We must clear away the obstacles and the stumbling blocks

Judaism is very protective of human dignity. In our teachings and in our prayers we are taught to treat the next person with utmost respect, careful not to harm his or her self-image. Indeed, it is not an overstatement that modern human rights legislation, in large part, can be traced directly to ancient Jewish teachings. For example, we are warned not to place obstacles or stumbling blocks in the path of the blind, nor to deride or curse of the deaf.

Because each individual counts as precious and worthy, each must be given a chance to succeed with his or her life. Most progressive western societies therefore decree that we must reasonably accommodate an individual with special needs.

The obligation to reasonably accommodate “needy” others falls upon society as a whole not only upon individuals and companies.

How much more so then for Jewish society, that is, the Jewish community?

Is not the utter lack of affordability of Jewish education not the equivalent of an obstacle or stumbling block on the path of Jewish life for most middle-income families? Indeed it is.

It is not difficult to imagine our prophets and sages urging community leaders to put in place a comprehensive system of reasonably accommodating the families who–despite genuine efforts–are unable to pay for Jewish education.

The philanthropic initiative last year by the Neuberger-Jesin family to reduce tuition at CHAT by nearly a third (for a five-year experimental period) has resulted in a steep increase in new enrolment for the 2018-2019 academic year. We therefore have empirical evidence that enrolment is indeed a function of tuition.

As a community, we must do all in our power to this enrolment momentum going.

We appeal to other families, individuals or corporations to step forward to follow the Neuberger-Jesin example.

We appeal to them to try–as the Neuberger-Jesin family has tried–to remove obstacles from the paths of so many Jewish families trying merely to raise their children as Jews.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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Expecting the new government to do what is right

Ontario has a new government. The Progressive Conservative party has won a majority mandate to govern.

We wish them well. We hope and pray that the new government will govern the province at all times with wisdom, courage and principle. We also hope and pray that the all of the men and women elected to the Legislature will undertake their duties in good faith, always setting the wider interest of the province above the narrower interest of the party.

Although it was not publicly discussed during the election campaign, the unfairness and discrimination of Ontario’s educational funding policies affects a large number of Ontarians. A majority of Ontarians have indicated that they support a change in the educational funding to include some level of public funding for independent schools and thus accommodate more choice in the educational system.

It is an affront to conscience that Ontario, the largest and wealthiest province, has resolutely refused to take any steps to remedy, even partially, let alone end the ongoing discrimination of its policies. This is especially unacceptable in light of the fact that all of the western provinces and Quebec do extend a measure of public funding to independent schools.

The new government, as all new governments, will receive the benefit of a reasonable period of grace to get settled into its new responsibilities. But afterward, GAJE will once again publicly urge Queen’s Park to finally take the appropriate steps to do the moral, right thing: bring a measure of fairness to a patently unfair and punitively discriminatory educational funding system.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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Do the right thing: be fair, be just, not expedient or cynical

Ontarians choose a new government next week. The election campaign, alas, has been a tenebrous reflection of politics in the United States.

One glaring societal injustice that was ignored during the campaign by all the parties is the ongoing unfairness and discrimination in the government’s educational funding policies. None of the parties has the desire to finally end the injustice or to talk publicly about doing so.

As our readers know, the government of Ontario continues to rely on the 1996 Supreme Court Adler decision as a justification for doing nothing to make its educational funding policy somewhat, if not entirely, fair toward all the taxpayers and citizens of the province. Ontario remains resolutely indifferent and even opposed to doing the right thing even though the next five most populous provinces do incorporate fairness into their educational funding policies.

But where the political parties have remained cynically silent about this overt injustice, others have raised their voices calling out the shame of maintaining the unfairness of the current educational funding system.

Last week, Richard Moon, Distinguished University Professor and Professor of Law at the University of Windsor wrote an opinion piece for the CBC website entitled “The real barrier to change in Ontario is political”, in which he specifically pointed out the inequities and the incongruities of Ontario’s educational funding.

One of the incongruities of the current system, Prof. Moon explains, is that the separate Catholic schools are themselves placed under increasingly untenable pressure to behave as a secular or public institution when their core mission is, obviously, parochial. “The treatment of separate school as public actors is an unstable and unprincipled alternative to fixing the current system.”

