By Ezra Friedlander
Jewish philanthropists: I offer a New Year’s Resolution that can potentially change the face of American Jewry for decades. Create a Birthright to a Jewish education.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Birthright Israel, the program that sends Jewish young adults on a ten day educational trip to Israel in order to deepen their commitment to their Jewish identity. But fourteen years after the program was launched, not much has changed. It’s time for the folks who are funding Birthright to realize that their hearts are in the right place, but their pocketbooks aren’t.
Birthright began in December 2009, when Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt pledged $210 million towards the initiative. Since then, over 330,000 participants have joined the program. And while the results have certainly been positive, the reality is that their commitment to Judaism doesn’t seem to last very long.
According to a study called, A Mega experiment in Jewish Education — The Impact of Birthright Israel, participants certainly seem to feel more connected with Israel and Judaism. “More than a year after they return home,” it finds, “their attitudes and engagement in the Jewish community were different”.
The study continues, “…a clear involvement in Jewish ritual and activities did not increase dramatically.” This leads the researchers to conclude that: “The success of the program poses a challenge for the Jewish community. The community now needs to find ways to transform participants’ inspiration and motivation into Jewish commitment.”
In my opinion, Birthright was a good start, but as the study sadly concludes, it is equivalent to placing a Band-Aid on a patient who really needs major surgery. According to the recent Pew study, assimilation is rampant. The Jewish community is bleeding way too heavily for Birthright to make a major lasting impact. It is time for visionaries in the mold of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt to step up to the plate and really invest in saving the Jewish nation. After long thought and discussion with accomplished Jewish activists around the country, I am proposing a new program and calling it, “Birthright to a Jewish Education.”
An authentic Jewish education is oxygen for the Jewish soul. All Jewish children deserve to know and understand their heritage. That education will inspire them to learn, to grow, to build, to dream and as history has shown, all of society, not just the Jewish community, will benefit from such citizens.
The opportunity to send a child to a Jewish school from kindergarten through twelfth grade should be available to every Jewish family who understands the tremendous risk of ignoring such opportunities and the immeasurable rewards of seizing the moment. Developing a strong sense of Jewish identity is the key to sustaining the Jewish faith in ever more secular America.
This education must be financed by an entity called Birthright to a Jewish Education which will be a designated central fund. This endowment fund should be managed with the highest ethical standards with oversight by a board of Americas most respected and trusted philanthropists and should be parent-driven via a voucher system which they will receive directly and control entirely in terms of which Jewish school it is designated to. Preference should be given primarily to those who are in the greatest danger of denying themselves the right to a Jewish education as well as those who are lowest on the socio-economic ladder.
This concept should and could work, as long as it remains both apolitical and non-denominational as a policy of criteria for eligibility. Jewish parents across the spectrum should have a choice as to the type of education they prefer for their children. For full disclosure, I personally subscribe to what Rabbi Moshe Sherer, a quintessential Jewish leader of his time, lamented in an essay on assimilation, “A Judaism based solely on sentiment and memory cannot provide the spiritual sustenance to preserve generations to come…. Only a Judaism rooted in the Tree of Life emanating from Sinai can offer the spiritual food to sustain future generations”. Realistically, this effort will only be universally accepted if the parent dictates which school the child will attend hence all Jewish schools will be eligible for funding. That said, today it is the Orthodox model that is at the forefront of stemming Jewish assimilation as confirmed by the Pew Research Center.
We are losing thousands of children every year. Every child should have the opportunity to an authentic Jewish education, one that their parents might have been denied. The stakes are simply too high to ignore any longer. For the first time we are also witnessing parents send their child to a public school from a day school out of financial constraints-this is simply unacceptable!
For those, like myself, who spend considerable time outside the protective bubble of Boro Park and Williamsburg, it is painful to watch as the secular community rapidly diminishes. Secular Jews who received even a quasi Jewish education have kept some sort of faith based identity. Those that were deprived of a basic Jewish education may be lost forever. Birthright Israel was a noble idea, but the notion that a ten day trip will provide the antidote to the spiritual Holocaust taking shape across America is naïve, and insulting to all of us who care deeply about Jewish continuity and indeed proving ineffective.
Wherever there are emerging or established Jewish communities, one will find thriving Yeshivas and Day Schools. Visit the communities of Passaic NJ, Scranton PA, Milwaukee WI, Dallas, TX, Silver Spring MD, Denver, Colorado, Phoenix, AZ and you will witness scores of school buses filled with children en route to Jewish schools every morning. In these areas, Jewish identity and Jewish investment is flourishing. There is no reason why others cannot duplicate this success. It is a matter of commitment, and yes, funding.
Instead, I suggest that the Jewish community takes the limited successes of Birthright and really invest in a plan to save the next generation of American secular Jews. I believe there is enough funding available within the community to subsidize a program on the scale I am proposing.
For those who feel that I’m dreaming, I assure you that the money is there. According to Forbes Israel, there are currently a total of 165 Jewish billionaires around the world with a combined wealth of $812 billion. Many of these billionaires do support a variety of Jewish programs and activities, but not Jewish education. Holocaust memorials and museums and even Birthright are all extremely admirable ventures, but they do nothing to stem the tide of assimilation.
One example is Sheldon Adelson. According to Forbes magazine, “his total wealth is estimated at $37 billion. In fact, Mr Adelson’s net worth soared $15 billion in 2013, making him the billionaire who made the most money this year”. Although Adelson is very active in Jewish philanthropy, (for example he funds Birthright along with a Jewish school The Dr. Miriam and Sheldon G. Adelson Educational Campus in Las Vegas), I am sad to report that when I approached Mr. Adelson about funding Birthright to a Jewish Education, he made it very clear in no uncertain terms that he is opposed to the idea–when I tried to enter into a dialogue he refused. I am still hopeful that I can turn him around on this. While Adelson’s funding of Birthright Israel among other Jewish philanthropies is to commended, it does not have the wide reaching effect that Birthright to a Jewish Education could. The news further abounds with recent major acts of philanthropy by Jewish donors. Mark Zuckerburg, the Facebook founder worth over 18 billion, recently donated 100 million to the Newark School district. Ronald Perelman, a major Jewish philanthropist, recently donated 50 million to an NYU hospital. The aforementioned are all extraordinary acts of charity, but imagine how effective it would be had those contributions been matched and earmarked for Jewish Education.
Years ago, the brilliant sage Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik told a renowned Jewish philanthropist, “Mr. Bronfman, remember that the Jewish people were created for more than fighting anti-Semitism.” Are we so busy defending ourselves from our enemies and promoting US-Israel relations that we have failed to recognize the basic requirement of educating our young? While we are all overwhelmed with our day to day activities have we possibly overlooked our enormous responsibility to the next generation and Jewish continuity? If so, how can we continue to neglect this?
I am not remotely pretending to address all the issues, logistics and otherwise. The sole intention here is start a conversation and encourage caring and committed Jews from all backgrounds to face the harsh realities facing us as a people, now before it is too late. Let’s change the face of American Jewry by ensuring that all of our children are educated and inspired to be proud of their Jewish identity. I’m willing to discuss my plan and my ideas with those who are willing to rise to the challenge.
A worthy New Year’s resolution to consider indeed.
Ezra Friedlander is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public consulting group based in New York City and Washington DC.