If Rabbi David Wolpe had his way, children would turn off their iPods and cell phones, and turn on to Judaism.
"Every technological tool enforces isolation and a virtual community, which means not a real community," stated the Los Angeles-based author and educator, arguing that communal values are central to Jewish life.
Speaking at the 20th-anniversary celebration for the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education, held at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Wolpe argued that supporters of Jewish education — like the 200 or so in the crowd — must lead by example if they want to change the attitudes of young people.
"If you want to influence your grandchildren, let them see you behave differently," he said. "Keep kosher."
Wolpe received his Jewish education at various Philadelphia institutions — among them Akiba Hebrew Academy — and his philosophy dovetailed perfectly with ACAJE's stance on the importance of young people staying connected to the Jewish community, especially after Bar and Bat Mitzvah age.
"The reason you can't stop your education at your Bar Mitzvah is because the truth is that Jewish education is a trick to keep you interested long enough to tell you what Judaism's really about," he said, noting that a 13-year-old doesn't have enough life experience to fully understand Judaism's stance on issues like relationships or death.
The April 18 celebratory gala, where Wolpe was the keynoter, marked two decades of ACAJE's efforts to provide programs and resources promoting and supporting Jewish education in Philadelphia. Over the years, the organization — established by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia in 1987 — has increased the number of teachers in supplementary schools in the area, has helped make Hebrew school more professional, and has created the Nurturing Education in Secondary Schools program to help kids stay involved in Jewish education after their Bar or Bat Mitzvahs. Since 1992, it has been located on the Mandell Campus in Elkins Park.
At the event, executive director Helene Tigay stressed the need for children to be excited by Hebrew school, which could lead them to being informed and concerned Jews when they grow up.
"We want to create a community of knowledgeable, involved and committed Jews," she said. "If we don't succeed in these efforts, we risk losing our teens."
Tigay dreams of a community where young kids are excited to attend Hebrew school, young couples choose to send their kids to Jewish days schools, and teens continue to learn after their Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
As part of the gala, the organization presented the Kesher L'Atid award to Charna and Bart Axelrod. Charna Axelrod serves on the agency's board of directors, and works to help special-needs children get a Jewish education. Her husband sits on the Israel-education committee.
Tigay called the couple models in supporting Jewish education, and two people totally devoted to the cause, also noting that the pair sent both of their children to Akiba Hebrew Academy in Merion.