Prof. Moon suggests that the way to “remedy the discriminatory preference for Catholic schools” is to “extend funding to other religious schools.” And then he notes, somewhat sarcastically, that the voters rejected this option in the provincial election of 2007.

In response to his wry but accurate observation, we point out (as we have repeatedly):

  • The province has changed since 2007. A majority has indicated it would prefer the province to offer more choice in education.
  • Much of the campaigning against fair funding in the 2007 election was based on fear-mongering and baseless assertions about the risk that fair funding would entail to the multicultural fabric of our society.
  • Evidence suggests that to enable more choice in education actually improves the educational product and enables the treasury to use limited funds more efficiently.

Prof. Moon concludes his astute editorial: “None of the leading parties is willing to address this issue. They have decided, it seems, that the political cost of doing the right thing is too high.”

What does it say about Ontario’s politicians that despite the contrary example throughout the country, they still refuse to do “the right thing”?

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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A Match Made in Heaven

The Federation of Teachers in Hebrew Schools of Toronto on May 24 held a celebratory dinner event in honour of the 70th anniversary of modern Israel’s independence. It was a festive yet thoughtful evening in which numerous speakers delivered remarks on the remarkable phenomenon that is the Jewish state as well as on the remarkable contribution of our teachers in developing, nurturing and sustaining Jewish identity and belonging among the students in their care.

The president of the Federation of Teachers, Aviva Polonsky, invited GAJE to deliver short remarks as well. The following is an excerpt of those remarks.

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“This evening we celebrate our precious State of Israel. Most of us here are the privileged ones for we were born into a world where the Jewish state already existed. Merely 70 years after its birth, Israel is at the forefront – on behalf of humanity – in beating back disease, in advancing all manner of technology, in planting and in harvesting, in replenishing water systems, beating back the desert, in saving life.

“The lead articles on Israel21c.com this week were deeply illustrative of Israel’s forward looking ways. For example, we read: “Ten breakthrough health technologies emerging from Israel”, “Training the disadvantaged to fill Israel’s high-tech gap”, “Converting chicken bones and diapers into chairs and pails”, and “Mobileye’s self-driving technology going into 8 million cars.” This is just a small sampling of the headlines this week alone. They are typical of the sense of mission and purpose and concern to improve the world that drives the entrepreneurial and humanitarian spirit of our young state.

“There is indeed a great deal for us to celebrate about Israel. It is morally imperative that we do so. For its own sake. For our sake. For the sake of the people in Israel. And especially as a rebuke to the haters who wish to cause Israel harm.

“But tonight we also join the celebration of the Jewish state with the celebration of the teachers in Hebrew schools.

“Thus, in gathering here tonight to say “thank you” to and for the State of Israel we also say “thank you” to and for you – the teachers who play such a vital role in ensuring our future as a Jewish community, even as Israel plays such a vital role in doing the very same thing.

“In a very real sense, Israel is the front line of Jewish survival.

“And so too are you. You work on the front lines of Jewish communal survival. Jewish civilization – actually all civilization – depends upon the work of its teachers. It has always been thus.

“Without our teachers, we fail. Without our teachers – and the supportive hearth of the family – we cannot and will not sustain the permanence of the sense of our peoplehood. Wherever and whenever in the past we have lived as Jews, we have always acknowledged this profound truth.

“The Jewish people has a long history of respect for teachers and scholars and for support of education. Let us not forget that a system of free, public, compulsory education was established among the Jews of Eretz Yisrael as far back as 64 CE.

“The Talmud records a conversation in which a teacher whose prayer for rain was answered promptly was asked to explain why his prayers seemed to be so quickly received and not those of others. The teacher responded: “I teach children of the poor as well as of the rich. I accept no fee from any family that cannot pay.”

“To emphasize the absolute importance of teachers and of schools, our sages were recorded to have said: “A city that does not have a school for children is deserving of destruction.” Similarly, “One does not cancel school for children even to build the Holy Temple.” Of course they made the point in an exaggerated manner but with an unambiguous purpose.

