July 22, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Whither (Wither) Jewish Education?

I am outraged, and frustrated, and em­barrassed that the current myopic leadership of our community , i.e. federation, the rabbis, school and synagogue boards, do not realize what the founding members of this communi­ty understood so well.

Jewish education is important. It is not an afterthought. A community such as ours is one of the densest Jewish and educational­ly committed communities in North America. We have fifteen day schools and over 100 syn­agogue school programs. Visionaries like the late lamented Arthur Joseph understood that we need a central agency to coordinate edu­cational programs and provide educational leadership to the schools and their teachers. For over thirty years Jewish Educational Ser­vices provided this service and provided it well. What started as a small office grew to a staff of 11 educational professionals who served with distinction. In fact, when touting plans for the new federation building, the JES Teachers’ Center was one of the centerpieces of the ed­ifice.

Now it is gathering dust. There are no more workshops or conferences that attract 500 teachers.

The issue of allocation of funds is impor­tant. In several Strategic Plans (as well as the last demographic survey) the main recom­mendations were to beef up the JES programs. Since this did not match what the “leadership” felt was a priority it was dumped. The hard work put in by many UJA leaders, including two former presidents, was blithely ignored as were the sentiments of the community that was polled.

Beyond serving the needs of teachers and schools, there is a pressing need to address the tuition crisis. Many communities, most nota­bly Los Angeles and New York have success­fully embarked on major fundraising efforts to ameliorate this situation and MetroWest has also started a fund as well as capping tuition.

We are a wealthy community. Concrete suggestions have already been made. (See “Modest Proposals,” Jewish Link. Oct. 17, 2013, and Dec. 12, 2013) Implementation requires our capacity to prioritize Jewish education and put up the funds to do it properly. We can do it. This is no less important than earthquakes, hurricanes or tsunamis–or even Israeli institu­tions.

At this point it is important to share the blame. Allocation of funding is a game, and like all games it has rules. The main rule is that you have to be in it to win it. Federation is not the “other” it is us. It is democratically comprised of who shows up at the table. It is a communi­ty-based organization. Day schools will not get funded as an entitlement just because they ex­ist. Those who advocate for Jewish education need to be part of that corpus which deals with the entire community and all its various needs. Working one’s way up the ladder takes time, and it often involves supporting programs with which you may disagree. But that’s how the game is played.

Those in power make the decisions. If enough people who cared about Jewish edu­cation, were involved in all of federation’s pro­grams, eventually they would be in a position to drive the allocation of funds and the prioriti­zation of Jewish education.

Federation has re-prioritized Jewish educa­tion out of existence. Commitment to Jewish education requires more than lip service. I am embarrassed that my community has so little foresight and understanding that it has no cen­tral agency for Jewish education. It is frustrat­ing that they don’t get it. It is equally frustrat­ing that the educational community doesn’t understand what it must do. Perhaps federat­ed giving has run its course. Maybe it’s time to start a coalition just for day schools. Chicago has had this for many decades.

With one or two rare exceptions, our rabbis have not been involved with local Jewish ed­ucation. It is time for some leaders to step up to the plate and start an independent agency to serve the Jewish educational needs of our community and to do some serious fundrais­ing.

Dr. Wallace Greene was the Director of Jewish Educa­tional Services for over a decade. He is currently Exec­utive Secretary of the Alisa Flatow Memorial Scholar­ship Fund which offers funds for students to study in Israel. He taught in NY/NJ universities, was the princi­pal of the Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy, founded the Sinai Schools, and is the recipient of many prestig­ious awards and grants.

By Dr. Wallace Greene

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