Restating our moral obligation

On April 24, GAJE will mark the third anniversary of its forming with the important, urgent mission “to make Jewish education in our community affordable for every family that wishes to send its children to a Jewish day school.”

In our view, the future of Jewish education in our community is the community’s most important current priority. Still.

The fact that Jewish day school education is not yet affordable for the majority of middle -income families merely adds to the gravity of the situation and points without relent to the significance of finding a permanent reduction in the cost of tuitions.

We do not gainsay the progress that has been made to bring down the tuition figures: The issue of affordability is squarely in the centre of community planning and priorities. Communal leadership is actively seeking answers. Community schools seek creative ways to contend with the burdens imposed by parents by high tuitions. CHAT led the way in proving the empirical truth of the proposition that where the education is known to be excellent, the level of tuition will indeed be a factor in enrollment. CHAT reduced annual tuition by nearly a third – albeit at this stage for only a five-year trial period – and entry-level enrollment for next year has soared as a result.

Even with the significant reduction by CHAT however, the level of tuition for Jewish day school education in our community is unconscionably high for most middle-income families.

We have often written about the implications of high tuitions, declining enrollments and shuttered day schools for the Jewish future of our community. We are at a watershed moment. The funding and education-oriented policies our community chooses and enacts will determine the Jewish shape of our community in the years to come – for good or for ill.

GAJE is developing a tuition plan that will enable our schools to accommodate the widest swath possible of middle-income families. We are also focused on bringing legal pressure upon the government to change its unfair, discriminatory education funding policies. We hope to be able demonstrate some measure of success in the months ahead.

In our founding documents we wrote, “by striving to make Jewish education more affordable, we fulfill a moral obligation to our community and a historic obligation to the wider Jewish people. The status quo is an affront to conscience. Inaction is not an option. Nor is failure.”

Perhaps during the upcoming year – GAJE’s fourth – we will see positive change to the benefit of all of the young families of our community.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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Through education, the ability to defend Israel

Natan Sharansky’s 9-year tenure as the head of the Jewish Agency for Israel (JAFI) comes to an end in June.

From time to time he undertook speaking tours of college campuses in North America, mostly in the United States. His various experiences there were seldom positive.

“The American campuses are occupied territories,” he told the New Jersey Jewish News in 2011. “The debate is why Israel should exist as a state. And as result, I have spoken to many young Jews who say, ‘For us as Jews it is better to live in a world where Israel doesn’t exist. Then we don’t have to be responsible for all of these awful things we hear.’”

It was a distressing revelation for Sharansky. His sorrowful conclusion was: “Our enemies have succeeded to disconnect a young generation of Jews from Israel.”

Four year later in 2015, after taking part in a program in Toronto, he was asked by a community professional, which Jewish communities around the world, in his opinion, stood in the highest jeopardy. “Venezuela, Ukraine and the United States,” Sharansky thoughtfully answered. The answer shocked the individual who had posed the question.

Sharansky clarified that despite its physical security, the Jewish community in the United States faces the jeopardy of the erosion and ultimate loss of Jewish identity on a massive scale.

In his capacity as chair of JAFI, Sharansky has implemented a number of programs aimed at building more cultural, educational and social bridges between college-age Jews of North America and the State of Israel. The results, however, have been mixed, primarily because the JAFI does not have the resources to dedicate to the many campuses where BDS and other anti-Israel activities are rife.

Of course, the best method of arresting and then reversing the erosion in Jewish identity is through Jewish education. Intense Jewish education helps foster the sense of belonging to the Jewish people, which in most circumstances is the precondition for wanting, let alone knowing, how to defend Israel on campuses and anywhere else. The evidence is incontrovertible. Getting more students into Jewish schools to help them nurture and continually develop a strong Jewish identity is the best assurance for preventing the “disconnect” between young North American Jews and Israel.

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In light of the fact that we celebrate Yom Ha’atzma’ut next week, GAJE brings to readers’ attention “Independence – a resource for Yom Haatzma’ut”, a superb educational tool created by the Limmud Chavruta Project, an international collaboration of Limmud volunteers from a diverse range of Jewish, cultural and geographical backgrounds.

The resource brings Limmud’s celebrated inclusive learning approach to the important, exciting subject of Israel’s Declaration of Independence.

A live link to the resource can be found in an article posted on the eJewish Philanthropy site at: https://ejewishphilanthropy.com/independence-a-resource-for-yom-haatzmaut-offers-unique-take-on-israels-declaration-of-independence/

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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How can we rally for the cause of affordable Jewish education?

It was in 1974, out of a sense of post-Yom Kippur War trauma-and-relief and the widespread Jewish affirmation on campuses that arose in defense of Israel, that the musical group Safam was formed in Boston.

They described their music as Jewish folk-rock. If there were a hall of fame for North American Jewish music, they would deserve a place in it. They wrote and performed many songs that were iconic for their times and will remain timeless in their cultural and historic significance.

One of Safam’s early songs, World of our Fathers, was a long-verse ballad about a young Jewish immigrant arriving in America at the turn of the last century escaping the pogroms and persecutions in Russia. The young immigrant is lost at the beginning of his new life, but he acknowledges:

If it wasn’t for my people, I don’t know what I’d do,
And I thank the Lord above me that I was born a Jew.

