Get­ting Our Groove Back: How to Ener­gize Amer­i­can Jewry

  • Review
November 16, 2011

As the cri­sis addressed in this book, that of the dwin­dling, deplet­ed, and con­fused Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, is an exis­ten­tial one, let us begin with the bot­tom line: Scott Shay has writ­ten a strik­ing and impor­tant book, one that, while offer­ing noth­ing but prac­ti­cal solu­tions to con­crete prob­lems, is nonethe­less vision­ary and inspiring.

Let us now retrace our steps. The prob­lem, as Shay elo­quent­ly states in the book’s intro­duc­tion, is one of being ver­sus noth­ing­ness: Amer­i­can Jew­ry,” he writes, is fac­ing its most sig­nif­i­cant cri­sis in the 350 years since the first Jews arrived in New Ams­ter­dam,” a cri­sis that runs deep and wide, with insti­tu­tions and indi­vid­u­als alike plagued by a host of mal­adies, from esca­lat­ing inter­mar­riage to dwin­dling enroll­ment in Hebrew schools. Unless some­thing is done, Shay warns us, the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty may be no more, at least not in its present, proud state. 

To ame­lio­rate the sit­u­a­tion, Shay, a Wall Street banker with a long record of vol­un­teer­ing in var­i­ous Jew­ish orga­ni­za­tions, presents ten achiev­able solu­tions to ten press­ing problems. 

Take Hebrew school, for exam­ple. Shay begins his treat­ment of the top­ic with a fan­ta­sy: As a child, he recalls, he would escape the ennui of Hebrew school by wish­ing for a kind­ly gen­tle­man to appear and promise to replace the tedious lessons with free hock­ey ses­sions at a near­by rink if only he and his class­mates vowed to learn their bar mitz­vah Haftorahs. Shay then pro­ceeds to turn his child­hood day­dreams into a seri­ous syn­op­sis for change: Instead of fol­low­ing an edu­ca­tion­al mod­el that was large­ly unchanged since it was designed eight cen­turies ago, Hebrew schools should seek out cre­ative and engag­ing ways to revi­tal­ize both staff and curriculum. 

But Shay is not one for plat­i­tudes. Where­as the same top­ic, like all of the ground cov­ered in this book, was tread before by writ­ers of a more ephemer­al dis­po­si­tion, Shay approach­es the task at hand as one might a bal­ance sheet, real­iz­ing that when­ev­er much is at stake, only con­crete­ness will do. In the Hebrew school sec­tion, for exam­ple, he pro­vides sev­er­al exam­ples of suc­cess sto­ries the nation over, and then embarks on a five­pronged plan to save the dim­ming insti­tu­tion and boost sag­ging enroll­ment rates. 

The same occurs through­out the book; judi­cious­ly pep­per­ing his prose with charts, sta­tis­tics, and sur­veys, Shay suc­ceeds in fram­ing the Big Pic­ture with small­er, spe­cif­ic and sen­si­ble solu­tions, mak­ing even the most daunt­ing of prob­lems appear immi­nent­ly solv­able. And, as much of an effec­tive writer as he is an insight­ful ana­lyst, Shay weaves into his clear and sim­ple nar­ra­tive the occa­sion­al care­ful­ly select­ed lit­er­ary quote or well-placed visu­al aid: To empha­size the dan­gers fac­ing the Amer­i­can Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, to name but one instance, Shay jux­ta­pos­es a graph demon­strat­ing the liq­uidiz­ing of an ice cube as tem­per­a­ture ris­es with one show­ing the pro­ject­ed per­cent­age of Jews in the total U.S. pop­u­la­tion. The mes­sage is clear: Com­pla­cen­cy,” as Shay him­self puts it, means defeat.”

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