Shemini Atzeret 5776
October 7, 2015
Congregation Beth Haminyan, Toronto
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It is always challenging to understand the meaning of Shemini Atzeret, the “Assembly of the 8th Day.” It comes at the end of Sukkot and completes the cycle of holidays that begins with Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, a period of self-examination and judgment. It comes a day after Hoshanah Rabbah, just as the gates of repentance and forgiveness have closed.
The meaning that I find in Shemini Atzeret connects today’s Torah reading, the Yizkor memorial service we are about to do and Jewish education for all our children.
In today’s Torah reading, we are told to tithe or tax ourselves every year, “You shall surely tithe all the increase of your produce.” The text tells you to bring ten percent of your corn, your wine, your oil and your animals to Jerusalem, and consume it there. Why? “So that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always.” (Deuteronomy 14:22-23)
What does this mean? Why would consuming your produce lead to fear of God? Rambam commented that you should give to the poor whatever you and your family could not consume. But still, how does that instill fear of God?
The rabbis suggested that the practice reinforced the conviction that all your success and all your produce comes from God. You, like everyone around you, are dependent on God. You didn’t do it yourself.
Similarly, we should consider where our success as a Jewish community comes from. From God of course. And from our efforts. More fundamentally, our success in Toronto is rooted in the Jewish education that shaped us, our parents and our ancestors. It molded the community leaders who built our schools. Jewish education is rooted in the past and guarantees our future. It is the chain that connects the generations.
Toronto’s Jewish day schools are the most powerful part of the community’s educational institutions. As Daniel Held, Executive Director of the Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation, says,
“Jewish day schools are the gold standard in Jewish education. No other form of Jewish education provides the robust training in Jewish values, imparts the level of knowledge, or instills the same level of Jewish commitment…”
The impact of Jewish day school learning echoes through the lives of graduates for years to come. Day school graduates are “…more than twice as likely to marry Jewish partners, to join synagogues, to observe Jewish rituals, Shabbat and holidays, [feel] attachment to Israel, and to become involved members and future leaders of their Jewish community upon reaching adulthood.” So wrote Rory Paul, Principal of Grey Academy of Jewish Education in Winnipeg.
Yet we Toronto are now at a crossroads concerning the affordability of day school education. The future of an excellent, diverse Jewish educational system in our city is uncertain.
Starting in the mid-1960s, Toronto’s day school movement grew and prospered, to the point that nearly a third of Jewish children were enrolled. By 2011, 31% of Jewish school-aged youth were enrolled in grades 1-12 in Toronto’s day schools, an exceptionally high proportion compared to US Jewish communities.
Another 19% were enrolled in supplementary schools, bringing the total who received any formal Jewish education in 2011 to barely half of the Jewish school-age population.
However, enrolment in Jewish day schools declined by 8% as a direct result of Toronto’s shrinking Jewish school age population between 2001 and 2011.
The affordability of day school tuition is now the critical issue in Jewish education. Jewish day school tuition fees in Toronto are high and increasing. Elementary school tuition ranges around $15,000 a year and high school tuition is $26,500 at TanenbaumCHAT this year, 2015-2016.
Elementary school tuition in day schools affiliated with UJA Federation, as well as TanenbaumCHAT, increased by 61 and 62% respectively from 2001 to 2011, while average household income rose only 10%.
When added to the onerous costs of home ownership and maintaining a Jewish household and Jewish way of life in a Jewish neighbourhood, the additional burden of paying day school tuition is breaking the economic backs of many of our young families.
UJA Federation currently allocates 26%, or $12 million, of its $48 million annual allocations to Jewish education, of which $9.6 million is designated for day school tuition assistance. It is the highest share allocated to Jewish education of any Jewish community in North America but it only accounts for 10% of the operational costs of affiliated Jewish schools in Toronto. The allocation has not increased in the last five years.
Many families who don’t currently qualify for subsidy are struggling to pay the rapidly increasing tuition fees.
We in Ontario are at a big disadvantage compared to Jews in several other provinces. The province of Ontario pays 100% of the cost of Roman Catholic schools and none for all other religious day schools.
Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan pay 40 to 60% of the costs of secular subjects in Jewish day schools. That allows day schools in those provinces to charge tuition that is 30 to 50 percent below the levels in Toronto. As a result, in Montreal, for example, 56 percent of Jewish children attend day schools.