Pirkei Avot urges us to “revere our teachers as much as we revere Heaven.”

“Nor is it an accident, that the very first Kaddish we recite each morning in the company of a minyan, i.e., a community, is the Kaddish d’Rabanan – a testament to our teachers. It is an acknowledgment that it is through teaching our children that our peoplehood – our Jewish heritage – is transferred from one generation to the next.

“As all the teachers here tonight know, by helping impart and transmit Jewish knowledge locally, we also serve, support and strengthen the State of Israel.

“Nearly 50 years ago, then Foreign Minister Yigal Alon, alav hashalom, urged an American audience “to invest in Jewish education. You’ll do more for Israel’s future if you raise your generations of Jews and invest your money in Jewish education.”

“That very same message was delivered in December 2011 to community leaders in Toronto and indeed, Canada, by then Foreign Minister of Israel, Avigdor Lieberman. His plea was published on the front page of The Canadian Jewish News.

“Most of us have read, or know from our own experience, how the majority of Jewish youth in the United States – and increasingly in Canada too – is incapable and unprepared to respond to the anti-Israel sentiment they hear, read and see on campus or elsewhere.

“It is therefore no overstatement to say that you, our teachers, are the first line of the battle to raise and sustain everlasting generations of knowledgeable, caring, giving, proud Jews.

“So in celebrating the State of Israel we also celebrate you, our Jewish school teachers. Israel and our teachers is truly a match made in Heaven, for the sake of Heaven.

“Kol hakavod.”

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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Finding our courage to do the right thing

With the setting of the sun at the end of Shabbat this weekend, the Jewish calendar changes seamlessly into the Festival of Shavuot.

Pesach was the first step toward our collective sense of peoplehood. But it is Shavuot that established our identity as a Jewish people: as the People of the Book.

We are the people that enshrined literacy as a theological obligation. We are the people that understood from the very beginning of our existence as a distinct group that study, teaching and the passing forward of knowledge, traditions, and values, were the deeply engrained mechanism for ensuring generational permanence.

That is why, irrespective of century or geography, the education of the young was the first and highest priority for community elders.

For that reason and as an appropriate segue to the celebration of Shavuot, we feature an article written by Manette Mayberg, entitled Pursue Distinction: A Philanthropist’s Call to Action to Jewish Day Schools. Mayberg is a trustee of the Mayberg Foundation. Six years ago, the Foundation established the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC) whose purpose is “to reignite students’ passion for Jewish learning and improve the way Jewish values, literacy, practice and belief are transferred to the next generation.” With such a mission statement, the work of the JEIC attracts our attention.

In this article, Mayberg focuses on the grading system in the Jewish-subjects component of day school. In forceful language, she calls for a change away from the conventional method of grading. “It is inconsistent with Jewish wisdom to judge critically a Jew’s ability to learn Torah subjects…We feel the painful results of this rigid form of evaluation with every student who graduates from a day school without a lifelong love of Jewish learning and a rock solid Jewish identity,” Mayberg writes.

We do not reproduce the article to reinforce Mayberg’s views on the method of grading students’ achievements. Rather, we point readers’ attention to it for two reasons.

First, because Mayberg writes about the need for courage: “Courage is a vital trait for Jewish growth and expression… I invite all Jewish day school leaders and stakeholders to have the courage to say what needs to be said, to do what needs to be done, and in doing so connect the dots that will actualize our efforts to evolve day schools into the distinct greatness befitting the Jewish people.”

Second, because she has chosen to write at all, to become involved, to share time, ideas as well as resources to ensure the permanence of our people by strengthening and renewing our time-tested, proven infrastructure: Jewish education.

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Shabbat Shalom. Chag Shavuot Samayach

GAJE

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Jewish education is an imperative intervention

From time to time, GAJE has brought readers’ attention to the work of the Jewish People Policy Institute (JPPI), a policy planning think tank based in Jerusalem whose mission is a rather lofty but vital one: “to ensure the thriving of the Jewish people and the Jewish civilization”.

JPPI tackles the hard questions that decision makers around the Jewish world must address in order to secure the future of the Jewish people as a Jewish people.

