NEW YORK -- The Jewish community of North America is facing "a crisis of major proportions" that has been caused by the lack of commitment to passing on Jewish ethnic and religious traditions to a new generation, according to a national commission that has studied the situation for two years.
The Commission on Jewish Education in North America, a body composed of 44 scholars, educators, philanthropists and community officials, said it has found that "large numbers of Jews have lost interest in Jewish values, ideals and behavior, and there are many who no longer believe that Judaism has a role to play in their search for personal fulfillment and identity."
In a report issued here, the commission says this situation "has grave implications, not only for the richness of Jewish life but for the very continuity of a large segment of the Jewish people."
It urges revitalizing Jewish education "so that it is capable of performing a pivotal role in the meaningful continuity of the Jewish people."
According to the commission, nearly 600,000 of the 1 million Jewish children of school age in North America do not receive any formal Jewish education.
It said that 40 percent of the Jewish children in the United States and 55 percent of those in Canada are enrolled in a Jewish school.
In these schools, the report says, "the presentation of the subject matter is often uninspiring, and there is a dearth of high quality curricular and educational materials." The report also said that Jewish education "is woefully underfunded and Jewish leadership relatively uninvolved."
Among other things, the commission recommends the raising of $25 million to $50 million over the next five years to help to professionalize Jewish education, raise it to the top of the Jewish communal agenda and establish three to five "lead communities" to function as local laboratories for change.
The commission has already created a Council on Initiatives in Jewish Education, headed by Stephen Hoffman, who is also executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.
The commission was assembled in 1988 by Morton Mandel, a Cleveland businessman and philanthropist who served four years as chairman of the Jewish Agency's Jewish Education Committee.
Ismar Schorsch, chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America and one of the commission members, offered some further perspectives on the Jewish education scene in an address Nov. 11 to the biennial convention of the Women's League for Conservative Judaism in Kiamesha Lake, N.Y.
Decrying what he called the "disintegration of the greatest Jewish community in our history," Schorsch said that fewer than half of Jewish youngsters today are interested in learning about Judaism.
The chancellor said that the Jewish Theological Seminary is establishing a School for Education to train new teachers and lay leaders and that the Conservative movement wants to establish new Jewish high schools to serve the nearly 80 percent of the graduates of the Conservative Jewish Schechter Day Schools who have no places to go other than secular high schools.
"Ours is a cerebral religion," Schorsch said. "Study will lead to Jewish observance and commitment. Together we can accomplish this great task."