The announcement last month by the UJA-Federation of New York of a $300 million matching program to support Jewish education — and similar initiatives in Los Angeles and MetroWest, New Jersey — comes at a time when middle-class Jewish parents find themselves increasingly caught between the Scylla of rising day-school tuitions and the Charybdis of declining real-dollar income. Add to this the continuing controversy surrounding the commitment on the part of the federation system to Jewish education, an issue that has been with the Jewish community for decades; and flat federation campaigns for decades, and you have tough choices that need to be made.
Federation campaign stagnation is not the only cause for the relative dearth of support for Jewish education by the system. Indeed, the late Marshall Sklare, considered by many to be the father of modern Jewish sociology, asked in 1985, “Jewish education? It was unrealistic to think that a [federation] system that had all-but-ignored Jewish education since 1890 would overnight re-tool its entire structure to support it enthusiastically.” Twenty-five years later, even with repeated “continuity” and “renaissance” initiatives, the formal “system” has yet to gear itself up fully to address Jewish education.
The core question is the dilemma of conflicting priorities within the Jewish community. Said the executive of a prominent foundation involved in education initiatives, “The central mission [of federation] is still all about emergency and rescue; it’s not about the most important issue — education.”
The “priority questions” most often asked are: Why should federations subsidize day-school tuitions when the money could, and should, be used to help the needy — especially when we are in the grip of a recession; and, is the commonweal enhanced by supporting institutions that in large measure support the most insular parts of the community?
My instinct, when confronted with “the-most-insular-part-of-the-community” question is to ask, “So what?” It has not been clear to anyone that our community has benefitted from “tzitzis-checks,” religious tests that seek ideological and social purity. But look at the realities of non-funding: the hardest was the Solomon Schechter in New Jersey, which was forced to close. Hardly an “insular” institution.
At bottom, the question remains: Is Jewish education discretionary, or is it a necessity? The federation system, more than a century old, still chants many of its old litanies for not funding yeshivot: (a) “It’s not healthy to segregate” — a variation on the “insular” theme; (b) federations — the Jewish community in general — traditionally did not support religious schools; children went to public school, which was for generations the ideal. The federation leadership were traditionally committed to a different vision of Jewish life — not to this “religion stuff,” which for decades was not taken seriously; theirs was a classic vision that involved doing good for others.
These are arguments coming out of a universalist ethic of the past. Doing good is a good thing to be doing — but it’s not clear that the issue is that of the stark alternative: fund the yeshiva, or fund the soup kitchen. Were that the only choice, it would be a legitimate question. But this is not the reality of 2009.
There are many programs in the federated sphere that, although a good case is made for them, benefit small segments of the community. Upscale gyms, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS, serving an immigrant population of some years ago), the Jewish Child Care Association (very few federation/JCCA dollars go to Jews). These and others serve few Jews—and certainly not the Jewish poor.
This issue is central to the other question, that of the poor and the needy, and is worth addressing. According the UJA-Federation of New York CEO John Ruskay, 39 percent of total global allocations go to the needy; 52 percent of these support New York-based programs. Estimable figures on their face — no one would propose cutting programs that sustain poverty-level families. But is poverty the priority for the community?
First, most analysts agree that Jewish poverty is, in 2009, not the pressing issue for the community, whatever the recession-caused pain felt by many.
Second, one cannot escape from the numbers. Close to 30 percent of all Jewish children (age 6 to 19) in the New York area study in a day school or yeshiva; and more than 40 percent of Jewish youngsters receive some kind of Jewish education. These numbers represent seismic growth over the past half-century. Massive aid is warranted.
But what kind of aid are we talking about? For its part, UJA-Federation maintains that the percentage of the total money raised that goes to education has jumped dramatically, from 21 percent 20 years ago to 32 percent today. (These numbers are for global needs; the percentage of money that is raised for education that goes to New York-based initiatives is 62 percent of this 32 percent.)
But what do these percentages mean? Again, there is no escape from the numbers. According to the UJA-Federation, there are some 125,000 pupils in day schools and yeshivas in the New York metropolitan area. If each pupil were to receive a $2,000 subsidy — not an unreasonable number, which many in the community say that this needs to happen — the pot would run to $250 million. The entire federation campaign is in the area of $200 million. Enter the federation $300 million effort, which assertedly will alleviate the situation. But will it?
It is an exaggeration to say that the federations have been re-arranging the deck chairs on the “Titanic.” But many analysts question whether the federations have remained relevant to Jewish life. The picture is not pretty: We are yet far from ensuring Jewish “continuity”; the Conservative movement is near collapse, 50 percent-plus of our community has no affiliation with a synagogue (or much else that is Jewish); the post-eighth-grade drop-out rate in Schechters and many community day-schools is close to 90 percent.
In fact, historically, many of the exciting initiatives and successes in Jewish life came from outside the federation system: the day-school movement, AIPAC, the Jewish counterculture and Jewish Renewal (the community continues to reap immeasurable benefits from Renewal).
It’s true that the day-to-day social-service delivery network still does come from the system; the old stuff proves its worth, 100 years down the pike. Yet, there is old stuff that we don’t need anymore. The federations have traditionally had heartburn when the word “reallocations” is whispered. Reallocations cause pain and divisiveness. The federation model, one of consensus, does not lend itself to visionary approaches. The result: the day schools will continue to remain on their own.
Jerome A. Chanes is the author of “A Portrait of the American Jewish Community” and “A Dark Side of History: Antisemitism through the Ages,” and is the editor of the forthcoming “The Future of American Judaism” (Columbia University Press).
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