Jewish community leaders obsess over the rampant assimilation of Diaspora Jews. Assimilation is not just about breaking free of the straitjacket rules of Judaism like keeping the Sabbath, kosher, and marching in Israel Day parades. It manifests as the crumbling of psychological kinship with the Jewish collective, and the inexorable diminution of affinity for Israel.
NGOs and the government of Israel are investing billions of dollars in programs to stem the tide. The somber fact is they are failing. Diaspora Jewry champions diversity, racial and gender equity, and ensuring human rights through class and economic equality at the expense of organized religion and identity politics. Walter Benn Michaels wrote, “Our identity is the least important thing about us.”
The phenom is so noteworthy that my alma mater, Harvard University, is addressing Jewish assimilation in The Pluralism Project. The Project attributes Jewish assimilation to the unprecedented opportunity Jews have for economic advancement and social inclusion; these spur the “ever-diminishing numbers and the fear of extinction as an identifiable group.”
Young assimilated Jews don’t remember the Borscht Belt. They cannot name a Jewish comedian. Lox and bagels are passe. So is synagogue attendance. Who knows a knish from a kreplach? They know sushi, poutine, and kombucha. But they also do not know Shema Yisroel or Friday night kiddish. Diaspora is not the defining criterion. I watched an on-duty Israeli soldier take a lulav and esrog in hand for the first time in his 20 years. The putative trophic cascades are not limited by geography.
We know Jewish day school education builds Jewish self-identification and attachment to Israel. We have to increase access to Jewish day schools supplemented with summer camps, trips to Israel, and youth groups. Spend more money on the daily grind of outreach.
Yet, these tools are the poor sisters and do not expect a change in priorities from funding sources. The bulk of dollars will continue flowing to arcane, creaky, old-line establishment groups where the average age of leaders (among the six most influential Jewish organizations) is 76 years. Each man has been in office for decades. But there is a whisper of hope.
On taking office in January 2023, Minister of Diaspora Affairs, Amichai Chikli, declared his agency would spend NIS 60M (nearly $20M) to make Jewish education affordable. “It is our duty to act so that every Jewish community is interested in Jewish education… many Jewish families are unable to pay for private Jewish schools.”
Chikli is right on the mark. A few years ago, 73 North American Jewish Federations out of 146 invested $52M in day schools; that was out of $3 billion raised annually or a mere, on average, 16% of the Federations’ budgeted funds. 301 schools out of 906 got something like $173.33 per student per year. Concomitantly, K-12 tuitions were $7,000 to $30K per child per year. MK Chikli will need to muster all the gravitas of his new position to influence change.
Perhaps a new book will inspire the old guard to get behind Chikli’s initiatives. Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning, & Community (Brandeis University Press 2022) by Alex Pomson and Professor Jack Wertheimer of Rosov Consulting Israel and The Jewish Theological Seminary, respectively, makes the case for “rejewvinating” Diaspora. Day schools succeed regardless of denomination, whether Israel-centric, focusing on STEAMM, Torah knowledge, and faith, or in any combination.
According to the authors, all nine schools they examined “cultivate Jewish cultural virtuosos… (despite) ongoing struggles to ensure their financial sustainability and to recruit quality personnel.” Foremost among their 27 pages of conclusions, is that “Day schools possess the special potential to nurture young people with the ability to contribute to Jewish culture; they cultivate Jewish cultural virtuosos.” Students internalize the Jewish values the schools promote, “becoming expert in complex endeavors and were growing in responsibility.”
Then there is the bandwagon effect. Students bring home their values and knowledge that touch and sometimes change the less intensively Jewish lives of families increasing their Jewishness. My doctoral thesis concluded the same from my studies of parent education programs in three Hebrew schools.
The more diverse the parent body, the more crucial is Israel in the mission and curricula. In community and pluralistic schools, students celebrate Jewish holidays; most have prayer services and extol Israel. “Israel serves as an important glue holding such schools together because it is a common denominator in an otherwise diverse parent body.” The schools, it seems, need Israel to nourish their raison d’etre.
MK Chikli is meeting in Israel this week with the presidents of major Jewish American NGOs. We hope the minister and later the prime minister will tout the value of Jewish day school education and embolden the presidents to dramatically increasing financial aid to their local day schools.
BTW, one year, our day school tuition costs were more than the income my wife and I earned during the first six years of marriage. For us, it was worth every penny in terms of outcomes. Like the Jewish fruit vendor in Cabaret sang, money, money, money makes the world go ‘round.