Chairman’s Message – Summer 2017

Are books dying? With the advent of digital reading, this question has been explored incessantly online and in print media, as well as in these very pages. Hundreds, if not thousands, of eulogies have been written in anticipation of the demise of printed books, yet it seems that the end of books may not be so near after all. A recent Pew Report found that while a growing number of Americans are reading e-books on digital devices, “print books remain much more popular than books in digital format.”

This is heartening news—and yet, while American adults are still reading books, what about kids? According to a 2014 study by Common Sense Media, kids are reading (electronic or print books) less and less for fun as they get older; the study found that 45 percent of seventeen-year-olds say they read by choice only once or twice a year.

Reading rates have also declined significantly over the past three decades. According to government studies, in 1984, 8 percent of thirteen-year-olds and 9 percent of seventeen-year-olds said they “never” or “hardly ever” read for pleasure. In 2014, that number rose to 22 percent and 27 percent, respectively.

Indeed, why should kids read when they can text, post photos on Snapchat or play an addictive electronic game? With so many digital distractions out there, it’s surprising that kids are reading at all.

I haven’t seen any studies done specifically on the reading rates among Orthodox kids, but I’m fairly optimistic that frum kids are still reading. Firstly, there’s Shabbos, when cell phones are turned off for a blissful twenty-five hours. Secondly, the Jewish children’s book-publishing industry has seen phenomenal growth in recent years.

When I was growing up in New York City in the fifties and sixties, there was little Jewish-oriented literature geared for my age. Today, our kids are so very fortunate—there is a plethora of high-quality engaging Jewish children’s books catering to every age and interest.

A recent article we published on the exploding Jewish children’s book-publishing industry noted that there are “new publishers, authors and books appearing each year.” The article quoted book shepherd Stuart Schnee, who stated that “more children’s titles are being released by Orthodox publishers than ever before.” Seemingly, frum kids are still reading.

And yet, we cannot take anything for granted. In the digital world in which we live, every few months or so, it seems, sees a new digital fad, a new mind-numbing electronic distraction. So even if our kids are still reading books today, there is no guarantee they will still want to read books tomorrow.

So what do we do? Whether we are parents, grandparents or great-grandparents, we need to encourage our children or grandchildren to turn off their iPods and iPhones and spend a few minutes enjoying the simple, old-fashioned pleasure of curling up with a good a book. Incidentally, we need to put down our own smartphones and read ourselves. And summer—with its slower pace and longer days—is a perfect time to do just that.

With children’s literature a focus in this summer issue, we asked a diverse group of educators to respond to the following: Which book do you suggest children read this summer, and why? (Warning: while the recommendations are mainly “children’s books,” some of them seem so enticing, you may be tempted to read them!) Additionally, this issue features a Q & A with the well-known Jewish children’s author Bracha Goetz, who shares her insights and advice about the writing process and how to foster a life-long love of reading in children.

Our cover story, by the talented Bayla Sheva Brenner, examines the challenges and pressures children of rabbis or other communal figures face while growing up in the public eye. At the same time, it sheds light on another dimension of their lives: the extraordinary spiritual benefits of having parents who are deeply devoted to klal work. “Despite the expectations, visibility and sacrifice,” writes Brenner, “these children of rabbis or high-profile rebbetzins saw close-up what it means to take a community under one’s wing, and to dedicate one’s life to uplifting others.”

Also in this issue, researcher par excellence Faigy Grunfeld explores how Jewish women over the ages were active in the business world. (According to the author, there weren’t too many Jewish “stay-at-home” moms in the Middle Ages!) Grunfeld demonstrates how some of these women were, in fact, impressive entrepreneurs who played a vital role in the world of business and commerce. Aside from these thought-provoking articles, this issue offers our usual array of articles on halachah, kashrut, health, recipes and the latest Jewish books.

Don’t forget to e-mail your thoughts and comments to ja@ou.org, and best wishes for a healthy and a happy summer.

Gerald M. Schreck is chairman of the Jewish Action Committee and vice chairman of the OU Board of Governors.

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This article was featured in the Summer 2017 issue of Jewish Action.
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