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Gray Academy and Synagogues-The Future of our Community in Light of the Pew Study

by Rhonda Spivak, Nov 17, 2013




THIS EDITORIAL is being written in light of Rabbi Green's Yom Kippur Sermon to Integrate the Gray Academy Judaics Program with synagogue life.

Let me start from the proposition that  I agree with Rabbi Green's call. It's a good thing you spoke out Rabbi Green. From my perspective, you ought to have spoken out about 10 years ago--when the synagogue would have been full to hear you. Nonetheless, you are to be credited for beginning a community conversation that is long overdue.
I have been concerned for some time that Gray Academy is graduating many students who are not Jewishly literate enough when it comes to being able to "daven" and follow a basic prayer service, let alone speak Hebrew. And if that's the case, as I suspect it is, then the school is   not serving our community well enough. I am sure there are some who can daven, but I also think there are many who cannot--too many in my view.  As long as you graduate students who do not know how to daven, you are depriving our synagogues of the air they need to survive.  If you graduate Jewish children who are not comfortable picking up a prayer book and participating in a synagogue service, you have "handicapped" them for life.  
I come from a family where neither of my parents would have been able to teach me to "daven" in Hebrew so my ability to attend a service (anywhere in the world)  and actively participate is a direct result of what I learned at Ramah school and Joseph Wolinsky Collegiate. (And what I learned in Joseph Wolinsky, be it the history or meaning of some of the prayers and customs that go with them, was critical to my Jewish identity.)
Daily prayer takes place at Gray Academy from grades 1-6, and then stops being a compulsory part of the curriculum.  I attended a Limmud session last year where Len Udow presented a session on prayer, and he played the guitar and sang some beautiful melodies.  I asked a Gray Academy teacher whether graduating students  would know the daily prayers when they graduated as well as they had when they were in grade six. The teacher hesitated and said "I'm not sure." (That in itself says a lot.)  Now it wouldn't be very difficult for me or anyone else wanting to conduct a study to get a sample of recent Gray Academy graduates and give them a prayer book and video them to see what they can do---I suspect that such a study would confirm my suspicions that many of them can't. If students don't repeat the prayers in high school on a regular basis, and don't regularly attend synagogue, they will graduate from our community Jewish day school without being able to comfortably participate in or lead a prayer service.
It has been suggested to me that the school couldn't make daily prayer compulsory since there was not enough time in the day to do so while still meeting provincial requirements for the provincially mandated General Studies curriculum.  I don't buy this. As another Gray Academy parent pointed out to me, senior high students have spares. In fact, my daughter and her friend (grade 10 students) told me they have anywhere from 3-6 spares a week, in addition to lunch hour. And of course, there is always the opportunity to  begin a Judaic studies class with prayer.  Since Judaic studies comprise 30% of the total curriculum, all prayers can be covered over the course of the 6 day school cycle. (Rory Paul has told me that the province would like to change this to be 25% instead of 30% and my answer is that we’ll deal with it then if it happens).
But why hasn't the Judaic Studies curriculum been redesigned so that daily prayer is compulsory from grade 1 -12?   Why aren't high school students given research projects on the history of Jewish prayer, the time period in Jewish history when they were written, how prayer was developed after the destruction of the Temple, and the differences between Ashkenazi and Sephardic prayer? Why aren't our students learning the beautiful Cantor Brownstone melodies?  Why isn't Len Udow leading sessions for students as he did in Limmud? (Rory  Paul , CEO of Gray Academy in a conversation I had with him agreed with my suggestion that the school bring in Len Udow to teach the students in high school new prayer melodies- but that he understandably would have to pay Len Udow, meaning money would have to be found to do so Which reminds me that in my view there ought to have been more Jewish educators (teachers and administration) from Gray Academy at the Jewish Federation of Winnipeg's Limmud program last year, and I hope that is the case this year).
There are some why may say that daily prayer couldn't be implemented from grades 7-12 because there are some parents who wouldn't want it, and there are those who believe the role of the community school is to reflect the parent population as opposed to leading. This is interesting given that the many Jewish parents who send their sons to St. Paul's High School don't object to their children learning about Christianity there  and attending Catholic mass (They attend mass once a month).  Is the suggestion that we will lose students because the school is too Jewish? Has the Winnipeg Board of Jewish Education not really decided if the role of the school is to reflect the community or to lead it.  Really? I suggest the WBJE had better canvass the community funders for guidance then.  I don't think parents would pull their kids from high school if there were daily prayer. Camp Massad has been conducting daily prayers in Hebrew every morning for THE LAST 60 YEARS and no one has pulled their kid from camp over it. And no one complains about the daily prayer service either.  Many of the Massad camp fire songs are prayers: Adon Olam, Sim Shalom, Kol Ha'alom Choolo Gesher Zar Me'od. Please don't tell me that Camp Massad can do what Gray Academy can't. 

