Responding to ‘I can “do Jewish” on just $40,000 a year’

The Times of Israel blogpost entitled “I can ‘do Jewish’ on just $40,000 year” seems to have created quite a storm. Almost everyone I run into, if I mention the article, seems to have already read it — and the response is quite mixed. There are points with which people agree and points with which people disagree. It clearly has touched a nerve in the community — on many different levels. (In the meantime, the author has since penned another post “A Jewish Father responds to his critics” in response to the many comments he received.)

While I could address many of the matters presented in these articles — some voicing agreement and some voicing strong critique — there was one issue that really hit me — albeit its subtle underpinning within the context of the presentation. This was the unspoken question of: what was the very need or purpose of Jewish education? The author states that he spent $80,000 annually on Jewish day school education for his children until he took them out of the day school and put them in a non-Jewish private school at a great saving. But what was the non-monetary cost of this? It seems from the author that there was none or is none. In fact, the implication is that even aside from the financial benefit, the move was good for the kids. The question is not only: what this says about the value of Torah education in the eyes of this person? The greater question is: what does this say about the very perception of the value of Torah education in our world?

The author actually, somehow, addresses this issue and, from the answers he presents, one can see both what he may have personally thought to be the goal of a Jewish education and how society presents the reason. He speaks, for example, of fluency in Hebrew — challenging the success of day schools in his world in this regard. Is this, though, the purpose of a Torah education? He also addresses the subjects of intermarriage and ‘off the derech‘, two items often presented as important reasons for maintaining a day school education. He wonders, though, if both of these negative consequences are actually overcome with a day school education. The fact is that many kids who completed a day school education still went ‘off the derech‘ so the argument may not actually be as strong as generally indicated. In regard to intermarriage, in fact, when I spoke to a person who was involved in the original research that showed that there was less intermarriage involving day school graduates, the researcher, in response to some of my questions, told me that while there was clearly a correlation between day school attendance and lower intermarriage, the actual causal reason for this was still unclear. Was is because of the day school education or because the families who would send their kids to a Jewish day school were more personally committed to their Jewish identity and passed this on to their kids at home? Are the reasons for a Jewish education, though, to prevent a negative consequence — simply to maintain Jewish identity and/or Orthodox identity?

This is to me the most frightening aspect of this article. Education should be about improving one’s ability to function in the realm defined by the education. The purpose of a medical education is to teach one how to function and then function better as a doctor — the better the education, the better the doctor. This author did not seem to see this. Is this because of a failing within our Torah educational system or some mis-perception regarding Jewish education and, as such, Judaism, in the author? I venture to believe the former. For Torah education to truly work — and its cost to be recognized as having necessary value — it must be seen as necessary in order for one to fully function, to the best of his/her ability, as a Jew. This means that the education — all of it, through all the years and beyond — must be seen as a practical necessity for living as a Jew. One could only develop an argument to leave Jewish education if one did not believe it to be necessary. Is that a problem in the author of this article — but then how could someone so involved in Torah observance possibly come to that conclusion? It may be that this author is informing us of something really problematic in present Jewish education as it may not only not be perceived as having practical importance in the totality of our Jewish lives but it actually is missing in this objective.

Torah education is a necessity. It is a problem if it is not seen as such. This must call upon us to make sure that the practical necessity of all the years of Torah education — and beyond — is recognized as necessary to live our lives as Jew.

Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

About the Author
Rabbi Benjamin Hecht is the Founding Director of NISHMA (for further info, see www.nishma.org and nishmablog.blogspot.com) and writes prolifically on Jewish thought and its interaction with the world political scene and the human condition. He lectures extensively, has been a guest on various radio and television programs and his work has been published internationally. In addition to his rabbinical ordination, he holds degrees in law, psychology and business.
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