Education is a public good. A strong education system benefits not only individuals, but strengthens the underlying fabric of society. Our economy, the development of technology and civil society all rely on the strength of the education system.
Jewish education, too, is a public good. A strong Jewish education system benefits not only the individual, but strengthens the Jewish community. Our synagogues and communal agencies rely on educated lay and professional leaders, Israel relies on an educated Jewish Diaspora, and Jewish continuity relies on Jews who have the knowledge, attitude and aptitude to drive our community forward.
The view that education is a public good creates the societal imperative to fund education. Collectively –whether or not we have children, or children in school – we all contribute to public education. By doing so, the cost of education is distributed across the entire citizenry. While government taxes may compel us to pay for public education, we all benefit from the system. Can you imagine living in a society in which education is not considered a public good and parents are saddled with the full cost of their children’s education? It would increase inequality, stifle progress and strangle the economy.
And yet, the weight of Jewish education falls squarely on the shoulders of parents.
This column is not about Jewish education as a public good for all of society. Rather, it is about thinking through the ways Jewish education can become a public good for the Jewish community.
Today, the vast majority of the cost of Jewish education is borne by parents. School tuition, camp registration, bar and bat mitzvah training, youth movement fees and all the other costs associated with raising a Jewish child fall on the shoulders of parents.
There have been breaks in this system. In some European countries, the government collects a “church tax,” allowing individuals to direct a portion of their taxes to the religion of their choosing. Through this system, the costs of Jewish communal infrastructure, including synagogues and schools, are distributed over a wider group of the community. In other places, a kosher chicken tax has been recommended, in the form of a small levy on top of the cost of chicken. The proceeds of this tax would go to Jewish education.
Today, Jewish federations and other communal funding sources help subvent the costs of some programs. Birthright Israel, One Happy Camper grants, and subsidies for schools and other programs are prime examples. By allocating a portion of the communal pot to education, these federations spread the cost of raising the next education of Jews across a group of voluntary contributors.
Recently, I was struck by Beth Radom Congregation in Toronto’s decision to offer a 25 per cent reduction in synagogue dues to day-school families. The plan is one small way of spreading the cost of day school education across all members of the congregation – whether they have children or not.
For the congregational community, it also makes a clear statement of educational value. Even though the congregation supports its own supplementary school, it values the commitment of day school families and endeavours to support their children’s education. While many synagogues support congregants who participate in the synagogue’s programming – such as supplementary schools, movement camps, youth groups and denominational Israel trips – Beth Radom is among a small group of synagogues that help support Jewish education beyond its own walls.
Just as the wider society considers education a public good and ensures that the cost of providing this education is shared by all citizens, we as a Jewish community must take a similar stance with Jewish education. Jewish education can only reach its full potential when our entire community – individuals, synagogues, schools, and others – contributes to its success.
Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.