It’s Time for a Change

Rabbi Ephraim Buchwald

About 30 years ago Rabbi Yitz Greenberg, the renowned scholar, author, and leader, who currently serves as president of the Jewish Life Network was advocating increased Federation allocations to Jewish education. The Federation leaders responded, “We don’t have enough money to do what you request. What should we do? Shall we close down Jewish community centers, and the Jewish hospitals, nursing homes, and homes for the aged that we subsidize?”

“Yes, close them down!” Greenberg brazenly told them. “But do you know what I’ll teach the children who will receive the Jewish education that you will sponsor? I’ll teach them to open up community centers, hospitals, nursing homes and homes for the aged!”

Three decades have passed, but the message still hasn’t registered unless the next generation of Jewish leaders are properly nurtured, there will be no support for the important work that Federation does. It doesn’t really matter whether the figures of the recent National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS) are precise or not. What is clear is that while our parents prayed for a melting pot, what they got was a meltdown. In fact, the Jewish community’s demographics don’t even take into account the 436,000 immigrants and their children that have come to the United States since 1980, which implies much greater losses than any of the analysts acknowledge. Furthermore, since 1945, when the Jewish population of America was six million, the general population of the United States has doubled, while Jews still number 5.2, or 5.8, or 6.7 million. Why hasn’t the Jewish population doubled? What happened to the missing 6 million?

The message of the latest (NJPS) is clear. We cannot repeat the errors that followed on the heels of the 1990 survey when Federations actually decreased their allocations to Jewish education, and the Blue Ribbon Continuity Commissions refused to publicize what everyone recognized as the inevitable conclusion that the only way to keep our numbers up is to provide intensive Jewish education. We must declare once-and-for-all, loudly and clearly, that the answer to the declining Jewish demographic numbers in the United States is intensive Jewish education. It is now abundantly evident and well documented that the assimilation and intermarriage rates of students that attend Jewish day schools and yeshivas are infinitesimal compared to those of the general Jewish population. Given that incontrovertible fact, it is criminal that today there is still no mega-fund guaranteeing a Jewish education for every Jewish child in America. It is simply unforgivable that the wealthiest Jewish community in all of Jewish history has not yet established a reasonable tuition fee structure for Jewish parents who wish to give their children an intensive Jewish education.

The great philanthropist, Walter Annenberg, contributed almost one billion dollars to public education, educational television, the United Negro College Fund and to various universities and private schools. Why were Jewish leaders unable to tap this very generous Jew for Jewish education? If the Metropolitan Museum of Art can convince hundreds of Jews to give hundreds of millions of dollars for Greek sculpture and Egyptian mummies, why can’t they be convinced to give to Jewish education? If Harvard University and other Ivy League schools can raise billions of dollars from Jews for their buildings and endowment funds, why can’t the Jewish community raise the funds necessary to guarantee a Jewish education for Jewish children in America?

It’s time to reorganize our Jewish communal priorities, and place all our eggs into a single basket–the basket of Jewish education, because education and Jewish literacy are the only way to guarantee Jewish posterity. We need to declare that Jewish education is the sine qua non of Jewish life. And if the current Jewish leaders aren’t willing or able to reorder their priorities, then we need to change our Jewish leaders and install new leaders who recognize Jewish education as the true elixir of Jewish life.