NEW YORK — The leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) are calling for free Jewish preschool for every Jewish family in America.
In an op-ed published last week on the Huffington Post and in the Forward, JFNA CEO Jerry Silverman and board chair Michael Siegal said free Jewish preschool would “dramatically widen the pipeline of families entering Jewish life through this critical early gateway.”
The idea was one of four offered by Silverman and Siegal to “intensify – and make affordable – the most effective vehicles for engaging people in Jewish life,” they wrote.
The two also called for tripling the percentage of Jewish kids attending Jewish summer camps, to 30 per cent, more followup with alumni of Birthright Israel trips, and intensive investment in Jewish programming in parts of the country where Jewish density is high but Jewish engagement is low.
Asked in an interview with JTA if he has a road map to deliver free Jewish preschool to every Jewish family in America, Silverman said, “It’s an idea. These are four concepts and ideas. Our goal is to unpack these, take a look at these, take a look at the models that are already out there and see what this idea could really turn into. And once we unpack it, we will be able to really see what is reasonable and what is executable. But we think it’s in the right direction.”
Ed Segalowitz, executive director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Centre for Jewish Education, said he doesn’t know if JFNA’s plan to fund Jewish preschool includes Canadian families, but he is happy to discuss the possibility with Silverman.
“I’d love to find out what his vision is and would love to work with him and see what ideas he’s got and how we could get there,” Segalowitz said.
He said he doesn’t yet have an idea of how much it would cost in Toronto to offer free Jewish preschool education to all Jewish families in Toronto.
But he did estimate that there are about 11,000 Jewish children between the ages of two and five in Toronto.
Considering that Jewish preschool tuition costs upwards of $13,000 a year, if every Jewish child took advantage of this initiative, it would cost about $140 million a year.
Ted Sokolsky, UJA Federation’s president and CEO, said, “In order to do this they’re going to have to acquire new sources of funding… a lot of it might come from private foundations, some of whom can’t provide funding in Canada.”
But he added that the idea is not about mitigating the high cost of Jewish education.
“This is an initiative to incentivize Jewish families, particularly Americans, to consider the Jewish day school system,” Sokolsky said.
He said in Toronto, 36 per cent of Jewish families choose Jewish day school.
“American families don’t even approach that… It’s not about financial need, it’s about incentivizing people – if you put your kids in Jewish day school, number 1, they get a great start, and two, the families get turned on to Jewish education.”
A jump in enrolment might result from this initiative, which could lower the cost of Jewish education overall, he said.
“It’s the last five or six kids in a class that can lower the cost for everyone. The cost of educating 23 kids in a class is the same cost as educating 28 kids in a class.”
Sokolsky said there are currently about 1,400 kids in Jewish preschool programs in Toronto.
“As far as I know, Jewish daycares are at full capacity. If we wanted to increase [enrolment] by 50 per cent, there are no spaces, so you’d need huge capital investment to get that.”
Segalowitz said it’s too premature to talk seriously about numbers.
“We’d have to talk, sit down… [and talk about] what it would mean to offer it on a free basis to all children… There is a lot of research that would need to be done on that,” he said.
“It’s a concept, an idea, and one well-worth pursuing.”
JFNA has changed its plans for the upcoming General Assembly in Jerusalem to make room for discussion of ideas to address the negative trends in American Jewish life evident in the Pew Research Center’s recent survey of U.S. Jews. The survey showed American Jews assimilating at faster rates than ever.
The op-ed outlining Silverman and Siegal’s ideas offered little in the way of specifics.
On Birthright followup, the two authors issued a call for Birthright’s “gatekeepers to share this vast database of alumni contacts with us so that we have a mechanism to engage them in Jewish life.”
Silverman told JTA, “If we’re supporting this as a community and as philanthropists, then let’s make sure that we’re staying in some way and in some form, and in the right way, connected with these young people so they know there are varying entry points into the community and into Jewish life.”
On the subject of Jewish camp, Silverman did not identify a particular strategy for increasing enrolment, but told JTA that the Foundation for Jewish Camp, which he led for five years before he assumed the helm of the Jewish Federations, is working on a number of strategies for increasing market demand for Jewish camps.
On the subject of dense Jewish communities with low Jewish engagement – Silverman cited Denver, San Diego and Phoenix – the op-ed called for “Jewish Development Zones” that would develop the free Jewish preschool model, build an excellent Jewish summer camp, support existing Jewish youth programming, and develop programs for Birthright alumni and young Jewish singles.
“These ideas that Michael and I have written about are not set in stone,” Silverman told JTA. “These are ideas to question, to debate, to challenge. But we think they’re pretty solid, because let’s start with low-hanging fruit instead of creating from afresh.
“We are very open and hungry to listen to dialogue that occurs. There may be another idea that comes out that’s better – so be it. We felt we needed to put our seeds in the ground to say OK, here’s what we see, here’s what we think. Let’s start the dialogue and put something on the table.”
With files from Sheri Shefa