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Forty years too late, and off target besides

Israel wakes up to the need for intensive Jewish education in the Diaspora

As reported in a Page 1 story this week, Israel wants to invest $40 million in Jewish day schools in North America. The lesser mistake in this well intentioned proposal is the object of the funding: teacher training. (On the greater mistake, more below.)

Every big newcomer to intensive Jewish education misses the primary reason that it doesn’t flourish: Plain and simple, it’s too expensive. If one focuses on teacher training instead of on day school tuition, one could throw in many other needs of Jewish schools, too, such as teacher salaries and outreach strategies. But to finance a dramatic cut in the cost of Jewish education is not glamorous. There are no plaques to be had and no programs to be named after. Nor, by cutting cost, can a major funder claim to be doing something creative and innovative.

That’s why Israel’s proposal, if it comes to fruition, will change very little. Of course, the recipients will gladly take the funds and amply extend their thank-you’s. But that’s only because they have no say in the decision.

“The biggest problem Jewish people in the Diaspora face today is Jewish education and lack of a high level of teachers of Judaic Studies,” says Amichai Chikli, the Israeli leader behind the proposal. Right on the former — dead wrong on the latter. As an Israeli, Chikli pays next to nothing for the education of his children in Israel public schools. He simply does not know what he is talking about in his identification of the level of Judaic studies teachers as the biggest challenge to Jewish education in the Diaspora. Of course, it would wonderful to have better teacher training. But the key to any social investment is prioritization; and it’s not teacher training, it’s not even close. Not to mention, the day school system is already blessed with an uncounted number of good teachers.

All this is but the lesser mistake. The much greater mistake is Chikli’s timing: decades too late. Starting back in the 1980s —when Israel was happily gobbling up Diaspora contributions when they were massive relative to the Diaspora but tiny relative to Israel’s national budget — that was the time for Israel to stand up and say: Don’t send us your charitable funds anymore. Invest in your own children before it’s too late.

Now it’s too late to make a community-wide difference.

Over the last 40 years, Jewish communities in the Diaspora have shrunk. Jewish organizations have closed. Jews have drifted off and melted away. Virtually all Jewish communities in all but major population centers have died. Synagogues have closed. They say that figures never lie but liars figure. The issue here isn’t liars. The issue here is definitions, the dumbing down of the definition of Jewish identity. Israeli (and Diaspora) leaders may argue that it’s not too late to make a decisive difference because: Look at the demographic surveys of American Jews. Look at how the community has grown! No, look at the definition of who is counted, of how the most distantly affiliated, if affiliated at all, are counted.

The dilution of Jewish identity is mainly why it’s harder and harder for any non-Orthodox synagogue anywhere in the US to get a daily minyan, and the same for some Orthodox synagogues, too; mainly why it’s harder and harder to get most Jews, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, to invest the majority of their charitable dollars in central Jewish community instruments; mainly why it’s harder and harder to sustain a robust, passionate, Jewishly universal pro-Israel voice in the American Jewish community; mainly why it’s harder and harder to sustain non-intensive Hebrew or Sunday schools.

Amichai Chikli is right to say that “we are losing large parts of the Jewish people” and he is right to try to do something dramatic about it. Every Jew counts and every Jewish child who receives a boost in Jewish identity and observance because of Chikli’s new $40 million investment is to be welcomed, even if it will make no overall, community-wide difference. It was Chikli’s parents’ generation in Israel that could have made that difference by changing the paradigm of Diaspora Jewish giving.

Right now, the least Chikli could do is to rethink the focus of his $40 million investment. It would be ironic indeed if it were not a Jewish leader from Israel but the non-Jewish governor of Florida who would go down as the one person making the most difference in Jewish day school education today by reducing its cost, per pupil, by $8,000.

When major Jewish donors in the Diaspora and major Jewish leaders in Israel want to make a difference, they can. They put together Birthright and have spent tens (hundreds?) of millions of dollars on it. We await the same vision for Jewish days schools in North America. That vision is not “Jewish education” or “intensive Jewish education” or “quality Jewish day schools,” it is cost. Plain and simple. The major need is dramatically lower tuition.In this, all types of Jewish day schools share alike, be they denominational or pluralistic.

How that fundamental need is characterized also makes a critical difference. It is not a matter of “scholarships,” of making people who can’t afford up to $40,000 per year per child feel that they are charity cases, “scholarship cases,” “needy cases.” This fundamental need is a matter of basic values: An intensive Jewish education should be a right, just the same as a free trip to Israel via Birthright is deemed a right. Israel needs to recognize that right, the same as mega-donors in the Diaspora do.

Copyright © 2023 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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