Jewish World Review June 12, 1998 / 18 Sivan, 5758

Jonathan S. Tobin

Jonathan S. Tobin What price Jewish education?

Families, communities need to invest more

HOW NECESSARY IS Jewish education to the Jewish community as a whole? While holdouts who question the importance of education still exist in the Jewish world, they are diminishing with each passing year. American Jews have, by and large, returned to the traditional Jewish notion that the foundation of Jewish life is study.

Today's Jewish schools aren't like they used to be
Everywhere I go in the Jewish world, I see more recognition that Jewish education and study of sacred texts is not something that Jews impose on their children so that their posterity will remain Jewish. Study is something that Jews do because they are Jewish. And it is in study itself — and not merely political activism or philanthropy (let alone ethnic foods or the study of Yiddish) — that our Judaism is best expressed.

But the question remains just how much we are prepared to invest in education.

The answer involves more than just allocations of funds by community institutions. As often as not, the key decisions are taking place at individual synagogues and around the family kitchen table. And it is there, as much as on the battlefront of Federation boardrooms, that the future of the Jewish community is being fought.

Day school "safety net" still needed

At the same time, the community must struggle to keep up its separate but unequal system of Jewish education: excellent day schools and often less than adequate afternoon synagogue schools where the majority of Jewish kids will go.

The good news about day schools is that enrollment continues to increase both here in Connecticut and around the country. The bad news is that these schools are often filled to capacity and would be unable to take in more. In addition, tuition at Jewish day schools — which remain the best bet for Jewish continuity we have — remains prohibitive for most parents. While a consensus is building to prioritize day schools, it has not yet gotten to the point where Jewish communal decision makers are prepared to create an education "safety net" — which would ensure that all children who want a comprehensive Jewish day school education can get one.

That's a tragedy.

A year ago, we were told that insufficient funds existed in Connecticut to duplicate a successful Seattle experiment in which day school tuitions were capped. That experiment increased enrollment significantly. The fact that another year has passed without such an experiment being tried elsewhere.

Supporters of day schools are also working to gain access to the Jewish resources of the generation which is passing on. The Chicago-based National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee has now called for rabbis and Jewish leaders to urge individuals to leave at least 5 percent of their income to Jewish day schools.

This "Jewish estate tax," seeks to create a "moral mandate" for giving via estates and foundations. It deserves support.

Aid for afternoon Hebrew schools

But as the battle for more funds for day schools goes on, the overwhelming majority of Jewish children remain in the afternoon synagogue schools. And despite our best efforts — even with the "safety net" we must have — the plurality of Jewish children who receive any sort of Jewish education will remain in the afternoon schools. These schools need more, too. But the key is to avoid reinforcing failure. And that is what all too many synagogue schools still are.

How do we help? On this score, some local initiatives are promising as region wide Jewish education leaders struggle to provide aid and direction to the synagogue schools.

Educating families, not just kids

But the commitment to Jewish education is going to mean a fundamental change in the way Jewish parents think about educating their children Jewishly. As important as the question of Federations prioritizing education is, it is just as much of an imperative for each individual household to make the same decision.

Will it merely have equal status with Little League, ballet lessons and the Girl Scouts (as is so often the case with Jewish families who send their children to get a "dose" of Judaism)?

If so, it won't matter how much money we put into such schools. If the home is not a place where Jewish learning is respected or practiced, then it won't matter how good the school is. "Pediatric" Jewish education which ignores parents who are as ignorant as their kids, hasn't and won't work.

How do we create a community where Jewish learning is respected? A slim book on one case study is illuminating. Educator Joseph Reimer's recent book, Succeeding at Jewish Education: How One Synagogue Made it Work (Jewish Publication Society), is must reading.

In it, Reimer traces the progress of the programs at one Reform synagogue (which he aptly dubs "Temple Akiba" — the names are changed in the book to protect both the innocent and the guilty). It is important because "Temple Akiba" is a large "classic" Reform temple. It is exactly the sort of place where many Jews (and intermarried couples) without strong foundations in Jewish learning come to find a place in the Jewish world.

The challenge the temple's rabbi and educators face is how to create a Jewish learning environment for both adults and children. "Temple Akiba" succeeds in large measure because although its "distinctive Torah" is far more "liberal" than some of us might personally accept, it is still rooted in Jewish tradition and text. At "Akiba" the goal is to reach Jews where they are and make them see that Torah and Jewish study is directly relevant to their lives.

This is a concept which is no more Reform than it is Orthodox.

Fighting the "no Hebrew" option

Yet at Reimer's "Akiba," conflict and failures are still present. An example is when the rabbi and the Hebrew school committee seeks to end the option whereby parents might send their children to "Sunday school" only, and thus learn no Hebrew. This creates a firestorm of protest from parents who came to "Akiba" specifically to escape rigorous Jewish learning while retaining a smattering of Jewish identity. This is similar to fights at local synagogues over how many hours or days Hebrew Schools will make mandatory.

Though much effort is put into reassuring the protesting parents, in the end, the synagogue sticks to its guns and the "no Hebrew" option is ended. The rabbi had to explain to these parents that a Judaism without Hebrew (and thus without serious study) "cannot insure the Jewish continuity of their children." The moral is that educating the Jewish children of a Jewishly illiterate generation requires educating the parents as well.

The message here is that the continuity struggle isn't along denominational lines. It is being fought at Reform as well as Conservative and Orthodox synagogues. And though day schools remain our best option (and thus deserve a greater share of the funds), we cannot abandon the children in the afternoon schools.

There is, as Reimer proves, some hope for them, too.

JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Connecticut Jewish Ledger.

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©1998, Jonathan S. Tobin