Last year the JPPI published the results of a comprehensive study undertaken in the United States in an effort to respond to one of the findings of the 2013 Pew Study on Jewish Identity that Jewish engagement among non-Orthodox youth is falling quickly and perhaps irretrievably away. We pointed in one of our weekly updates to the study, Family, Engagement, and Jewish Continuity among American Jews by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Steven M. Cohen some months ago.

This week, we return to some key observations that appeared in a companion essay entitled Learning Jewishness, Jewish Education, and Jewish Identity by Sylvia Barack Fishman and Shlomo Fischer, that follows upon the larger, main essay.

The main essay concludes, inter alia, “stabilizing or reviving Jewish engagement will depend upon influencing the family-related behaviors of today’s young adult Jews.”

Among the family-related behaviors most touted as transformative is Jewish education. “Our findings demonstrate that educational interventions in childhood can change outcomes in adulthood. Jewish education that extends into the teen years not only makes adult Jews more likely to forge Jewish connections- -it makes them more likely to marry another Jew, and to raise Jewish-by-religion children. Moreover, Jewish education is a strategic intervention that can be very much influenced by imaginative and energetic communal efforts. “

The companion essay delves into the various methods of effective “educational interventions.”

The essay is a wealth of empirical findings and policy recommendations. The one we highlight is the following. It speaks most directly to the far-reaching, long-lasting benefits of cumulative Jewish education.

The Importance of Cumulative Educational Programs

“Our research shows that the successful formation of Jewish identity through Jewish education is the result of cumulative serendipities: Jewish family connections, Jewish formal education, Jewish friends and social networks, Jewish informal education, and travel programs. All of these work together and reinforce one another to produce identified and attached Jews. The greater the number of Jewish educational activities and experiences, such as Jewish supplementary school combined with Jewish summer camp, the more impact each one of them has on the given child and on the family. The combination of youth group, camp, and Israel trips also is correlated with an 80 percent in-marriage rate. This is especially the case in the school-aged years. A major policy challenge is to seek out and support the serendipities, so that they are no longer left to chance, but become, instead, one of the primary strategies for promoting the future of Jewish life.”

The study also speaks about day school education, the acknowledged, single most effective educational intervention parents can undertake for their children. But it must be affordable if it is be accessed at all.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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We Believe that We Can Change People’s Lives and the World

Earlier this week, in celebration of Israel’s 70th anniversary of statehood, Andrés Spokoiny, the former head of Federation CJA in Montreal, now the president and CEO of the Jewish Funders Network, delivered powerful, inspiring remarks to a group of some 600 philanthropists of the Jewish world.

In his remarks he relied upon historic and cultural themes that have shaped the Jewish soul and psyche through the millennia. His key message was that Jewish history teaches that Jews do not accept the status quo. Spokoiny points to biblical figures such as Abraham and Moses and to modern individuals such as Einsten and Ben-Gurion to prove his point. Jews are here to change the world. “We do philanthropy,” Spokoiny tells his audience, “because we believe that we can change people’s lives and the world.”

Spokoiny is quite categorical in pleading with the men and women who have the financial means to make a difference for the better – to change the world around them – to believe that indeed they can. Moreover, he provides a formula for doing so, for tackling the difficult, seemingly intractable problems. “Diversity, curiosity, collaboration, patience, and vision – that’s how Jewish funders can rewrite fate and change the world.” (He develops these criteria fully in his remarks.)

GAJE offers Spokoiny’s presentation to emphasize their importance and their relevance to the problem of the unaffordability of Jewish education. Making Jewish education affordable to all middle-income families is indeed a complex problem. But it is not intractable. There are solutions that include reimagining the cost of providing Jewish education along with the funding of that education. Those solutions however, require the whole-hearted, enthusiastic involvement of the generous philanthropists of our community.

We must follow the example of our biblical and even more recent forebears, refusing to shrug our shoulders in apathy or succumb to the anti-Judaic notion that we are helpless to find an answer.

Spokoiny is very confident that “people can alter what appears to be an inescapable destiny through philanthropy.” We appeal to the philanthropists in our midst to follow his charge.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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