Communal prayer builds community.  I can't imagine parents pulling their kids out of high school because there is morning prayer , especially if it's done in a creative way where students can play instruments, learn new melodies, share the origin and purpose of prayer. It has also been suggested by some that about 25% of the school population is new  Russian Israeli immigrants from a completely secular background who may not want prayer. But surely that can't be a reason to not give it--should these new immigrants be able to determine the future of our community existence  because they are Jewishly illiterate, and came from a country (Russia) that suppressed the Judaism. Surely the Federation hasn't been promoting their immigration here, so that their presence in Gray Academy can be used as a reason to make the school have to dilute the amount of prayer and Jewish education it gives!.  If the WBJE determines that it is safer to reflect the community and not lead it, it is dooming children to the same or lower level of Jewish literacy that  their parents have. Since ours is a non-orthodox community, where assimilation is growing as are intermarriage rates, the longevity of this Jewish community is at risk.  Anyone reading  the new Pew Study, (which I suggest all WBJE Board members and anyone in the Jewish civil service read-and read a sampling of articles about it ) will see if we don't increase the level of Jewish literacy here,  in 25-30 years our community will resemble Regina's or Brandon's Jewish community.  Anyone reading the new Pew Study Study will be able to come to this conclusion:


If you look at Jewish history, there is no precedent for a Jewish community surviving when all of their synagogue congregations are diminishing. (Merging two synagogues with diminishing congregations doesn't provide an answer to reviving synagogue life-- zero plus zero still equals zero). In other communities, even when the Conservative synagogues are in decline, orthodox shuls aren't. But we don't have a substantial orthodox community, and unless we can find a way to revive synagogue life in Conservative/Reform synagogues, this community will not survive long term in my view even with the Jewish Foundation of Manitoba's $80 million in assets.


I will get to what I think the role of the Jewish Foundation ought to be in this community given the decline of our synagogues in a future editorial. But as food for thought, I urge Jewish Foundation board members and staff to find me a precedent in all of Jewish history where a community has thrived when all its synagogues are failing.  If our synagogues continue to fail, I predict that within the next  20 years, we may well be on the road to having a Jewish Foundation whose money will outlive the Jewish community itself.  There is a   Jewish community in Chile in South America, where the Jews are gone, and their Jewish Foundation interest supports the general community.


As more food for thought, note that the intermarriage rate could well be about 70%.  How many synagogue weddings, or weddings officiated by a rabbi have taken place in the past 5 years?  How many took place 20, 30, 50 years ago? A large US study has shown that only 16% of adult children of intermarried couples identified themselves as Jews by religion, with another 26 percent self-identifying as secular Jews. Almost half named their religion as Christianity.  [There are obviously a lot of variables here so its worth having a look at the full study] 


As Jonathon Tobin correctly points out in an article in Commentary Magazine,


"For all of the popularity of secular and purely cultural Judaism, the [Pew Survey] survey indicates that in a nation where Jews remain a small minority and where all are free to assimilate, these concepts are halfway houses to assimilation, not a path to a viable future."


In our conversation, Mr. Paul said that there is optional Tfillah before school starts for those who want to attend. (Editor's note:  this is mostly attended by the kids who attend Herzlia synagogue). But Before school tfillah isn't an option for many parents who logistically can't get their kids to school as early as is required. As well, Etz Chayim's Cantorial Soloist and WBJE president Tracy Greaves works with high school students in grades 8-12 preparing Shabbat services, which take place mostly at Etz Chaim, as I understand it, and also  involve volunteering after school. But this is  AN OPTION. Why isn't it compulsory?  Gray Academy doesn't make MATH an option, does it? How many kids would go to math class if it was an option instead of compulsory? Rory Paul told me that 100 out of 250 volunteer for these Shabbatons. Well, he's just proven my point that many of the students will graduate illiterate when it comes to Shabbat services. He says he looks at the glass as half full--I say it's more than half empty.  And we can certainly see that now our synagogues are half empty -so we can't get down to a quarter or an eighth full. Rabi Green is correct. The answer in my view is to make knowing how to lead shabbat services as compulsory (if some Russian Israeli parents  complain and insist on their kids being excused, then they can do more time consuming projects on a Jewish issue in place, in my view).


Additionally, it is to be noted that parents are not given any specific notification about the existence of their children's ability to volunteer for the Cantor Greaves shabbatons. I just learned that my son in grade 9 didn't volunteer for the Shabbat services. The only reason I know is I began speaking to Rory Paul for this article. I asked my son why he didn't volunteer. His answer "Because none of my friends did." Which also proves my point. If Gray Academy made learning the Shabbat service compulsory then his friends would be there, wouldn't they? (Now that we've had a chance to talk to him further, my son has agreed to volunteer.).


This doesn't mean that the synagogues ought not be active in providing programming for youth--such as USY, and find ways to engage youth. They are going to have to in order to make themselves relevant ( I know Herzlia synagogue is sending children to NCSY conclaves- which is a good way of beefing up Jewish identity for teens. I am not certain what SZ or Etz Chayim are doing and they are welcome to write in and advise and I will be pleased to print it ).


What we can't do is make the Jewish literacy level go down further here--our synagogues are already in trouble, big trouble . If we accept half full as a working baseline, please don't be surprised if we look like the Regina and Brandon Jewish community within a generation. I'm on record with the warning.



My bottom line: if Jewish education and literacy for children and adults do not increase, there may be a semblance of cultural Judaism here in Winnipeg, but it certainly won't be a Jewish community as we know it, (and I'm not sure it will even be at all) I for one  anticipate  telling my kids to get out and find a larger Jewish community, where they can live Jewishly and raise Jewish children.



1. Must Read: Daniel Gordis’s Eulogy for the conservative Movement:


"Barring some now unforeseeable development, the movement’s future is bleak. As Rabbi Edward Feinstein, one of the movement’s leading pulpit rabbis noted at the recent post-Pew United Synagogue Convention, “Our house is on fire . . . If you don’t read anything else in the Pew report, [you should note that] we have maybe 10 years left. In the next 10 years, you will see a rapid collapse of synagogues and the national organizations that support them.”


Think hard what this prediction means in our Winnipeg Jewish community, where we have a very very small orthodox community.

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Rhonda Spivak, Editor

Publisher: Spivak's Jewish Review Ltd.

Opinions expressed in letters to the editor or articles by contributing writers are not necessarily endorsed by Winnipeg Jewish Review.