Erica Brown

The Shtarker Image

It’s high time for a Jewish innovations catalog, and I have just the one: “The Shtarker Image.” In Yiddish “shtark” means strong or powerful, smart, tough-minded or hard-hearted. But for my purposes, shtark refers to terrific Jewish items you thought you could live without until you actually owned them.

In “The Shtarker Image,” you can buy a Kindle with a special Shabbat mode that contains services, Shabbat table songs, grace after meals and graphic novels in case the sermon is really boring. Just in time for shipping before the High Holy Days. We also have an electric shofar for perfect pitch every time and magic spray to keep apples from browning on the holiday table. We have white Crocs for Yom Kippur, flannel-backed tallitot for over-air-conditioned synagogues and breath spray with the taste of a lox break-fast when energy flags. It does not count as food even according to the strictest authorities.

Our centerfold is the Shtendercisor 613, an item I have been hocking for years. It is a treadmill with a lectern so that you can pray, study and lose weight at the same time. Now you never have to decide between daily minyan and the gym. It has a cup holder for water or a nice cup of coffee. There are also two side shelves, one for commentaries and the other for a little nosh. Exercise is important, but let’s not get hysterical.

I am looking for a few angel investors. You in?

The real problem is not the money for my mental machine. It’s the culture. Every year at this season, I make a pitch for the importance of adult education. As school starts for kids, it’s a great time for grown-ups to grow intellectually and spiritually. Redeem those terrible Hebrew school hours of old. Do something this year for your kids by modeling what it means to be a lifelong learner. Show curiosity about your faith and your history. Help nurture your own spirituality.

I can make a pitch, but in the spirit of confession, I’ve been making an annual error. I have been directing this infomercial to individuals when the real problem is that Jewish organizations have largely let go of the Jewish learning renaissance that was all the “rage” about a decade ago. Jewish study franchise programs are diminishing in attendance, recruiting for synagogue classes has become burdensome and there is hardly anyone in classes under 50 anymore.

Our larger culture extols posts, tweets and sound-bytes making comprehensive study much harder. Learning takes personal and institutional commitment. We have not given the message that leadership of federations, JCCs and social service institutions should involve the Jewish self-confidence that comes with literacy. We have high general educational expectations of ourselves and our children, but we are too often infants in our Jewish lives, and it matters too little.

And please don’t make the claim you are a cultural rather than a religious or learned Jew if you don’t have any Jewish culture. You would not call yourself a cultured person if you hated fine music, theater, art and museums. Cultural Judaism involves knowledge of ancient and contemporary Jewish history, current events and political life here and in Israel. Maybe you are a reader of Roth and Englander, Horn and Ozick, Agnon and Bashevis Singer. Maybe you love Yiddish theater. Great. But don’t call yourself a cultured Jew if by culture you mean you love bagels and brisket. It’s Jewish wisdom that ultimately creates continuity.

We bring shlichim to many communities to teach about Israel because it is a foundational value. But why are we are letting go of Jewish adult education precisely at the time we need it most, when our Judaism is becoming more shallow and less serious?

In 1999, I wrote an article on the scholar-in-residence position in Jewish federations to leverage our incredible network of cross-community organizations to grow Jewish life and education. At the time there were only two federation-sponsored community scholars-in-residence. Today, there are still only two, one at the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, where I am proud to serve in that capacity. It has been 15 years. There are over 150 federations. We can do better. We must.

Let’s not claim that we don’t have the money. We find the money for what we prioritize as a community. If you do not provide people with meaning, it is very hard to raise money successfully in the long-term. Knowledge is the glue of peoplehood. And we can’t leave Jewish adult education to individuals. It has to be a burning institutional concern.

We also use the term shtark to mean learned. We all need a shtarker image. Let’s make 5774 the year. Good news. I have a few shtendercisors left.

Erica Brown is the scholar-in-residence at The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Her column appears the first week of the month.

About the Author
Dr. Erica Brown is the Vice Provost for Values and Leadership at Yeshiva University and the director of its Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks–Herenstein Center. Her latest book is Ecclesiastes and the Search for Meaning (Maggid Books).