Do you believe in universal, free education?
It is hard to believe that American Jews would not support this notion, which has been at the heart of American life for generations.
And yet, we, the People of the Book, do not believe in it when it comes to Jewish education. Somehow, in the case of Jewish life, the necessity of making sure that Jews are well-educated becomes the private business of each family. Each family is on its own to locate and pay for Jewish education for its children. The deeper and more intense the education, and the more it costs, the more the burden falls upon the family.
It does not take the results of numerous studies to demonstrate the fact that day school education achieves more than any other form of education — it is intuitive and correct. There is no doubt that increased frequency of instruction — as well as more hours of instruction — are more effective than fewer. This requires well-supported schools, well-paid teachers and administrators, and well-qualified educators. This requires a whole community’s support.
“No,” says the American-Jewish community. That is the parents’ problem, not ours.
This is an answer we would never accept in American public education. We are horrified when poor communities receive less funding than more affluent ones, and when there are lower expectations of children from poor families than from rich ones.
But we consign our Jewish children to fewer and fewer hours of Jewish education, in settings that, with the best of intentions, are starved for hours. We expect less and less of the education that they receive. We do not expect that they will know much, and somehow believe that they will form positive emotional and relational attachments to Jewish life, Jewish living, and the Jewish community, simply by having exposure to a few hours each week of positive experiences. It doesn’t seem to matter whether or not they are knowledgeable.
Somehow, we have confused full-day Jewish education with “private education” or “parochial” (meaning “narrow”) education.
My grandmother grew up in a completely Jewish shtetl, speaking a Jewish language, keeping Jewish holidays and mitzvot, and being completely Jewish. However, she knew that she did not receive the education that she thirsted for (because she was a girl). She knew that education is more than Jewish living.
Now that we are so secure as American Jews that young Jews do not even think about questions of acceptance in the broader society, it is time to get down to work and create universal, free Jewish education for every family, funded by the total Jewish community. How can it be that the richest, most successful Jewish community in history cannot find a way to do this? Families can always opt out, but they should not be shut out because the community does not fulfill its responsibility.