A gloomy conviction that nothing can be done about public funding has taken hold among Jewish communal leaders. For the last eight years, UJA and its advocacy arm, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), have not pressed the Ontario government to fund Jewish day schools.
What does that imply for the future? Take a moment to visualize 100 Jewish children this afternoon in the playground of Cedarvale School, a couple of blocks from here. About 30 of them are day school students. Another 20 go to supplementary schools in synagogues and community centres. And 50 have no formal Jewish education.
Now, imagine that playground on an afternoon 25 years from now. How many Jewish children will there be: 80, 50, 30 or even less?
We must not allow the Jewish day schools to weaken. If we do, it will lead to the erosion of Jewish identity and a weakened sense of shared Jewish peoplehood in coming generations. That will in turn affect all our communal agencies and organizations. It will touch every family and change the life choices of our children and grandchildren.
The community must act to restore a sense of hope among our young families that they will be able to provide Jewish education for their children.
This should be the most important immediate and long-term priority for our community.
Bringing this issue back to Shemini Atzeret, think about the commandment to tithe or tax ourselves. Just as we are told to tax ourselves and bring the tithe, the Maaser, to Jerusalem, we should tax ourselves, individually and as a community to sustain Jewish education.
Jewish education is the birthright of every Jewish child. It is the responsibility of the whole community, and its costs should be borne not only by parents.
Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education is a new, independent, volunteer group that is working on solutions to this urgent issue. Its mission is to make Jewish education in our community affordable for every family that wishes to send its children to a Jewish day school.
Mordechai Ben Dat is the Chair. Grassroots includes Rabbi Jay Kelman of Torah in Motion, Zac Kaye, former Director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, community activist Sara Dobner, financial planner David Brown, and more than 40 volunteers. I am a member.
Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education believes the issue is both too urgent and too large a task for any one group, agency, organization or individual to resolve. The entire community must become part of the solution, including parents, grandparents, UJA Federation, day schools and teachers, synagogues, philanthropists, community members and leaders.
There are four elements that need to come together to solve the affordability challenge:
One, as a community we must accept the obligation to educate ourselves about the problem and willingly tax ourselves to pay for day school education. It’s not only parents who should carry the burden. Daniel Held put it this way:
Just as the wider society considers education a public good and ensures that the cost of providing this education is shared by all citizens, we as a Jewish community must take a similar stance with Jewish education. Jewish education can only reach its full potential when our entire community – individuals, synagogues, schools, and others – contributes to its success. (Canadian Jewish News, August 10, 2015)
Secondly, we need parents and grandparents to be strongly committed to day school education. That means a reasonable degree of financial effort. But not the impossible burden that some are facing today. A new norm is taking hold that says that grandparents should pay a share, according to what they can afford, of the day school education of grandchildren. As members of Beth Haminyan, many of us fit that demographic and we recognize that we have a role to play.
Thirdly, we should hold the schools and UJA Federation accountable for managing better and bringing costs in line with what the community and parents can afford. Year after year of tuition increases that hugely exceed the growth in family incomes are not sustainable. Without sacrificing quality, the schools must implement new models of learning that are more efficient. As members of the community who donate and support UJA and the schools, we must demand that UJA and the schools put the brakes on costs.
Fourthly, we need new donors and new financial methods to increase funding for the day schools. Other Jewish communities across North America are facing similar affordability crises and there are success stories that we can learn from.
In New Jersey, for example, four Jewish day schools will be capping tuition fees at a maximum of 18 per cent of income, regardless of the number of children in a family. This new program, which is in addition to any tuition breaks already in place for lower-income families, is aimed at middle-class families. This initiative was made possible by a gift from the Gottesman Family Foundation.
Here in Toronto, Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education is developing investment and insurance-based financing tools that have the potential to raise many millions of dollars for tuition relief. New donors will be recruited to bring tuition costs within the range of what every family can afford. All the options will be explored in public forums.
In a few minutes, we will have the Yizkor memorial service. In Yizkor, we ask God to remember our loved ones, Jewish martyrs, defenders of Israel and those who were murdered in the Shoah. God remembers and we remember. We reflect on their lives and honour the memory of their good deeds, what Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman called, “remembering our past as a service dedicated to the future.”
Yizkor can inspire us to raise the standards of our own lives, to keep alive the values of those who went before us and established the values, institutions and learning that we want to pass on to our children and grandchildren.
Let us resolve to secure the Jewish day schools of Toronto as a way to honour all those whom we love and remember today. As we do this Mitzvah in their name, we will ensure that they and we have a future as Jews.