Daniel Posen on Ofakim and Making Jewish Education Easily Accessible

The way Daniel Posen sees it, by liberating ourselves from the constraints of viewing Judaism solely as a religion, we all gain immensely.

“It just so happens that on average approximately seven-tenths of us happen to be secular. That’s not a value judgment, it’s a fact,” said Posen, CEO and Co-Founder of the Posen Foundation. “We believe that Judaism is first and foremost a culture, even – to some – a civilization, full of rich heritage literature and humanistic values and within that includes many forms of religions. There were always  many Judaisms. Don’t forget the S. There is no one Judaism. Each individual has the freedom to examine and construct his or her own unique Jewish identity.”

During a recent visit to the JFN office in New York, Posen reflected on one of the core goals of his foundation: making Jewish education easily accessible, especially in Israel. Toward that end, the foundation funds a program at Tel Aviv University that provides the tools for teachers to educate children about Judaism as a culture and civilization.

The program, called Ofakim, this year celebrated its 10th anniversary, and is designed not only to train teachers, but to raise the quality of education on a topic that is often given short shrift in Israeli schools. Each year, 15 students are given a full scholarship that leads to a bachelor’s degree and teaching certification in Jewish philosophy. In return, they commit to at least three years of teaching.

The Foundation reports that the program has had a slow but steady impact in a nation where teachers are poorly paid, indifferently trained and often held in low regard. The program is designed and marketed to attract the elite of young prospective students, who have many opportunities and paths open to them, but actively choose teaching as a calling, with a strong emphasizes on leadership skills and values.

“Many secular Israelis are Israelis before they are Jewish,” said Posen, who lives in Switzerland. “As their collective Israeli identity already incorporates some observance of the religious aspects of Judaism, they opt out and miss out on the individual enquiry and learning into their personal relationship to Judaism. I’m not interested in converting anybody. I am a service provider. I think we are missing for people like me—the very Jewishly impoverished Jews in terms of education—options to understand Judaism as a culture.”

Posen’s father, Felix, started the foundation 18 years ago as a way to reduce Jewish ignorance. Although Felix was raised in a very religious home in Germany, he “always said he became Jewish after he  gave up his religious adherences ,” according to his son.

As for Daniel Posen, his interest in secular learning stemmed from his own Jewish education, or lack thereof, while growing up in Japan where his father was a partner in a metals and mineral trading firm. He learned to read and write Hebrew without understanding it, what he called “pediatric Judaism at its worst.”

Many American Jewish children can relate to that desultory experience. Despite that, Posen said attempts through his foundation to introduce a secular approach to Jewish education have been branded as atheistic or anti-theistic in the U.S., at the same time it has been widely accepted in Europe and Israel. “We called it secular Judaism, but people thought we were interested in a new denomination which we are not.”

But he contends secular Jews interested in Judaism as a culture and the tradition-bound who hew to ancient Jewish texts can peacefully co-exist. By example, he cited graduates of Ofakim, some of whom are observant Jews.

“There’s a clear separation between what they do privately, which nobody’s business is, and how we teach,” Posen said. “They understand what Judaism is as a culture, as a philosophy.”