By Ezra Friedlander
Jewish philanthropists: I offer a New Year’s resolution that can potentially change the face of American Jewry for decades. Create a Birthright to a Jewish education.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Birthright Israel, the program that sends Jewish young adults on a ten-day educational trip to Israel in order to deepen their commitment to their Jewish identity. But 14 years after the program was launched, not much has changed. It’s time for the folks who are funding Birthright to realize that their hearts are in the right place, but their pocketbooks aren’t.
Birthright began in December 1999, when Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt pledged $210 million toward the initiative. Since then, more than 330,000 participants have joined the program. And while the results have certainly been positive, the reality is that participants’ commitment to Judaism doesn’t seem to last very long.
In my opinion, Birthright was a good start, but it is equivalent to placing a Band-Aid on a patient who really needs major surgery. According to the recent Pew study, assimilation is rampant. The Jewish community is bleeding way too heavily for Birthright to make a major lasting impact. It is time for visionaries in the mold of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt to step up to the plate and really invest in saving the Jewish nation. After long thought and discussion with accomplished Jewish activists around the country, I am proposing a new program and calling it “Birthright to a Jewish Education.”
An authentic Jewish education is oxygen for the Jewish soul. All Jewish children deserve to know and understand their heritage. That education will inspire them to learn, to grow, to build, to dream and, as history has shown, all of society—not just the Jewish community—will benefit from such citizens.
The opportunity to send a child to a Jewish school from kindergarten through twelfth grade should be available to every Jewish family that understands the tremendous risk of ignoring such opportunities and the immeasurable rewards of seizing the moment. Developing a strong sense of Jewish identity is the key to sustaining the Jewish faith in an ever more secular America.
This education must be financed by an entity called Birthright to a Jewish Education, which will be a designated central fund. This endowment fund should be managed with the highest ethical standards, with oversight by a board of America’s most respected and trusted philanthropists. It should be parent-driven via a system of vouchers, which they will receive directly and control entirely in deciding which Jewish school to designate it for. Preference should be given primarily to those who are in the greatest danger of denying themselves the right to a Jewish education as well as those who are lowest on the socio-economic ladder.
This concept should and could work, as long as it remains both apolitical and non-denominational as criteria for eligibility. Jewish parents across the spectrum should have a choice as to the type of education they prefer for their children. For full disclosure, I personally subscribe to the lament expressed by Rabbi Moshe Sherer, a quintessential Jewish leader of his time, in an essay on assimilation: “A Judaism based solely on sentiment and memory cannot provide the spiritual sustenance to preserve generations to come . . . Only a Judaism rooted in the Tree of Life emanating from Sinai can offer the spiritual food to sustain future generations.” But realistically, this effort will only be universally accepted if the parent dictates which school the child will attend; hence all Jewish schools will be eligible for funding. That said, today it is the Orthodox model that is at the forefront of stemming Jewish assimilation, as confirmed by the Pew Research Center.
We are losing thousands of children every year. Every child should have the opportunity to an authentic Jewish education, one that his or her parents might have been denied. The stakes are simply too high to ignore any longer. For the first time we are also witnessing parents move their children to public schools from day schools out of financial constraints. This is simply unacceptable!
For those, like myself, who spend considerable time outside the protective bubble of Boro Park and Williamsburg, it is painful to watch as the secular community rapidly diminishes. Secular Jews who received even a quasi-Jewish education have kept some sort of faith-based identity. Those who were deprived of a basic Jewish education may be lost forever. Birthright Israel was a noble idea, but the notion that a ten-day trip will provide the antidote to the spiritual Holocaust taking shape across America is naïve, insulting to all of us who care deeply about Jewish continuity, and indeed proving ineffective.
Wherever there are emerging or established Jewish communities, one will find thriving yeshivas and day schools. Visit the communities of Passaic, Scranton, Milwaukee, Dallas, Silver Spring, Denver, and Phoenix, and you will witness scores of school buses filled with children en route to Jewish schools every morning. In these areas, Jewish identity and Jewish investment is flourishing. There is no reason why others cannot duplicate this success. It is a matter of commitment and, yes, funding.
For those who feel that I’m dreaming, I assure you that the money is there. According to Forbes Israel, there are currently a total of 165 Jewish billionaires around the world, with a combined wealth of $812 billion. Many of these billionaires support a variety of Jewish programs and activities, but not Jewish education. Holocaust memorials, museums, and even Birthright are all extremely admirable ventures, but they do nothing to stem the tide of assimilation.
The news abounds with recent major acts of philanthropy by Jewish donors. Mark Zuckerberg, the Facebook founder worth over $18 billion, recently donated $100 million to the Newark school district. Ronald Perelman, a major Jewish philanthropist, recently donated $50 million to an NYU hospital. The aforementioned are all extraordinary acts of charity, but imagine how effective it would be had those contributions been matched and earmarked for Jewish education.
Years ago, the brilliant sage Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik told a renowned Jewish philanthropist, “Mr. Bronfman, remember that the Jewish people were created for more than fighting anti-Semitism.” Are we so busy defending ourselves from our enemies and promoting U.S.–Israel relations that we have failed to recognize the basic requirement of educating our young? While we are all overwhelmed with our day-to-day activities, have we possibly overlooked our enormous responsibility to the next generation and Jewish continuity? If so, how can we continue to neglect this?
I am not remotely pretending to address all the issues, logistics, and otherwise. The sole intention here is start a conversation and encourage caring and committed Jews from all backgrounds to face the harsh realities facing us as a people, now before it is too late. Let’s change the face of American Jewry by ensuring that all of our children are educated and inspired to be proud of their Jewish identity. I’m willing to discuss my plan and my ideas with those who are willing to rise to the challenge.
A worthy New Year’s resolution to consider indeed. v
Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public consulting group based in New York City and Washington DC. He can be reached by e-mail at Ezra@TheFriedlanderGroup.com or follow @EzraFriedlander on Twitter.