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Day school closings reveal troubling pattern

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The Jewish community of Greater Toronto has suffered another blow – the third in six months – to a diverse, involved, committed, activist, relatively knowledgeable, thriving Jewish future.

On May 18, the Board of Directors of Associated Hebrew Schools announced that it must downsize its Thornhill campus due to falling enrolment. The school will sell its building within the next two years and seek a new home for that branch, if possible, in York Region, north of Steeles Avenue.

In March, the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT) announced it was closing its northern branch in Vaughan and consolidating the student body at its southern branch in North York.

Four months earlier, Leo Baeck Day School announced it was selling its northern campus, also in Vaughan, and moving its student body to the northern CHAT campus.

This is no longer a series of isolated events. Rather, it’s a pattern. Indeed, it is a clarion call of piercing alarms portending future communal calamity.

READ: ‘THE BIG MO’ IN JEWISH EDUCATION HAS ARRIVED

While there are likely a number of factors for the dwindling enrolment over the past few years at the northern GTA schools, the key reason families are choosing not to send their children to these schools has been the astronomic rise in day school tuitions. The schools offer excellent programs but they are simply beyond the economic reach of so many families.

Some 21 years ago, the Commission on Jewish Education that had been struck by the Jewish Federation of Greater Toronto four years earlier reported its blueprint for the future of Jewish education in the GTA to the Federation’s board of directors. The document is substantive, thoughtfully written and clear-eyed in scanning a cloudy horizon.

“We will only have succeeded in our work,” the commissioners wrote, “ if the community and its leaders subscribe to the belief that high quality, accessible Jewish education is central to ensuring Jewish continuity in Toronto.”

Now it must be written, alas, that the commissioners, though imbued with the highest values of responsibility and commitment to the community, did not succeed. Jewish education became decidedly inaccessible to most families of average, middle-income means. And we are now seeing the sad but predictable result: Jewish schools are closing.

Thankfully, over the past few months, the new leadership of the Federation has begun a series of initiatives aimed at finally breathing life into the 1996 commission report.

We can take heart and example from Jewish philanthropists Elie and Susy Horn in Brazil. About 18 months ago, they announced they were signing on to the Giving Pledge, an effort started in 2010 by philanthropists Bill and Melinda Gates and Warren Buffett to encourage more of the world’s affluent to give away at least half of their wealth to charitable causes.

Horn came to Brazil from Aleppo, Syria in 1944 as an 11-year old. In joining the Giving Pledge he wrote that he was inspired by the example of his father, who donated his entire fortune to tzedakah. “As human beings, we will carry nothing with us to the other world – the only things we shall take are the good deeds that we accomplish in this world. The more we give, the more meaningful and stronger we shall become…Our main message in giving is to make people belong to communities and to do good in general.”

The Horns have pledged to give away 60 per cent of their wealth to religious and secular educational causes.

Our sages have taught us that no matter how slender the seedling we plant today or how remote in the future the harvest of its fruit, it is our duty to always plant in order to ensure the eternity of our generations. Some years ago the community of Greater Toronto effectively stopped planting for the next generations. It is now tilling the depleted soil. Let us hope it is not too late.

Where are our Elie and Susy Horn?

And if not now, when?