The canary in the coal mine

teaching at rghdsI had gone to Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School to give a talk to Fallon Coffield’s 8th grade social studies class. I spoke about my career in newspapers and magazines, gave a short overview of how you structure a news story and then let the students interview one another, write a lead for a profile and then read their work aloud.

I enjoyed the experience, watching them try and to a great extent, succeed, in organizing their thoughts in very little time. They were quite exuberant. Some had trouble settling down. But in the end, they all did.

It was a good exercise. It helped distract me from the nagging thoughts about the meeting that was going to be held that night, just upstairs from the middle school wing where I was now teaching, in the school’s gym/lunchroom/auditorium. The email from the board of trustees had invited all parents and some community leaders to a meeting to keep them “apprised of the school’s future.”

Which, of course, meant that it did not have one.

That night board President Virginia Feldman stood solitary in front of a crowd of about 200 and announced that after 40 years of educating Jewish students in Rockland County the school would close in June.

It was crushing news. Both my children are Gittelman graduates. The school provided them with a sense of community, great friends, and a strong background in Hebrew and Jewish studies. For them, the school was a home away from home.

Beyond the school family though, Gittelman’s death portends something more. It confirms all our fears that Jewish life in Rockland County other than that of the very Orthodox, is worse than irrelevant. It’s on its way out.

Non-Orthodox Judaism here is following some sort of national trend. We’ve heard rumblings of it for a while.

There was the merging of Congregation Sons of Israel in Suffern and Pomona Jewish Center, two Conservative congregations. The Reform Temple of Suffern marched its Torahs to New Jersey and closed shop. The JCC of Spring Valley became a fish out of water on Route 45, surrounded by an ever-increasing black hat population, and finally closed. Monsey Jewish Center and Congregation Shaarey Tfiloh, traditional shuls both, merged and became Shaarey Israel.

The surveys say younger Jews — as do younger Americans in general — want to bowl alone. They have little use for the institutions that previous generations felt obligated to support. They aren’t connected to Israel in the same way as their elders; they don’t find communal life compelling, or consider it too expensive, or worse, both.

Those of us who remain are starting to wonder for how much longer. All our organizations and institutions, the Jewish Federation of Rockland County, our synagogues, our Holocaust Museum & Study Center, our Jewish Family Service, this newspaper, the local Hillel, our beautiful Rockland Jewish Community Campus, are all in danger.

The loss of Gittelman throws this into stark contrast. The synagogue closures and mergers certainly heralded this. But there was only one Conservative day school and now it’s on the way out. True, a new school, the Rockland Jewish Academy is trying to start in its place, but unless we all begin to do something different, it will have as tough a time as Reuben Gittelman.

As if on cue, New City Jewish Center, my shul, held its Kallah Weekend shortly after the RGHDS announcement, where sociologist Samuel Heilman held forth as scholar-in-residence. He holds the Harold Proshansky Chair in Jewish Studies at the Graduate Center and is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Queens College of the City University of New York. The author of 11 books, his most recent, “The Rebbe,” a biography of the late Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson, serves as a savvy dissection of Chabad culture.

Knowledgeable in the low-key way of someone who really knows his stuff, Heilman spoke about how the center of American Jewry is “falling out.” Reflecting on broader societal trends, he joked that Jews were “like other Americans, only more so” as we abandon the institutions that once served us.

Today, the religious move ever rightward, instituting more stringent definitions of kashrut that our great sages could not have possibly kept (because microbes in water need filters that would not have yet been invented in their day) and separating men and women in buses and on the street. The unaffiliated, he says, have found that being Jewish is just one component in whom they are. They can be Jewish when and how they want, in online communities or by attending Chabad a couple of times a year — basically finding low barrier ways to participate, if they do at all.

Broad sociological trends drive this change. In the majority Jewish culture, which is not observant, Jews can marry outside the faith without risking banishment. They also marry later and have fewer children as a result of spending more years in higher education.

Reuben Gittelman’s death was part of that center falling out. If I had been a member of a synagogue that had folded or merged, I may have taken heed much earlier. But Reuben Gittelman has educated students from most, if not all, of the Conservative congregations in the area, as well as some from Reform and Orthodox ones. It simply reached across borders in a way that synagogues do not.

We know the type of Jewish life we value is at risk. We are seeing signs of it almost everyday. Our synagogues have declining membership, our campus struggles with debt and our Federation’s campaign is not as robust as it once was.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. If we want something like a Rockland Jewish Academy, the new school that is trying to keep a non-Orthodox day school option alive in Rockland to succeed, we have to take action.

It really doesn’t take much. Check out a synagogue. Go to services, or help with one of the monthly shul rotations at the Rhoda Bloom Kosher Food Pantry run by Rockland Jewish Family Service. Attend a JCC or Holocaust Museum program. Bring someone new with you.

Be generous. All these organizations need your help. The Federation’s annual campaign helps support Jewish life in this county and in Israel. The Rockland Jewish Community Campus, which has really become a center for Jewish life, needs your support if it’s to thrive.

In the past, miners used to take caged canaries into the coal mines. If methane, carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide gases were present, the canaries died, and the miners knew they were at risk.

Gittelman’s folding may have been a distress signal. We can choose to ignore it, or like miners, take heed and change our course. Jewish communities with far fewer numbers than our own support vibrant Jewish life. We can do this.

I asked my kids what they got out of Gittelman. My son, Nathan, said he got a Jewish education that was very genuine, “that you can’t get anywhere else in the Hudson Valley. Gittelman gave me a roadmap on how to live my life.” My daughter, Lily, said that RGHDS students are known, “as the Gittelman kids. The school gave us a real sense of community.”

Do we really want to lose something like that?

Obsolescence need not be our destiny. We do not have to become canaries in the coalmine.

But in order to avoid that harsh decree, we have take action today.