July 21, 2024
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Federation and Jewish Education

I have lived in Bergen County for 44 years and I have been active in my synagogue, community affairs, UJA and several day schools. I have watched this community grow and flourish. I cannot fully understand how the leadership of a community with so many schools, a community with one of the densest as well as most committed Jewish populations in the country, does not have a central agency for Jewish education to support our schools. We are all to blame.

Over the last 80 or so years, the relationship between federations and Jewish education has often been perceived as a tug-of-war; polar opposites struggling over control of a communal lifeline. The model of a communal bureau for Jewish education was developed in 1910 through the New York kehillah, precursor to the current UJA-Federation of New York. By 1929, at least a dozen such centralized education agencies provided critical support to local Jewish education efforts in major cities across America, in large part due to the efforts of local federations.

The Great Depression put federations under intense pressure to prioritize social services over Jewish education, often leaving Jewish educational institutions to fend for themselves. This resulted in a rift between Jewish educators and federations that, by the late 1930s, was quite stark. There was a real break about who could be entrusted to ensure the delivery of vibrant Jewish education.

That trust gap narrowed and widened a number of times since the 1930s, but not solely due to internal communal struggles. Usually they came in response to periodic economic and social changes in the larger American social order that impacted the American-Jewish community and its institutions as well. Since American Jews are, by and large, integrated politically, socially and economically into American society, our Jewish communal problems often mirror its larger problems. So if one looks at American issues around education, such as what constitutes a core curriculum, who should pay for education, and who decides how education funding should be allocated, one can perceive those issues in our own internal push/pull between communal and educational leadership.

However, as a people who value the lessons of history, it is important to remember there have been moments over the last eight decades when federations and Jewish education applied their combined strength to innovate successful models in response to communal needs. In just the last 25 years, effective partnerships have brought strong communal solutions to difficult educational challenges, including programs such as Birthright, Jewish camping, more day schools and teen programming. Our own community responded to this challenge when it established the Jewish Educational Services agency 35 years ago.

It is my belief that we are once again living in a moment when Jewish educational institutions and our federation can come together to innovate new solutions to current challenges. To take advantage of this historic moment, federation and the Jewish education community need to pull together rather than apart. Many challenges to Jewish education are opportunities for cooperative decision-making and innovation.

1. Re-prioritizing led to the closing of a number of central education agencies throughout the country (including Northern New Jersey). There were over 70 bureaus in 1995. Today there are fewer than 40. What new models serve as the support mechanism for community education?

2. The denominations have closed or shrunk educational support services for congregational education. What is the local communal role in picking up the slack?

3. Critical sources of support for Jewish educational institutions dried up in the recession. Now that they are just able to be replaced, what is the best use of those funds?

4. Both federation and schools are benefitting from recent efforts to produce more highly educated, better-trained professionals. How do we jointly harness that energy?

5. Federation lay leaders and private funders at every level have opinions about what is wrong with Jewish education. How do we engage them to focus on what is right?

A culture change in both federation and our Jewish educational leadership is needed to truly join forces to tackle our shared challenges, including:

mutual trust-building among leadership, to overcome decades of distrust;

a recognition that both fields bring distinct resources that alone cannot solve the bigger problems;

acknowledgment that traditional non-federation support mechanisms for Jewish education, such as synagogues and their funders, no longer are able to be self-reliant in supporting their educational efforts;

recognition that federation has the communal gravitas to break down the silos that keep schools from true cooperation and innovation, and to bring needed funders together at the local level to work strategically to fund those efforts.

Although I am concerned with Jewish education throughout the world, my primary concern is our local schools. The late lamented Arthur Joseph, z”l, understood that our community needs a strong Jewish educational support system. Congregational schools are struggling and day schools are growing. Both require communal support.

Federation leadership has never been fully supportive of day schools since most of them are not “day school people.” This is not the forum for a critique of federation. Too often the day school community views federation as the “other.” However, federation is a somewhat democratic organization in that if you show up and are involved, and not necessarily as a big donor, you are part of the organization. Over the years, there have been too few kippot around the federation table. Here and there certain individuals affiliated with the day schools (both Conservative and Orthodox) have been in leadership positions, but too few to influence long-term policy, priorities and funding.

Granted that there are some federation policies that may be anathema to the day school crowd. But you have to be in it to win it. You can’t just sit back and complain and withhold your pledge. Federation will not change its attitudes towards day schools just because it is the right thing to do. If more day school parents would be involved in the broader communal work of federation, despite whatever legitimate issues there may be, eventually two things would happen. Day schools would not be viewed just as takers but as partners in Jewish communal growth, and if enough day school people are involved—and yes it does take time—but—down the road one day you will have the votes to determine policies and priorities and influence funding.

Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene was the chairman of The National Board of License For Teachers and Principals in Jewish Schools in North America, director of Jewish Educational Services for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, and founded the Sinai Schools. During his tenure at the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, many members of the federation Allocations Committee were day school parents. Funding increased each year.

By Wallace Greene

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