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Friday, August 29, 2014

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Let’s make Jewish high school free

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Rabbi Jay Kelman

The recently released Pew survey on of U.S. Jews has generated anguished discussion on the future of American Jewry. Some of its key findings include an intermarriage rate of 58 per cent, a number that rises to 71 per cent if the Orthodox are excluded (in 1970, the rate was 17 per cent), as well as the findings that two-thirds of Jews don’t belong to a synagogue and one-third had a Christmas tree last year.

Jerry Silverman president and CEO, Jewish Federations of North America, stated simply that non-Orthodox Judaism is “facing an existential crisis.” Similar views were expressed by many, if not quite as starkly.

One of the ideas Silverman floated to re-engage many with Jewish life free Jewish preschool for all Jewish families. Admittedly, at this point, this is an idea whose details and full costs have not been worked out. Nonetheless, we finally have an important federation leader publicly acknowledging the need for free Jewish education if we hope to ensure the Jewish future of the vast majority of American Jews. But while getting Jewish kids in the door is a great idea, unless there’s a strong incentive to have these kids continue, it would be more effective to begin with the high school years, where adolescents are in their formative years.

This need for universal accessible (free) Jewish education is quite apparent, yet many are afraid to admit as much, fearing they may be asked to help implement such a program, one that requires heavy investment now and whose dividends will take years to show up in a future study.   

At the Anne and Max Tanenbaum Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, where I teach, recent research showed that 96 per cent of graduates married other Jews. The student body is overwhelmingly non-Orthodox. The solution to intermarriage is readily apparent. Is our community up to the challenge? 

What if an education at TanenbaumCHAT was free for all students. At the current enrolment of about 1,400 and with tuition at $23,500, we’re talking about an investment of $32 million a year. That may sound like a lot, but it’s actually a tiny fraction of the money sitting in Jewish foundations (not to mention personal wealth) and is less than half of what UJA raises annually in Toronto. Even if the in-marriage rate were to drop as low as 80 per cent for TanenbaumCHAT graduates, it means hundreds of people every year are marrying Jews because they received a Jewish high school education.

With many opting out of a Jewish education due to cost, offering free education would save hundreds more from intermarriage and help guarantee a vibrant Jewish future.  

The Pew report noted that 96 per cent of Jews who marry other Jews are raising their children as Jewish by religion, whereas only 20 per cent of Jews who are intermarried are doing the same.

There’s no need for an anguished response to reports of disconnected Jews. The solution is simple and is contrary to what many claim is most affordable. If the richest community in Jewish history is unwilling to find the money to rescue Jews from assimilation, it should anguish us all.

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