Got Jewish Education?

By 14 June, 2008Personal Blog

Recently, I attended a philanthropic forum to discuss the issue of funding for Jewish education. In a most informative and stimulating day, we heard several different views on the topic from diverse perspectives, which included the day school system, UJEB, tertiary options under development (see here), and the Jewish education provided to students by AUJS.

Our city of Melbourne is blessed with a day school system that rivals any in the world in terms of diversity of options, proportion of Jewish children attending, and infrastructure. Yet, the day left me thinking that as a funder, if I wanted to get the maximum “value” for the philanthropic dollar, the most in terms of educational outcomes, I would not spend it on our day schools.

A dollar spent would have a far greater impact reaching out to people who are not part of the day school system – students in other schools, tertiary students, and indeed, informal education for adults. Jewish education is so much more than the twelve or so years of formal schooling.

We are a nation that has placed education as one of our highest priorities for thousands of years. Shortly before the destruction of the second temple in 70 CE, Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai smuggled himself out of the besieged city of Jerusalem and gained an audience with Vespasian. After impressing him with his wisdom (see a more detailed account here), he was granted a request. He acted to secure the future of the Jewish nation by asking that the scholars be granted refuge in the city of Yavneh.

Imagine the situation: Jerusalem the capital was about to fall, the Jewish kingdom of many hundreds of years was on the verge of collapse. Rabbi Yochanan had a unique opportunity to ask for the one thing that can save the nation. Was this elitism? No, it was about survival. This strategic move led to the development of the Talmud, and the continuity of Jewish education and scholarship was key in our survival as a people.
The value of scholarship and education has been central to Jewish life for generations. Our contribution to the world has been hugely disproportionate to our numbers (see here). In the first quarter of 2008, the Jewish state attracted the fourth highest amount of venture capital. The large US corporates are falling over themselves trying to open R&D centres in Israel.However, with regard to Jewish education, we seem to have lost our way recently. Parents do not see the value in Jewish education, and a growing number of parents are chosing public schools (for a variety of reasons). Jewish education after formal schooling has all but disappeared.When I went to summer camp as a child, the end of the daily Torah study group was signalled by the tongue-in-cheek announcement over the PA system: “Learning never ends; Learning never ends”. In the modern workplace, there is an emphasis on ongoing professional and personal development. Why should this be any different with respect to ongoing study relating to our heritage?So how to respond to this? It seems to me that as one of the major “brands” associated with the Jewish people, Jewish education, has lost some of its gloss. While just one hundred years ago, scholars were held in the highest echelons of society, today our materialistic world has shifted the perception of value towards people who have achieved financial success. This seems like a marketing problem, and therefore I would like to propose a marketing solution.Some years ago in the US, the milk industry was faced with a serious problem. For years, milk was acknowledged as the healthy beverage of choice. However, this image was being seriously undermined by the fruit juice industry, whose sugar-laden drinks were fast overtaking milk. In 1993, several Californian milk producers came together and decided to allocate a percentage of sales to a marketing campaign to promote the consumption of milk. Thus was born the got milk? brand, which was subsequently licenced to national dairy boards for their own use. This was a broad-based campaign from a united front of milk producers (who were in fact competitors) to revive the milk brand. Images of media personalities on TV and billboards sporting a “milk-moustache” helped restore the brand, and the campaign is considered a great success.

What I propose is a campaign along the same lines – let’s call it “Got Jewish Education?” The aim is simple: to restore the brand of Jewish education. To be most effective, it should have the consensus of our diverse Jewish society. Even though the various subgroups within the Jewish community often find themselves in conflict – Left vs Right, Orthodox vs Reform, and so on – surely we can all agree that any Jewish education is better than no Jewish education.

The underlying messages of the campaign are simple:

  • Jewish education is good for you – get some, any way you can
  • You don’t have to be school age to benefit from Jewish education
  • Just 15 minutes a week is all you need to make a difference
  • There is something in Jewish education for everyone

Programs like Limmuz Oz are a great example of bringing people together to celebrate the richness of Jewish learning and culture. With current distribution channels like the web, podcasts, and satellite radio, we should be able to do so much more. So an important part of the campaign is making Jewish content readily available through modern media. Combining technology and innovation with the body of Jewish learning that we have built over the last few thousand years is an exciting proposition.When was the last time you had some Jewish education?

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Join the discussion 6 Comments

  • admin says:

    The Yavneh story supported the notion that Jewish Education (in any form) is essential to the long term sustainability of the nation.

    2000 years ago, institutional learning was the only way. These days, we have to work out new ways to reach out to people.

  • Anonymous says:

    Your proposal to increase Jewish education generally is, of course, constructive. But it struck me that your analogy to Yavneh was questionable in the sense that I could argue that the modern equivalent of Yavneh is the day school system. Why redirect the philanthropic dollar away from that which is already viable and valuable (a bird in the hand) in the hope that the alternative object will yield a greater return? You have really articulated the case that both objects are deserving of financial support.

    Geoff Bloch

  • Anonymous says:

    David, well said, definitely food for thought, especially re value for money invested in jewish ed for kids in state schools. Just sunday at the bat mitzvah ceremony a 19 year old girl from sunshine who her bm with us, said to me she still light candles and says shema daily thanks to 1 year informal jewish education at BM classes! Imagine if these classes can continue! And if not for them, she would be 100% assimilated by now with the Jewish sun not shining in sunshine! Motty Liberow

  • James Kennard says:

    Dear David,

    Jewish education can be accessed in numerous ways and you are right in saying that Melbourne needs much more adult education and, especially, Jewish education for University students.

    But Jewish day schools give more than Jewish education – they engender Jewish commitment and hence Jewish continuity. The success of Melbourne in developing , and retaining, successive generations has been directly related to the very high proportion of Melbourne children who have traditionally attended Jewish day schools.

    That success is now in jeopardy, as the increasing cost of Jewish day school education is denying access to an increasing number of families, whose children, as a result, will be less likely to have a strong Jewish identity and, as all research shows, considerably more likely to marry out.

    Therefore, the community should see finding ways to reduce the cost of day school education and hence provide it to more families as an absolute priority.

    Best wishes

    James Kennard

  • Anonymous says:

    I’m a little concerned with the logic used. We have situation where the Jewish day school system is already financially stressed to the limit, particularly the orthodox schools. I’m not sure how diverting funds from the focal point of our community to other programs is going to help our financially struggling system.

    I agree that there MUST be a concerted effort put in place to provide Jewish learning programs to as many people as possible. Over the years, Chabad, Mizrachi and a range of other Jewish organisations have provided this function. Hopefully this continues and can grow.
    However, the focal point of our community are our schools, regardless of your affilitation. These schools are also the main voice that the the wider community knows of due to the excellence that they bring forth.
    I truly believe that to divert funds in any way from these schools is folly

  • admin says:

    I agree that attending a Jewish day school is the best option for Jewish kids (although some people would dispute that). The facts are that parents are choosing other options for a variety of reasons (cost is just one of them), and there is far more to Jewish education that just the day school system.

    If stakeholders took a more holistic and cooperative position, perhaps we could work together to make some changes that would be to the benefit of the community at large.

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