Free Jewish-only Head Start program planned to bolster faithful

Recent polls highlight need for effort

Facing mounting evidence of growing disaffection by American Jews with their religion and heritage, leaders within the community are proposing an ambitious “Jewish Head Start” program to teach the history and religion of the Jewish people to preschoolers — for free.

Prominent Jewish figures proposed the initiative, which would provide Jewish-American parents with free preschool programs with an emphasis on Judaism.

“From the beginning, we need to expose our children to the joys of being in a Jewish environment,” said Jerry Silverman, CEO of the Jewish Federations of North America and one of the main proponents of the Jewish Head Start idea. Mr. Silverman and JFNA Chairman Michael Siegal floated the proposal in an op-ed last week in The Forward, the influential Jewish-American newspaper.

Universal pre-K instruction “will dramatically widen the pipeline of families entering Jewish life through this critical early gateway,” the two men wrote. “And it will place many more people on a path to further Jewish connection and Jewish education — day school, religious school and informal and alternative Jewish education.

These preschools would eliminate the financial burden that often inhibits Jewish parents from sending their children to Jewish day care facilities and preschools, which can often cost as much as $8,000 a year.

The proposal comes as new studies found a growing disconnect between many American Jews and their heritage, including an American Jewish Committee poll released Monday.

According to the survey, only 33 percent of those polled said that being Jewish was “very important,” while a significant minority — 36 percent — said it was “not too important” or “not at all important. The poll tracks broadly with findings of a much-discussed survey released by the Pew Research Center earlier this month. That report, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” found a large generational gap among Jews who identified with the religious aspect of Jewish culture.

“There are big differences in millennial Jews and Jews from the Greatest Generation,” said Greg Smith, director of Pew’s U.S. Religion Surveys.

According to the Pew survey, “Fully 93 percent of Jews in the aging Greatest Generation identify as Jewish on the basis of religion … ; just 7 percent describe themselves as having no religion. By contrast, among Jews in the youngest generation of U.S. adults — the millennials — 68 percent identify as Jews by religion, while 32 percent describe themselves as having no religion and identify as Jewish on the basis of ancestry, ethnicity or culture.”

“The results from this survey are not surprising, but they are very sobering,” said Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld of Ohev Sholom — The National Synagogue in Northwest D.C. “There are no quick fixes or easy answers to the problem.”

Wrote Mr. Siegal and Mr. Silverman, citing the Pew findings, “If we go by numbers alone, the non-Orthodox American Jewish community is facing an existential crisis.”

Many within the Jewish community point to intermarriage for the decline in Jewish identity patterns. Fifty-eight percent of Jews married since 2000 have married a non-Jewish spouse, compared to just less than percent in the 1980s and just 17 percent in the 1970s.

Additionally, 37 percent of Jews married to a spouse of a different ethnicity say they are not raising their children in the Jewish faith.

This shift in Jewish religiosity is reflective of a national trend. Over the past three decades, Americans as a whole are shedding religious labels. Still, Judaism is unique because of its cultural and religious intersection.

Despite the data, Mr. Silverman said he remains optimistic. One bright spot in the data: “Ninety-four percent of U.S. Jews (including 97 percent of Jews by religion and 83 percent of Jews of no religion) say they are proud to be Jewish,” according to the Pew results.

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