Andres Spokoiny, the president and CEO of Jewish Funders Network, is an insightful, creative thinker. He embraces broad ideas and looks thoughtfully to the horizons of Jewish life to anticipate coming storms and to sound the sheltering clarion.
In the recent edition of Sapir, the journal published by the Maimonides Fund that “explores the future of the American Jewish community,” Spokoiny proposed a large initiative, a “moonshot idea” in his words, to achieve universal basic Jewish literacy for as wide a swath as possible of North American Jews.
His proposal is radical given the unprecedented intra-and-inter-communal effort that would be required to make it happen. But it is quite on point as a response equal in measure to that of the approaching storm.
The intersection of Spokoiny’s suggestion with GAJE’s mission is obvious. Access to meaningful Jewish education for all who seek it, is the best way to ensure a thriving Jewish community into the future and in perpetuity.
Spokoiny makes his case with compelling logic. “For a culture to thrive, people need to truly know what that culture encompasses. To feel part of a historical continuum, people need to learn that history. To find comfort in rituals (regularly and at life’s key moments), people need to understand the ritual. To be guided by wisdom in ancient sources, people need to be able to navigate their structure and content beyond a handful of cherry-picked quotes. This requires sustained engagement with meaningful Jewish content.”
For discussion purposes, Spokoiny offers a framework of a “curriculum” of sorts. He acknowledges shortcomings, possible valid criticisms, and sundry other challenges. But he moves nevertheless, uncowed by difficulties, but rather energized by the importance and the scale of the proposal.
“A proper program of Jewish cultural literacy needs to cover the different areas that make up the fascinating kaleidoscope of religion, nationality, culture, and history that is Judaism. Scholars have argued extensively about what the pillars of Jewish content are, and many have debated what would make an educated Jew. But by and large, the fundamentals can be grouped into six buckets:
- Rituals and practices
- Texts and sources
- Languages, art, and culture
- Thought and philosophy
- Zionism and Israel
Spokoiny proposes that “most adult Jews experience at least a hundred hours of Jewish studies, covering the basic building blocks of Jewish cultural literacy. This needs to be normative and transformative — a “Birthright Judaism” in its scale and some of its features. Just as Jews have a “birthright” to the Land of Israel, they also have a birthright to their culture and their multi-faceted heritage.”
The radical idealism of his proposal does not wash away Spokoiny’s accumulated experience or abiding sense of realism. “The biggest impediment to the success of this project, he writes, “will not be funding or organizational wherewithal, but motivation.”
Spokoiny is no dreamer. He is quite the pragmatist. He imagines the parameters of a path forward, while acknowledging the many stumbles that might happen along the way. But he understands the potential for the people of which he feels so fully, happily and proudly a member. “If this moonshot comes even close to fruition….it will provide a common foundation for people to have informed Jewish conversations. It will expose Jews to the richness of their culture, providing a valuable historical perspective to face the challenges of our time. It will empower them to use Jewish wisdom, sources, and ritual to find meaning. It will make them more likely to want to transmit that heritage to the next generation.”
Enabling Jews to transmit our heritage from one generation to the next is exactly GAJE’s purpose. May Spokoiny find a way – soon – to implement his moonshot idea.
Spokoiny’s article can be found at:
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Chag Shavuot samayach. Shabbat shalom
Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE)
June 2, 2023