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.”