In any culture, educating the young in the values of their society is an essential guarantor of the society’s health and future. What’s too often overlooked is that the reverse is equally true. A successful educational system is itself a sign of a healthy culture.
Using that yardstick, there’s good news in the Forward’s spring Education supplement, appearing in this week’s issue. Surveying the landscape of the Jewish community as the new semester opens, we found growth and optimism in some corners where we least expected them. Of these, the most encouraging is the dramatic boom in Jewish studies on campus, including Hebrew language studies.
As Nacha Cattan reports on Page 11, fully 41% of current Jewish undergraduate and graduate students say they have taken a Jewish studies class in college, according to the findings of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01. That figure includes a full one-fourth of students who say they had no prior Jewish education.
What it means is that Jewish studies courses on campus are serving as a pathway to Jewish identity and awareness for significant numbers of young people who hadn’t found their way into Jewishness before that. Put differently, it shows that molding the Jewish identity of the next generation is an ongoing enterprise that needn’t end when the kids learn to drive.
Even more surprising is the quiet boom in college-level Hebrew language study. As Rachel Zuckerman reports, the number of students taking biblical Hebrew courses rose by an astonishing 59% between 1998 and 2002, according to the statistics of the Modern Language Association. While some of those are said to be Evangelical Christians seeking to read the Bible in the original, many are Jews seeking out their own community’s heritage. Indeed, the number of students studying modern Hebrew, the language of the reborn State of Israel, rose by nearly 30% in the same period.
The rise in Hebrew and Jewish studies in general seems to indicate that for all the alarms we’ve been hearing, there’s still a solid core of American Jews out there who feel connected to their heritage and their community and want to understand more.
The growing numbers are a tribute to the passion and dedication of Jewish scholars and communal activists who are working at every level to make education better and more available. No less important, they’re a testament to the spirit and loyalty of ordinary American Jews.