Beth Tikvah Synagogue
Rabbi Jarrod Grover
Kol Nidre 5776: Jewish Education Crisis
– – – – – – – – –
This joke comes from a friend of mine who is an Anglican minister in Niagara:
A Jewish father was very troubled by the way his son turned out and went to see his rabbi about it. “Rabbi, I brought him up in the faith, gave him a lavish Bar Mitzvah and it cost me a fortune to give him a Jewish education. Then he tells me last week, he’s decided to be a Christian. Rabbi, where did I go wrong?”
The rabbi strokes his beard and says, “It’s funny you should come to me. I too, brought up my son as a boy of faith, spent a fortune on his Jewish education, and then one day he comes to me and tells me he wants to be a Christian.” “What did you do?” asked the man of the rabbi. “I turned to God for the answer,” “What did he say?” asked the man. He said, “It’s funny you should come to me…”
* * *
Even he knows how expensive Jewish education is. Even God seems to be complaining about it in this joke. And we laugh about it, but nowadays it is no laughing matter.
The problem has gotten so serious in Toronto that a whole group of rabbis in this city – from all the denominations, have made a commitment this year – that we will speak out at yontif services about the state of Jewish education in this city. The fact that we have gotten all the different rabbis to collaborate and agree on something should tell you a lot about the severity of what we’re dealing with.
This is not a theme that is necessarily inspiring or transformational, but it fits Kol Nidre because because of a teaching about teshuvah that some of us tend to forget. And that is, that teshuvah/repentance is not just a personal exercise of reflection and introspection. That’s certainly part of it. But actually the mitzvah of teshuva, as it appears in the Torah, is a process undertaken by the whole community together. First, the recognition of mistakes and sins by the whole nation, and then the process of atonement, also for the whole nation.
And that should explain to you why our prayers tonight are written in the plural: “Slach lanu, mechal lanu, kaper lanu. Forgive all of us.” It explains why tomorrow we’ll read of the service of the High Priest, who conducts the atonement ritual for the whole Household of Israel. We are responsible for one another. Jews are especially responsible for one another. Which means, at Yom Kippur, we must face our communal failures, as well as our personal ones.
And friends, when I look at Jewish education in this city, and where trends seem to be pointing, I am concerned that we are on our way towards a great communal failure.
There are lots of ways that we provide a Jewish education to our children. The most important place it comes from is in the home. But outside the home matters too. In this city, we have many Jewish summer camps. Synagogue youth groups and youth movements. Jewish summer camps and Israel programs. There’s supplementary school. Birthright. March of the Living. But the gold standard of Jewish education – throughout history and still today – is a Jewish day school education.
By saying that, in no way do I want to shame people who make different choices for their children’s schooling. A Jewish day school education is not for everyone, and doesn’t guarantee anything. But we have lots of data on this, and I have to be honest with you about the data. To put it simply: in every way we measure someone’s Jewish identity – connection to Israel, connection to the shoah, observing Jewish traditions, feeling connected to community – the data shows nothing make a bigger difference than Jewish day school. Day school graduates are more than twice as likely to marry Jewish partners. More than twice as likely to join synagogues, to observe Jewish rituals, Shabbat and holidays, attachment to Israel, and to become involved members and future leaders of their Jewish community upon reaching adulthood.
These are what the numbers tell us. And that’s why we call Jewish day school the gold standard of Jewish education.
And when you read those statistics, and you consider the large number of day school graduates in the our community, you realize it’s no wonder we have such wonderful Jewish life in Toronto. We have something for everyone here. Jewish culture, Jewish arts, Jewish music, Jewish literature, Jewish theatre. If you’re religious, if you’re secular, if you’re left-wing, if you’re right wing, if you’re old or if you’re young. Whatever synagogue you want to go to, we have it. And our synagogue life is rich, full-programmed, multi-generational, and glued to tradition. Jewish life in Toronto rivals that of American cities with communities much larger than ours. And you should know for a Montrealer like me to give Toronto a compliment is a big deal. But I mean every word. I’ve been here seven years now, and I am impressed.
This diversity and variety of Jewish life in our city does not come from thin air. I hope you know that. We have it because Jews in this city have strong Jewish identities, with a full third of our youth getting the gold standard Jewish day school education, and another fifth in the supplementary schools. Along with Montreal, these are the highest numbers in North America. You know what percentage of non-Orthodox Jews are enrolled in day school and the United States? Between 3 and 4 per cent.
So far this all sounds really good. But as you know, realities and trends are changing. And the biggest change is that this “gold standard” Jewish day school education is not financially feasible for many many families. Today we have a sustainability and affordability crisis in Jewish education in Ontario that is spiralling out of control. Maybe we are at a tipping point. Maybe we’re already passed the tipping point. Here are the facts. Tuition costs across the system are up 62% in the last ten years, while household income rose 10% during that same period. In 2015 alone, average tuition increased 5%, double the increase in household income. Elementary school tuition at Jewish day schools in the city now costs about $15K per year. High school at CHAT is $27K per year.
Of course, there are subsidies available for struggling families. But for most people in the middle, with two or three children, these tuition rates demand major sacrifices. Do we go on vacation this year? Do we get a second or a third job? Do we resign our synagogue membership? Cancel our extra-curricular programs? The question that really kills me is: do we keep our kids at school, or should we have another child? How can we blame families for deciding that Jewish education at these rates just isn’t worth it. And more and more people are calling me every year, telling me they can’t do it anymore.
The data confirms this trend. In the past ten years the decline in enrolment across the system has been over 10% and that number is accelerating. The real disaster is actually at CHAT, which has seen a 28% reduction in enrolment in only five years. It’s so bad that the administration at CHAT is starting to question the need for two campuses.
