The American Jewish community has been making a decades-long massive investment in education, including the expansion of Jewish day schools, overnight Jewish camping, Jewish Studies in college, Hillels, and educational travel to Israel. Research studies show the effectiveness of many forms of Jewish education for predicting adult Jewish involvement.
What is the overall contribution of Jewish education to the vitality of the American Jewish community? How were today’s Jewish leaders educated in their childhood and adolescent years? How do the patterns differ by denomination, political identity, age, leadership sector and marital status?
This study focuses on the educational patterns of Jewish leaders, both lay and professional. It asks: How were today’s Jewish leaders educated in their childhood and adolescent years? How do the patterns differ by denomination, political identity, age, and leadership sector?
To address these questions, Keren Keshet engaged Research Success Technologies Ltd. of Hanaton, Israel to undertake an Internet survey of American Jewish communal leaders, lay and professional. The opt-in sample for this survey consists of 2,079 respondents who lead American Jewish organizations of all sorts, or have served in such lay or professional capacities, or whose social profiles closely approximate communal leaders. They lead schools, congregations, camps, federations, advocacy groups, women organizations, academic bodies in Jewish Studies, social service agencies, and others as well.
Jewish Education is Widespread among Jewish Leaders
The adults now in Jewish leadership positions were widely exposed in their youth to numerous educational experiences, far higher than the Jewish public at large. As many as a third went to Jewish day schools from grades K through 8, and 2/3 of them – or 23% of the total -- continued on with day schools during their high school years. In addition, 59% went to overnight Jewish summer camp. Similar numbers participated in such influential experiences as Jewish youth groups, a third in part-time Hebrew high schools, a third in high school age trips to Israel, while about half took Jewish Studies courses in college, and almost as many participated in Hillel or other Jewish campus groups. Clearly, Jewish education in childhood, teen and college years is a central part of the life-trajectory of almost all of those who choose to become professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community.
The Increasing Importance of Jewish Education over Time
Younger Jewish leaders are more Jewishly educated than their older counterparts, meaning that Jewish leadership is increasingly educated as Jews. Just a quarter of Jewish leaders between the ages of 55-64 had attended a Jewish day school, while among those twenty years their junior, the figure rises to 44 percent. For overnight Jewish summer camps, 56 percent of the older leaders and 65 percent of the younger ones attended a Jewish summer camp. Triple the number of younger leaders as compared with older ones attended Jewish pre-schools; double the number attended Jewish day camps, organized teen trips to Israel and Hillel programs; and significantly more younger leaders attended Hebrew high schools, Jewish youth groups, and college courses in Jewish studies. Birthright participation also increases over the limited age span for which it has been available. The only form of Jewish education that doesn’t increase from older to younger leaders is part-time Hebrew school.
Among leaders with children aged 14 or older, we find remarkable inter-generational leaps in Jewish educational participation. Day school enrollment grows from 33% among the adults to 62% among their children. For camp participation the rates go from 58% for the leaders when they were children to 73% for their children. In fact, in EVERY leadership sector, the children’s rates of enrollment in day schools and camps exceed those of the parents. Moreover, all denominations display inter-generational increases for both day school and overnight camp usage.
Patterns of Jewish education vary dramatically by denomination. For leaders who identify as Orthodox, day school education in their childhood and teen years is quite widespread. For the non-Orthodox, overnight Jewish camping played an especially prominent and consequential role, as did other Jewish educational experiences such as campus engagement, Jewish Studies classes, and Birthright or other Israel educational travel.
With respect to day school attendance in childhood among today’s Jewish communal leaders, political conservatives report attending at least three times as often as those who are “very liberal”. Day school attendance rises steadily with increased political conservativism. But here too Jewish camping is different, in that the left, right, and middle of the political spectrum report roughly equal levels of attendance.
Leaders in different areas of Jewish life vary in the extent to which they participated in various sorts of Jewish educational experience. Day school board chairs attended day schools far more than lay leaders in other sectors. For their part, camp board chairs “over”-attended Jewish camps. Volunteer heads of youth groups display high rates of participation in Israel experience programs, Jewish Studies courses in college, and day school attendance. Hillel lay leaders display the same patterns of frequent educational participation as do the youth group leaders. Lay leaders in Israel-related organizations score high with respect to travel to Israel.
For their part, professional leaders have had a great deal of personal educational experience in the very kinds of institutions they came to lead. Day school heads went to day schools far more than others, and camp heads attended camp in their younger years fare more than other leaders. Senior rabbis at congregations frequently undertook Jewish studies, most often in the years shortly before rabbinical school.
By inference from the growth in the leaders’ Jewish education, the educational background that leads to Jewish leadership is increasing. For someone to consider leadership today, that person increasingly has a more serious educational background than was the case for older generations of Jewish leaders.
Jewish Education Forges Jewish Leadership
This research speaks to larger trends. More Jews who want to lead a life of Jewish commitment have been turning to several modalities of Jewish education to enrich their own lives and to improve the chances that their children will lead committed Jewish lives as well. In doing so, they are contributing to, expanding, and sustaining schools, camps, Israel experiences, and so forth.
Those concerned with promoting a rich and vibrant Jewish future would do well to recognize the many modalities of Jewish education – day schools, camps, Israel travel, Jewish Studies, Hillels and more that are an integral part of the pathways to Jewish leadership. For those who seek a more vibrant and engaged Jewish community in the future, the lessons of the recent past should be instructive. Jewish education – be it day schools, overnight camps, Israel travel, campus engagement, or other modalities – has helped forge a committed Jewish professional leadership, as well as an engaged Jewish public. As such is the case, Jewish education holds out hope to strengthen Jewish commitment, knowledge, connection, and participation. The more Jews who are educated today, the more Jews who will participate and lead in the years ahead.