“Know from where you came & where you are going” (Pirkei Avot, Ethics of the Fathers, 3:1)
The summer is nearing to a close, autumn winds slowly make their way back into our lives, and with them comes the rumble of the anticipated school year. Our children grow up – all too quickly it seems – and in a swift moment, our social media feeds will fill again with the inevitable images of smiling children carrying backpacks, making their way to school, entering (& re-entering) our educational system. It is also an appropriate moment to address a issue of great importance – and indeed concern – for the Jewish community as a whole, i.e., the Jewish education system and its place in our lives.
The 2013 Pew Research Center’s Portrait of American Jews indicated that 22% of Jews describe themselves as Jews of no religion, whereas 30% of Jews “of religion” do not affiliate with any of the prominent Jewish denominations. Clearly, being Jewish is no guarantee for one’s interest in Jewish Education (nor is it a direct indicator of support for the State of Israel for that matter). Moreover, U.S. Jewry must cope with a severe challenge of its dwindling numbers (“The Vanishing Jew“) of affiliated Jews, due partly (but by no means solely) to intermarriage, whose rates within the American Jewish Community are high. What our worst of enemies have tried to do for millennia, we seem to inflict upon ourselves freely.
And so, for those who’ve made it so far and do care for Jewish education for their children, they encounter an extraordinary barrier: Jewish Education is expensive; carrying a price tag of tens of thousands of dollars per child (cost which increases over time and with the number of children), all of which means one thing: “Houston, we have a problem“!
Schools do their best to accommodate as many students as possible with cutting costs and providing financial assistance to families in need, however resources are naturally limited and the supply does not meet the demand. As a result, many Jewish families choose public schools for their children, not necessarily because they believe it is better (sometimes it is and other times they convince themselves so), but rather due to lack of financial abilities, with some even having to relocate as a result.
The search for identity and a sense of belonging is inherent to the human journey. It is not enough to provide our children with only academic tools necessary to succeed in life, as even the best of bodies is not complete without a soul to direct it. Developing a sense of Jewish identity and indeed of community is a crucial part of our lives and an invaluable tool for our children, necessary to cope with the challenges the world presents them with. Understanding who we are is essential to make sense of who we want to be, and indeed grow up to become.
This is an untenable situation and one of the most acute problems the Jewish Community faces today. Education stands at the core of every society and community, it shapes its present and charts its future. Investing in education is investing in our future, indeed it is the ONLY measure to guarantee we have one. It is incumbent upon us – leadership as well as each and every one of us – to address the issue with utmost seriousness, and view it not as a far-off problem to be dealt with in the far future, but as an immediate threat to our very existence. Nothing short than clear and present danger.
In fact, it not only a Jewish issue, but rather one which directly affects the State of Israel. The struggle for Israel in the field of public opinion is an ongoing battle, one which we all witness in the media, and to a large extent on college campuses and in the public school system. Lives are not always easy for Jewish students, and it is crucial that they arrive on the quad with a strong sense of identity and knowledge when it comes to Israel and being Jewish. The family is the immediate and most important cycle which is tasked with equipping our children with a sense of identity, but schools are of absolute importance in this regard.
Israel’s relationship with the Jewish world is a high priority for the Jewish State and indeed to the Jewish people as a whole. Israel is the homeland of the Jewish People and its Law of Return is a symbol, allowing every Jew to come back if they so desire. At the same time, as Israel has shown may a time in the past, Israel is a safe haven for persecuted Jews everywhere, protecting not only those within its geographic boundaries. Israel is a backbone of the Jewish People just as the Jewish People are its backbone in the continuous struggle against the many who try to rid the world of this tiny, one and only State of the Jews. Jewish communities around the world – and especially American Jewry – have given so much over the years to support Israel, both diplomatically and financially. To this very day, many in the Jewish Community support a variety of worthy causes in Israel and contribute to its progress and immense success.
It is time for The State of Israel to strategically and wisely give back to the American Jewish Community, providing assistance where it’s mostly needed, in a scope and manner worthy of a strategic issue such as Jewish education. Truth be told, this seems counter-intuitive, looking at the affluent American society may lead to drawing erroneous conclusions. But the honest truth is that this makes perfect sense: supporting Zionist Jewish Education and making it accessible to as many interested families as possible (for instance, through stipends and subsidies provided by the State of Israel) is crucial to maintain a community and nurture support for the State of Israel in the years to come, not just in 5-10 years but also in 20-30 years and beyond. Israel can and should play a major role in this field, thus reversing the trend of a shrinking Jewish Education system and allowing it to flourish again for the benefit of all.
Not paying the price now, might mean paying a much heavier price in the future. Jewish Education is the gift that keeps on giving: individually and communally. Securing it means nothing less than securing our future.
This is one test we cannot afford to fail.