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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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Four questions about Jewish education

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I write these words just days before Pesach, the holiday that, more than any other, focuses on children. We are mandated to ensure that every child – the wise and the wicked, the simple and the ignorant – be given an education, each according to their needs and abilities. The authors of the Haggadah understood that asking questions is the springboard to learning and commitment.

Readers of this column know that I often address the issue of funding for Jewish education. These pieces generate the greatest response, and the message must be repeated over and over again. We as a community can and must do more to fund Jewish education. Our response to this challenge will determine the future viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  

The world economy is still feeling the impact of the financial crisis of 2008, and all signs point to it being years, and perhaps decades, until we’re back to “normal.” As I write this, banks in Cyprus are closed for fear of a run on them in reaction to the taxing of bank deposits. This, in turn, is an effort to deal with the enormous debt load in much of the Eurozone. What’s so sad is that the signs of the financial crisis were there for all to see, if one cared to look. Most chose to ignore the warning signs until it was too late. 

Our educational crisis is no different. On the surface, all seems fine. While enrolment has dropped almost everywhere in North America, we still have near-record numbers of students in our day school systems, and there is much to praise in them. Yet we await our own tipping point and the massive drop-off in day school enrolment that will follow due to the enormous financial burden being placed on parents. It’s true we survived the financial crisis, and the Jewish community will survive even if we have a 50 per cent drop-off in enrolment. That would just put us back to where we were 30 and 40 years ago. But is that what we want?  

In the spirit of Pesach, I present four questions for us to ponder.

Why is it that the wealthiest generation in all of Jewish history is unable to provide free (or very affordable) Jewish education for its children? 

Why have we not copied the phenomenal success of Birthright Israel, which provides free trips for thousands of Jewish youths, and expanded it to “Birthright Education”?

Why do we bemoan the high assimilation rates in our community, yet at the same time insist that we’re unable – or should I say unwilling – to properly fund the one institution that has demonstrated success in producing committed Jews?

Why can Warren Buffet and Bill Gates succeed in getting the super-rich to donate a minimum of 50 per cent of their wealth to charity, while our community can’t get the super-wealthy among us to commit 20 per cent?

While we might debate the answers to the above questions, not enough people are even asking them. If we want to ensure the Jews of tomorrow don’t become the fifth child, who doesn’t even attend a seder, we must address these questions today.

Send comments to rabbijay@torahinmotion.org.

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