Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and the consultant for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. Erica is the author of the book, Inspired Jewish Leadership, a National Jewish Book Award finalist and Spiritual Boredom, and co-author of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood (all through Jewish Lights).  Erica is the recipient of the 2009 Covenant Award for her work in education, she lectures widely on subjects of Jewish interest and leadership, and is a faculty member of the Wexner Foundation. She can be reached at ebrown@pjll.org.

What do Northwest Airlines and Hebrew School have in common? We’ll answer this question in three steps. 

Step One: I recently heard an NPR interview with an aviation expert who was asked what pilots really do in the cockpit. This question was prompted by an incident on a Northwest Airlines flight that shook the airline world. Two pilots overshot their destination because they were each busy on their personal laptops, the equivalent of texting while driving but with dozens of people in the backseat.

Checking e-mails, bank statements or playing e-solitaire just did not match my romantic notions of flight service. The aviation expert in the interview claimed that the pilots were just bored and that the automation of the cockpit had left them with little to do. It was too tempting to tune out altogether. He said that there is currently a debate taking place in the industry about making flight controls manual again so that pilots can focus on something constructive to do during flight time. 

Step Two: In a Jewish short story, a young man appeals to his father to take him out of Hebrew school. “It’s so boring.” The father hears his son say that he hates Hebrew school and congratulates him for following a fine family tradition because he, too, hated Hebrew school, as did his father. 

Why are children bored in Hebrew school? There are numerous reasons, including poorly paid and unprepared teachers, lack of accountability for material learned, classes without a real peer group, rote study that is merely functional and not meaningful, irrelevance to life, educational disconnection from other school subjects. Let’s not forget that kids who go to Hebrew school are also not doing something else that they want to do, like participate in sports teams and clubs or just veg out at home after a long day at school. 

Step Three: What do the pilots on that flight have in common with the boredom of a Hebrew school student? They both reflect boredom generated by the lack of something purposeful to do. We are meaning beings and, in the absence of meaning, we need to occupy ourselves because life is too short to be bored. If you’re sitting for hours with nothing to do, can you be blamed for opening your computer? Can you be truly guilty of writing notes in class or being a discipline problem? Yes and no. You need to be personally accountable for your own behavior at all times. But we need systemic changes so that that behavior doesn’t start in the first place.

Judaism for many people is outright boring. Institutional life, including patterns of synagogue worship, has become predictable and dull when Judaism itself is thrilling. We have sapped Judaism of its inherent excitement. I began to research boredom as a subject.

My studies resulted in a book, Spiritual Boredom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism (Jewish Lights), and it proved a wonderful way for me to manage my own boredom within religion. Boredom is largely but not exclusively, an inner driven dilemma, as the poet Dylan Thomas wrote: “Something is boring me. I think it’s me.” We have not made life interesting enough. We have not made Judaism interesting enough for ourselves and others. I say others when I really mean leaders. Leaders in the Jewish community – and I count those touched by The Wexner Foundation in this category – have not seen this as a primary responsibility. Too often, we just perpetuate the already well-established norms. Research we have on the millennial population tells us that this group is profoundly interested in volunteerism and charity but care little for institutional life. For the past hundred years or so, American Jewish leaders have built a powerful network of Jewish institutions only to find that now, to reach the next generation, we have to re-envision that picture so that we can engage people not moved by the institutions we currently serve. This is one of the most important tasks of Jewish leaders today, and virtually no one is talking about it.

Why? Because it’s hard to admit that something we love bores people. It’s difficult and heart-breaking to make that confession, but, as Jim Collins reminds us in Good to Great, we have to face the brutal facts. We’re good, but we’re not great because we haven’t been honest enough to say that Jewish institutional life can sometimes get in the way of meaning instead of generating meaning. Institutional excellence will come when we are brave enough to make Jewish life irresistible. And now, with the economic downturn that has hurt so many Jewish non-profits, we can’t afford not to.

A few months ago, I was in Harpers’ Ferry on an inner tubing expedition with my family. A woman’s t-shirt grabbed my attention. It read, “When is the last time you did something for the first time?” In a 4,000 year old religion, it’s not easy to create first-time experiences but then again, Abraham, the founder of Judaism, was a man of originality, from his journey to Canaan to his belief in one God. As children of Abraham, we must follow his daunting tradition. We owe it to our past, and we owe it to our future.