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Where Is Our Jewish Leadership Hiding?

Where Is Our Jewish Leadership Hiding?

The crisis of funding Jewish education is a shameful omission from the Jewish philanthropic agenda.


The phrase "Where''s Waldo?" has become a shorthand idiom for finding distinctive characters hiding in a crowded maze. Our contemporary Jewish world has become such a maze, and a search for the hiding Waldo in Jewish leadership is in order. Where's our Waldo Jewish leadership?

More marriages take place in June than in any other: approximately 264,000 couples got married this past month in the United States. That is the good news. The bad news is that among Jews, twice as many of those marriages were intermarriage unions as compared to exclusively Jewish marriages.

June is also a month of graduations from educational institutions. These graduations celebrate the culmination of long and arduous educational journeys. The Jewish community in America is among the leading constituencies to earn college and postcollege degrees. Fifty-five percent of Jewish young people obtain college degrees compared to 28 percent of all other Americans. As well, 24 percent of American Jews obtain graduate degrees compared to 5 percent of all other Americans. We Jews value education: that's the good news. The bad news is that while many Jews are secularly well educated, Jewish illiteracy is rampant. A spiritual relationship with God is at an all-time low and young Jewish children are abandoning 4,000 years of linkage to the People of the Book. Children today don't even know that book's name.

If the current Jewish community will be known as the "Generation That Abandoned Jewish Children," then what should we label the current hiding leadership?

Jewish leadership is an oxymoronic moniker because we Jews don't like to be led by anyone. Everyone knows the old saying: two Jews, three opinions. But for purposes of this discussion, leadership will be defined as the pulpit rabbis, the policy wonks, the self-anointed lay chairmen and paid staff people at our Jewish communal organizations, who claim to set the agenda for Jewish philanthropy, the controllers of the local communal budgets and those wealthy Jews in the community who choose which philanthropies, if any, they want to support.

Without young children in every generation learning their heritage, we have no Jewish people.

The only glue that has connected four millennia of Jewish continuity has been intergenerational Jewish education. Without young children in every generation learning their heritage, we have no Jewish people. Throughout history, Jewish communities have somehow figured out vehicles to educate their children. The enormity of the crisis of funding Jewish education and our inability to provide an opportunity for every young Jewish family to Jewishly educate their children is a shameful omission from the Jewish philanthropic agenda. The Jewish community should scream out, "Where's the Waldo Jewish leadership?"

Where are the pulpit rabbis? They sermonize about every imaginable social topic except providing free high-quality Jewish day school education for all children who seek it regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish Federations? They are allegedly the central community charity chests in every local community. There is not one Jewish Federation in the United Sates that has stated in their written policy, and backed it up with an enormous financial commitment, that every local constituent community will ensure that every Jewish child can attend a Jewish day school at no charge regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish mega donors? Every individual can choose whether he wants to give charity or not, and obviously to whomever he wishes. However, that does not prevent the rest of the Jewish community from asking which charity is the beneficiary of the donor's beneficence. According to recent surveys, less than 7 percent of major Jewish philanthropists' gifts went to Jewish institutions. The community can also ask whether those rich individuals are giving their fair share of tithing. This inquiry could easily be dismissed on the grounds that it is no one's business. But Jewish tradition has always been proud of tzedakah, which sets obligatory standards on all Jews to give a minimum of 10 percent of their income to charitable causes. How many Jews do you know who are tithing?

Where are the presidents of the major Jewish organizations? Why is funding Jewish education not the number-one agenda item on any Jewish organizations' annual meeting? Why is funding Jewish education not even a significant topic at any Jewish organizational annual meeting?

There is a terrible piece of black humor circulating among many young Jewish families -- families that are committed to sending their children to Jewish day schools but are struggling to pay the $15,000 tuition per child. The joke is that tuition is the best form of birth control. In fact, many families are limiting the number of children they have because they just can't fathom paying an additional $15,000 per year per child.

Do we not comprehend the current tragic state of affairs facing us, the wealthiest Jewish community in the history of the world? Jewish education has become a philanthropic stepchild relegated only to the wealthy and those families willing to assume mammoth financial sacrifices, while more children are not being born because tuition for Torah education is cost-prohibitive.

Where's the Waldo Jewish leadership that presided over the Generation That Abandoned Jewish Children?

June 28, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 26

(26) yossi, September 26, 2008 1:31 PM

Where are these numbers coming from?

I have 3 children in elementary school, and 1 boy in high school in the new york area. The maximum tuition I'm paying is 6,000. All of these schools are clean, neat, and have excellent curriculum with devoted staff. In some areas, it may pay to travel a little to save a lot.

(25) Sandra Levine, July 14, 2008 6:34 PM

what about high school

$15,ooo is only elementary school. In the New York/New Jersey area there are few high school options below $20,000 -Many are thousands above $20,000. How can the average family , even with two wage earners, afford that tuition for several children?

(24) Esther, July 3, 2008 2:06 PM

Forward this to every rabbi and Federation official you know!

They should see that we are literally turning away thousands of our children from Jewish education each year.

And I will repeat my individual advice to parents, based on my own experiences: apply for financial aid, you may be surprised and receive some. Isn't it worth a try to find out?

(23) Avital, July 2, 2008 1:10 PM

Well, I would love to send my kids to a Jewish school. It was my dream as a child to have that opportunity for myself, and now that I am a parent it is my dream for my own kids. But unfortunately it would cost more to send them to a Jewish school than I even make in a year. I wish a Jewish education was available to all Jewish children, but unfortunately it is not available to Jewish kids who don't have wealthy parents.

(22) Esther, July 1, 2008 3:11 PM

Liora - don't give up yet on educating your precious Jewish children!

Liora - your comment could have been written by me a few years ago: my husband also is less committed to religious observance than I am, we also live in a very Jewish area with excellent public schools but no day school nearby, and we also see no way to pay the exorbitant day school fees for our several children (who can?).

However, when my first child entered kindergarten a couple years ago, I was adamant that she would receive an Orthodox day school education, no matter what, even if I had to drive her and her brothers for hours every day to seing it and tighten our budget to the breaking point.

Well, a couple years on, we're managing. Our kids do have a long commute to school, but it's worth it when I see the wonderful Jewish education they're receiving. (We even managed to find some other families to carpool with sometimes, perhaps you could too.)

Regarding the money, it's not easy, but so far we've managed to come up with it. We even received a tiny bit of financial aid. We're taking it a year at a time. I don't see how we can keep paying the fees, but I really do feel as if, having taken one step towards giving our kids a Jewish education, Hashem is coming the rest of the way to meet us. It hasn't been as hard as we thought.

I'd encourage you to enroll your kids in day school - even if it means a long commute and high fees. Just think of the hardships our ancestors endured to ensure their children's Jewish educations. This article is right on the mark, but until the community makes it easier to educate our cildren, I'd encourage you to put up with the inconvenience and expense.

I promise you that literally the first week your child is in kindergarten - when they come home having memorized surprisingly large amounts of tefillot, talking about the parsha, dressed in a tsnius manner, and asking for play dates with other children whose families have the same values as you - you will know you made the right decision. We've never regretted it, despite the money and long commute.

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