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Sunday, September 21, 2014

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Putting dead money to work

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Bank of Canada governor Mark Carney recently called on Canadian corporations to start spending the more than $500 billion of cash, “dead money” as he called it, sitting on their balance sheets. “Their job is to put money to work, and if they can’t think of what to do with it, they should give it back to their shareholders.”

Not surprisingly, corporate Canada disagrees with this assessment, arguing that due to economic uncertainly, companies need to keep large cash reserves. Furthermore, some argue that they’re actually gathering cash to have the capital needed to make large investments in the future.

Carney has the interests of Canada as a whole in mind, whereas individual firms make decisions based on the best interests of their corporate stakeholders. Usually, these two differing motivations – making money and serving the public – coincide, but in this case, it appears the opposite is true. Governments can “solve” this problem by, say, lowering tax rates on dividends or taxing “excess” cash, which might change the calculus of individual companies.

Tragically, in our own community, we, too, have billions of dollars of “dead money.” I refer to the billions (with a “B”) of dollars sitting in charitable foundations doing little to address the economic needs of our community. Like Canada as a whole, our community is strong, perhaps the strongest in the Diaspora. It’s well organized, committed and boasts high levels of Jewish participation and day-school enrolment. Yet the many positives blind us to the wider picture of Jewish communal life, with its rampant assimilation, intermarriage, indifference, ignorance and apathy.

As the cost of a Jewish education becomes out of reach for the average Jewish family, we risk a “depression.” Despite the growth of the general Jewish community here in Toronto, enrolment in Jewish schools is now contracting.

While it might be argued that corporate investments delayed for a few years may eventually yield greater results, no such argument can be made for our lack of investment today in Jewish education. Unlike the economy, with its normal cycles of growth and recession, Jewish life not nurtured in the formative years is not something we can generally recover from. The uneducated Jew of today is the indifferent Jew of tomorrow, and the vanishing Jew of the future. If we don’t invest today in our most precious assets – Jewish children – there will be fewer and fewer Jewish grandchildren and great-grandchildren to invest in.

Like Carney, I’m frustrated. Free access to education is a fundamental right of every child and a fundamental responsibility of every community. Every government in the world understands that, yet somehow when it comes to Jewish education, this basic notion is ignored. Whereas previous generations may have argued they could not afford to do so, such arguments ring very hollow today. We are by far the wealthiest generation of Jews in history. Yet we are also likely the most ignorant of all when it comes to Jewish history. If only a small part of the billions of dollars already sitting in Jewish charitable foundations would be put to work today, the tuition crisis would be solved overnight, ensuring the sustainability and growth of our community.  

More on “birthright education” can be found at www.torahinmotion.org.

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