At Risk Jews

In educational circles the term “at risk” remains a central conceptual framework for approaching educational interventions. It divides, not unproblematically, those deemed “at risk” from those deemed not so, and it generates interventions intended to treat the former group. Children can be “at risk” for any number of things — diseases, dropping out, teen pregnancy, injury, substance abuse, injury, and the list goes on. As one meta-analysis of the concept noted, there is no agreed-upon definition of “at risk,” but generally, it

has been used to describe those children and youth who are likely to leave school at any age without those skills (academic social, and/or vocational) necessary to lead a productive and fulfilled life in society.

While the designation of “at risk youth” that has become part of the vocabulary of educational thinking in the USA has a particular valence, a similar logic of “at risk youth” pervades approaches to Jewish education and Jewish educational interventions, but with a much murkier sense of who and what is “at risk.”

The underlying assumption of so many Jewish educational interventions is that Jews are “at risk” (and young Jews are particularly so). They are, many believe, subject to forces that might pull them away from living “productive and fulfilled” Jewish lives (whatever those might look like). Here, just for reference, are two few versions of that assumption, articulated by people trying to outline the purpose of Jewish education.

From “A Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education: The Impact of birthright israel” (2002), which explicitly uses the language of risk as part of its rationale.

The target group, as the sponsors [of birthright israel] conceived it, consists of those young Jews who are at greatest risk of being lost to the community.” (4)

More typically, the sense of “risk” is veiled behind a greater sense of anxiety around generational or cultural loss. A Time to Act (1990) offers one such example, but there are, frankly, too many to choose from.

Judaism must be presented as a living entity which gives the Jews of today the resources to find answers to the fundamental questions of life as readily as it did for our ancestors through the centuries. Otherwise it could eventually be overtaken in the minds of many people by other systems of thought they feel are more meaningful for the modern world. (27)

Both of these sources shares a fundamental belief in the sense that American Jews, particularly young American Jews, are “at risk.” But what are they “at risk” for? And, perhaps more importantly, who assumes the burden of that risk, and what are these young people risking by their behaviors, attitudes, and choices?

The negative impacts of substance abuse and dropping out of school have been well-documented. Families, social welfare programs, law, city and state budgets are all taxed to respond when educational programs fail “at risk youth.” The burden of those risks falls to large social systems to counterbalance the them. Thus, investments in “at risk youth,” to stave off or intervene in risky behavior seems like a good approach.

Extending the analogy, what kinds of “costs” are Jewish educational interventions poised to prevent? What risks are they attempting to mitigate and what repercussions do they hope to avoid? Applying the logic of “at risk youth” to Jewish education might help those of us involved in the enterprise figure out what we’re all doing here.

Despite the centrality of the “at risk” model in Jewish education, what, precisely these risks are, what “at risk youth” are at risk for, and what the consequences of such risks might be, remains pretty unclear.

Until stakeholders in Jewish education can get clear on what, exactly is “at risk” when we talk (implicitly… always implicitly) about Jews at risk, we are missing a fundamental and, I think, useful framework for understanding and analyzing both risk and, more importantly, opportunity.

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