The Four Questions of Jewish Education

By: rabbi jay kelman |

I write these words just days before Pesach, the holiday that, more than any other, focuses on children. We are mandated to ensure that every child—the wise and the wicked, the simple and the ignoramus—be given an education, each according to his or her needs and abilities. The authors of the Hagaddah understood that it is the asking of questions that is the springboard to learning and commitment.

Readers of this column know that the issue of funding Jewish education is one I address often. It is these columns that generate the greatest response and the message must be repeated over and over again.  We, as a community, can and must do more to fund Jewish education. Our response to this challenge will determine the future viability of Jewish life in the Diaspora.  

The world economy is still feeling the impact of the financial crisis of 2008 and all signs points to years, perhaps decades, until we are back to “normal”. As I write this, banks in Cyprus are closed for fear of a run on the banks in reaction to the taxing of bank deposits. This, in turn, is an effort to deal with the enormous debt load of much of the Eurozone. What is so sad is that the signs of the financial crisis were there for all to see, if one cared to look. Most chose to ignore the warning signs until it was too late. 

Our educational crisis is no different. On the surface, all seems fine. While enrollments have dropped almost everywhere in North America, we still have near-record numbers of students in our day school system, and there is much to praise in our community. Yet we await our own tipping point and the massive drop-off in day school enrollment that will follow due to the enormous financial burden being placed on parents. It’s true we survived the financial crisis, and the Jewish community will survive even if we have a 50% drop-off rate; that would just put us back to where we were thirty and forty years ago. But is that what we want?   

In the spirit of Pesach, I present four questions for us to ponder:    

Why is it that the wealthiest generation in all of Jewish history is unable to provide free (or very affordable) Jewish education for its children? 

Why have we not copied the phenomenal success of Birthright Israel, which provides free trips for hundreds of thousands of Jewish (and even some non-Jewish) youth, and expanded it to Birthright Education?

Why do we bemoan the high assimilation rates in our community, yet at the same time insist that we are unable—or shall I say unwilling—to properly fund the one institution that has demonstrated success in producing committed Jews?

Why can Warren Buffet and Bill Gates succeed in getting the super-wealthy to donate a minimum of 50% of their wealth to charity, while our community can’t get the super-wealthy amongst us to commit to 20%?

While we might debate the answers to the above questions, not enough people are even asking them. If we want to ensure that the Jews of tomorrow do not become the fifth child, who does not even attend the seder, we need to address these questions today.