And declining enrolment only makes the problem worse, since it forces the school to pump up tuitions even more. And at the Ottawa Jewish high school, that’s exactly what happened. And this past February, the board of Ottawa’s main Jewish High School decided unanimously that there was no hope to turn things around. Last week, there was no first day of school at the Ottawa Jewish High School.
This is a significant crisis. And I know there are many people here who might say – come on, its not an emergency, its not a crisis. And there are others who don’t send their children to Jewish day school for their own reasons and may not feel this message has anything to do with them. But I would ask you tonight to think carefully about our Jewish community. And I hope you will consider what is at stake for us if we don’t solve this problem. I would offer that the very character of our synagogue, and for that matter, all the Conservative synagogues in this city, depends on us solving this problem. If the next generation of Jews cannot read or understand Hebrew, which is so basic to traditional Judaism – what will this synagogue look like?
But that’s just one example. Think about UJA and all the other Jewish and Israeli charities that do great work in the city. What will they look like when their best donors are spending all of their money paying tuition bills for their children and grandchildren? What will they look like when there are fewer Jews who feel connected to community or to Israel?
Everything is at stake. The rabbis of this city know it. That’s why we’re talking about it. And that’s why we’re supporting new grassroots efforts to come up with some solutions. There are members of this synagogue who are also taking a lead on this issue, and we should all thank them for their initiative.
But they can’t do it alone. Here are some things we need.
The first thing is that we want you to care deeply about providing our kids with a Jewish education. Know how important that is. I hope I’ve already made my case. If you want there to be a Jewish future, whether you have kids or you don’t, then Jewish knowledge is the way. Our supplementary schools should not be competing with eachother over who can offer the shortest program. Or the most fun program. And at the day schools, the principals should be hearing from parents who want more Hebrew and more Jewish topics, as much as they are hearing from parents who want more maths and sciences. Remember to celebrate Judaism in your home. And come to Beth Tikvah on Shabbat and holidays. We have amazing kids programs and youth groups at our shul and you don’t have to be a member. If you are a passionate Jews, then be passionate about Jewish education in Toronto. We are living in a time and place where that’s more important than ever.
Number two…if you have the money, support Jewish education. No more buildings – we don’t need any more buildings. These buildings will have no Jews in them the way things are looking. I get reminded of that every time I walk into this building and see at what has become of USDS. When you support our synagogue, you’re supporting Jewish education. When you support a day school directly, you’re supporting Jewish education. And most importantly, when you support UJA, you’re supporting Jewish education. There is no other organization in this city that is doing more to fix this problem than UJA. And when you give, you get a voice. And our voice from the grassroots level, all the way to the top, must be that that the affordability and sustainability crisis in Jewish education is the top issue facing our community.
And number three…though it may offend some people, this must be said. The Ontario government’s position on the funding of religious education in this province is unjust, unfair, discriminatory, and unacceptable. Our province pays 100% percent of the cost of Catholic religious schools, and ZERO for everybody else. As education minister, Kathleen Wynne opposed equitable funding, and as premier she continues to take that position. I’m not telling you who to vote for, but I am telling you to know WHO you’re voting for.
I know what happened in the 2007 provincial election, but I’m sorry, what was wrong then is wrong now. Quebec, British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan all contribute something to religious schools because they recognize that it’s fair since religious schools take some of the burden off the public school system. Our position cannot change on this issue and we must not give up on that fight. Our advocacy organizations have to make this a priority when they speak with the provincial government. And we should partner with other non-Catholic religious schools to speak with one voice on this issue.
There’s more, but this should give us a good start.
~ ~ ~
I cannot emphasize enough how important it is that we change where trends are heading. Jewish education must never be a privilege. This whole conversation must begin with the premise that Jewish education is the birthright of every Jewish child. We want our children and our parents, as much as possible, to choose the gold standard. And the burden of paying for it must not rest solely upon their shoulders, it is the obligation of the entire community.
That should be our premise because that has always been our premise. Universal elementary education was established in France in 1833. They had plans to do it 40 years earlier, but they blew the money on military expenses. Do you know when the Jewish community established it? THE FIRST CENTURY. The Talmud records that every settlement where 25 children live is required to provide a teacher and supervision over the education of the children. That’s an obligation on the community, not a friendly request.
Do me a favor and turn with me for a second to page 36 in the mahzor. I want to end my remarks tonight with a short study:
“These are the things whose fruits we eat in this world but whose full reward awaits us in the World to Come: honoring parents; acts of kindness; arriving early at the house of study morning and evening; hospitality to strangers; visiting the sick; helping the needy bride; attending to the dead; devotion in prayer; and bringing peace between people—but the study of Torah is equal to them all.”
Our sages were wise. They didn’t have pew studies or surveys. But they knew that if children were not educated Jewishly, veshinantam levanecha vedibarta bam, then nothing else mattered. Everything we know about this religion. The Torah. Peoplehood. The Land of Israel. All of it comes from Talmud Torah. When you don’t have Jewish education, you don’t have Judaism.
Tonight let us take these statements to heart, and proclaim them before this holy congregation and before almighty God:
- That the Jewish education of every Jewish child is MY RESPONSIBILITY.
- That when a parent pulls their child out of Jewish school because they can’t afford it – that’s MY RESPONSIBILITY.
- That when a parent sees these tuition numbers and doesn’t even consider day school – that’s MY RESPONSIBILITY.
- That every child that is not brought into this world so a family can keep their other children in day school – that’s one child that I AM RESPONSIBLE for not bringing into the world.
We acknowledge that. We ask forgiveness for it. We give tzedakah because we want to change. And may we summon the strength, the good-will, and the wealth of this Jewish community, to ensure that the diversity, dynamism, and richness of Canada’s Jewish community will endure from generation to generation. Amen.