Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Cost of Jewish Education

OU, AI & UJA leaders meet with  Majority Leader John Flanagan (OU)
It is an encouraging and unprecedented form of Achdus (unity) among American Jewry.  We now have three separate Jewish Organizations working together in common cause. Agudath Israel (AI), the Orthodox Union (OU) and  UJA – Federation of New York have joined forces seeking the same thing for the benefit of Klal Yisroel. They are lobbying for passage of thParental Choice in Education Act. 

Although AI and the OU have in the past worked together lobbying state and federal legislators in this regard, to the best of my knowledge this is the first time the secular Jewish establishment has joined them. If I remember correctly they have in the past opposed the very cause they are working for now, tax relief for parochial school parents. Having argued that this would be a church/state violation, they seem to have reversed course.

I guess that now famous Pew report about the shrinkage of American Jewry has had its impact. A shrinkage due to the fact that increasing numbers of secular Jews are indifferent to their heritage and assimilating out of Judaism to the point of intermarriage. Something that can easily be traceable to the lack of any significant Jewish education on their part. This has obviously made an impression on them. I think they finally realize that educating Jewish youth is the key to stemming that tide. Something that Chicago’s Jewish Federation realized decades ago.

This is a good thing. Even as it is opposed by public school officials who believe that it will harm their own interests… and claiming that it would be a violation of church/state separation.

I can see how they would say that. After all any government program that benefits religious schools can easily be seen that way. They see hundreds of millions of dollars in the form of tax breaks being diverted to religious schools.  I don’t see it that way. If the government is going to mandate educating its young, it ought to do it in a way that provides school choice for all. As long as the money provided goes directly for the same subject matter taught in the public schools, I see no church state issue.

Those who see any money being spent in a religious school even if spent on non religious subjects as a violation of church state issues do not impress me with their arguments.  Clearly if subject matter being taught is identical there is no violation. And giving tax breaks for that portion of tuition that provides secular subjects is even less problematic. The bill is supported by the governor. But I do understand the opposition. It’s all about the bottom line.

Not that this bill - if it passes - will completely solve the tuition crisis. It will help. But there will still be a shortfall in many parochial school budgets. In some cases it is because tuitions in schools that offer quality educations in both religious and secular subjects are so high that for most people a tax break will not offset the cost of educating all of their children. Certainly not in larger families. And in some of the more right wing schools where many Kollel type families send their children - incomes are lower and the number of children they send to the school is higher. This results in a greater cost to the school with less revenue coming in to pay for it. 

Now that major Jewish organizations understand the value – the need – for Jewish education in order to survive… and the lack of adequate funding, I don’t think it is asking too much for them to re-prioritize their allocations. After supporting the poor, the sick, and the elderly, Jewish education ought to be the highest priority. Far ahead of supporting social programs, subsidizing Jewish Centers …or cultural centers… or even Holocaust museums. Even ahead of supporting Israel.

Finally I would take note of an event that happened recently. Harvard University was given a $400 million donation. While supporting an institution like Harvard is a worthy cause, one has to take into account need. Harvard is probably the most well endowed university in the world. I doubt that they have a budget crisis. They were probably doing just fine without that 400 million dollars. That money would have done a lot more good in some other worthy organization that needs the money.

I mention this in order to ask those in the Jewish community at large (no matter what denomination they belong to) if they have this kind of wealth to consider giving that kind of donation specifically to Jewish education. If they have any feeling at all for their Jewish heritage and want to see it perpetuated, they should understand what needs to be done. Just as the Jewish Federation of New York now does.

Can anyone imagine if someone donated $400 million dollars to the federation earmarked for Jewish education –  how that would benefit us? And if there is one Jew that can afford that kind of donation, there are probably a lot more. There is not a doubt in my mind that we could stop the hemorrhaging of Jews out of Judaism if that kind of money was spent educating Jewish youth.

The Jewish Federation of New York should start a campaign educating the masses about the importance of Jewish education to the very survival of Judaism. A campaign unlike anything that was ever tried in the past. Wealthy Jews of all stripes need to be convinced of that existential need. If successful it could go a long way to solving the tuition crisis - and a lot more. Imagine the possibilities.