Amid the troubling statistics of the 2000 National Jewish Population Survey, there is one genuinely positive trend. The percentage of children in Jewish day schools is the highest it’s ever been. Twenty-nine percent of Jewish children today have attended a day school at some point.
Many Jewish parents have recognized that a day school education can give their kids the strong identity and sense of rootedness that they need to navigate an increasingly complex world.
There is no greater measure of a grass-roots phenomenon than the fact that such a large percentage of Jews are willing to shell out upwards of $10,000 to $15,000 (after taxes) a year from their own pockets to finance their children’s Jewish education. The current generation of young parents is trying to embrace day schools as never before. Sadly, however, everyone cannot afford day school. Hundreds of thousands of Jewish children whose families are not religiously committed or very rich are still being left behind. They just don’t have enough money to pay the high cost of day school tuition.
As young families try to vote with their feet; communal philanthropies are woefully lagging far behind.
Notwithstanding the countless commissions that have produced endless dialogue and flatulent institutional rhetoric, there has been no massive infusion of cash to help boost this positive trend in Jewish life. Philanthropies shrug their collective shoulders and claim that there are other existing priorities that must be met. Meanwhile, they are failing to cultivate this healthy new shoot of Jewish life.
Funding Jewish education can no longer be borne solely by the parents. As tuitions are doubling every eight years, fewer and fewer families can afford to educate their children Jewishly. The user-payer model of teaching our children about their heritage is bankrupt.
It is in the entire Jewish community’s self interest to have the next generation of Jewish children literate in our heritage, history and understanding of Torah values. Statistics have conclusively illustrated that children of intermarried and assimilated families do not support Jewish institutional life. Lack of adequate Jewish education funding is becoming a spiritual euthanasia. If existing philanthropies will not or cannot redirect funds to help our own children, new options must be sought and pursued.
In an attempt to solve this extraordinary funding crisis, a movement is fomenting across North America. The idea is simple and direct: Establish locally controlled and managed Superfunds for Jewish Education and Continuity (SJEC) that would raise money to provide scholarship funds for all students in that community. The raised money would be distributed in only one of two avenues.
• The scholarship money would be distributed on a pro rata basis to all of the day schools in the local area, based on their respective enrollment in kindergarten through 12th grade.
• The donor can designate a particular school or schools. The donor’s request would always be honored and would take precedence over the first option.
As an added encouragement for people to give, each superfund would have an affiliated Ben Gamla Society of donors which would match every donation with an additional 10 percent incentive gift. The goal is very simple: Every Jewish child should be able to attend a high quality day school that has an affordable tuition, irrespective of the family’s stream of religious affiliation or financial resources.
In Chicago, SJEC has just begun to organize and commitments to establish the Ben Gamla Society of Chicago have already been made to match 10 percent of a $2 million scholarship fund.
Critics will argue that we don’t need another Jewish fundraising organization. While it is true that the existing philanthropies provide much-needed assistance in many deserving areas of social welfare, the costs of education are not being adequately served. And it is unlikely that existing philanthropies will commence a systemic overhaul of their funding priorities. Most institutions are too entrenched in their political culture to rethink themselves; however, business cannot continue as usual.
Others will argue that day schools are an Orthodox issue. But increasing enrollment in community day schools over the last decade belies this claim. In addition, distinguishing users by denomination is discriminatory and inflammatory.
We must recognize that every Jewish child deserves a chance to love their Jewishness and that it is a communal responsibility to provide our children with those educational opportunities. If we don’t, for most of us, intensive Jewish education will only be available to the rich.
George D. Hanus is chairman of the Jewish Broadcasting Network.