like the Dalai Lama.
“There is something Judaism has to say about office cultures, about gossip, about forgiveness, about decision making,” Brown says. “Judaism has an abundance of this and a lot of people don’t know it.”
And if they don’t learn?
“We risk losing our intellectual and spiritual edge,” Brown said.
Arno Rosenfeld is a Washington-area writer.