I can remember vividly the debates in the Jewish community about how many days children had to attend Hebrew School each week. In the Boston area where I served as rabbi, it was heated. Those in favor of two days a week argued that kids these days are over programed and we need to accommodate their busy schedules. Those against remembered their own Hebrew School experiences, attending five days each week, and suggested that real lasting learning required more time than two days a week would allow and demanded the continuity that only a three day a week program could provide.
In many ways one could reduce the debate down to the question of whether we wanted to raise or lower the bar for our congregants. Unfortunately this isn't the right question. The question isn't about whether we are raising or lowering the bar it's about who is raising or lowering the bar.
We complain today that parents just drop their kids off at Hebrew School and rarely come in but why are we surprised? Throughout my career the locus of power in the Jewish community has rested in the hands of the clergy, educators and Jewish professionals. For years we have told our congregants that we would take care of educating their children, running services and celebrating holidays. We have had all the power and now we bemoan those who don't see any need to take ownership of their children's or their own Jewish experiences.
In many ways so long as Jewish professionals held the reigns of Jewish living and learning it didn't matter if we had two, three or five days of Hebrew School each week. The bar was lowered because we were holding it.
It use to be that books were published by publishers, records produced by labels and goods sold by retailers. Power was controlled by a few and we were just consumers. But all that has changed with the explosion of the Internet. Today anyone can publish a book, produce an album or sell their wares. The Jewish community would do well to see and embrace this trend. Jews today don't need professional Jews to live Jewishly. They don't need synagogues, JCCs or other Jewish institutions. That doesn't mean these organizations aren't important - it just means they aren't necessary and for many, these institutions offer little that they can't discover in their own.
Raising the bar for modern Jews means empowering them to raise their own bar. Many have argued that “empowerment” has become cliche. If it has, it is only because we haven’t done it well. In a world in which Jews create their own playlists (thank you Rabbi Kerry Olitzky for this perfect analogy) our job must be to provide a library of Judaism from which they can choose the music that fits their style and taste and then enable them to live up to their own highest potential.
It is time to give back the bar and help each person raise it for themselves.