Typically, the young immigrant works hard, brings his siblings to America, raises a family and builds a life for himself. Throughout his years in the new land he constantly is guided by his mother’s last words to him.

Just don’t forget where you came from, my son
And the world of your fathers, you’ll soon leave behind.
Just keep the faith of your people wherever you go,
There a friend you will find.

The immigrant’s children enjoy the many benefits of their father’s material success. Despite his pleas, they grow distant from the values that he cherishes, from the world of his father. And he notices. “Of their father they would grow ashamed.”

But the years are not all unkind. Near the end of his days he lives with one of his grandchildren who asks him to teach his great grandchildren a “bissel Yiddish.” He takes great comfort in this request and sees in it proof that the world of his fathers – i.e., the traditions and the faith – will not be lost.

There were times, so many times when I feared that all was lost;
We had come so far, so fast, that I wondered what the cost.
But now I see my father’s world begin to rise
In my great grandchildren’s eyes!

The song is uplifting and ends with klezmer styling and phrasing that impart a feeling of hope and of optimism.

But would Safam write today that they see the rise of our fathers’ world in the unfolding lives of young Jews? They could not do so. There is no such rise. The evidence is simply not there.

To preserve, enhance and adapt where necessary, the world of our fathers and mothers, we must be able to provide comprehensive Jewish education to our children and to their children for every generation. If, however, the tuition for Jewish education is unaffordable for the majority of families, the life-affirming and faith-sustaining values of that world will be lost for most Jews.

If only there were a way today to rally our people on behalf of affordable Jewish education, as Safam rallied countless thousands for innumerable vital Jewish causes some 45 years ago.

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Shabbat Shalom. Chag samayach.

GAJE

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We will not be mute

Tonight is Pesach. 

As family and friends assemble around the Seder table, we celebrate and rejoice at the people we see. And we tenderly recall those whom we cannot see, or will ever see again, except in our hearts.

This night stands out as the brightest of the shining stars in the heavenly expanse of Jewish life and the mystery of Jewish history. In his commentary upon the Haggadah, Rabbi Eliezer Sadan tells us why.

“In this setting, in the midst of the family, the building block of our sacred nation, the light of the faith of Israel is passed from one generation to the next.”

On Leil Seder Pesach, the night of the Pesach Seder, we forge and re-forge the ties that bind each one of us to each other, each generation to all generations.

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Pesach marks the third year since GAJE was formed to help make Jewish education affordable in the GTA. That we have not yet succeeded in doing so only motivates us to continue the effort. In this we are inspired and guided again by Rav Sadan who shares a teaching of Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakuda: “If those who seek to make the world a better place or to elevate the moral standards of their generation were to wait until their projects reached perfection, then… all would remain forever mute.”

As we enter the fourth year of the campaign for affordable Jewish education, we promise not to stop. We will not be mute. As we wrote three years ago, failure is not an option.

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Shabbat Shalom. Chag Pesach samayach.

.שבת שלום. חג פסח שמח

GAJE

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When our hearts turn to our children what do they feel?

This Shabbat – Shabbat Hagadol – precedes Pesach. Not surprisingly, it brings its own pointed pre-Pesach messages, one of which appears in the Haftarah portion from the prophet Malachi.

In exceedingly poetic and poignant language, Malachi tells us that God will send Elijah who “will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents.”

It is a testament to the superbly astute judgement of the ancient Sages that it is Malachi’s encouraging forecast of inter-generational relations they chose to underpin our emotions and our hopes as we prepare for and enter, merely days later, the formative, seminal Jewish holiday of our peoplehood.

It is, of course, a message of continuity: teaching the older generation how to pass the torch of our values to our children, filling us with hope that they will wish to receive it and be able to do so and one day, in turn, pass it lovingly to their children.

With the purposefully included four archetypes of children as students, the many carefully prescribed details and rituals, and, of course, the exciting story of Pesach, the Seder is and has clearly been designed by our Sages to be a quintessential teaching moment.

Indeed, one can perhaps say – based on the biblical commandment to teach our children the origin of our peoplehood – the Seder is the historic keystone on which the structure of Jewish education is based and has been communally supported for some 2,000 years.

As we prepare for Pesach, let us be inspired to action by Malachi’s hope. Let us vow to secure our communal education system. If our children are to turn their hearts to, and accept for themselves in their own way, the traditions and values of their parents, we – the parents and the community in which we reside – must see to the children’s education.

If it is not affordable, then there effectively will be no education.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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A “blended” effort at solving the affordability crisis

For nearly three years GAJE has highlighted efforts from diverse communities in North America to make Jewish education more affordable. A great deal more about these efforts is being written and shared today than it was some three years ago when GAJE was formed. That is not surprising because a great deal more is being done today than three years ago to solve the unaffordability crisis.

Some communities are trying to reimagine the delivery of Jewish education itself in a manner that is less expensive but not less effective.

In a story written for JTA this week, E.J. Kessler wrote about one such newly designed method of delivering education called “blended learning” at Westchester Torah Academy in New Rochelle, New York.

The school has adopted a new model of instruction “that uses computer technology to customize student lessons and blends that with small-group teacher instruction.”

Kessler writes that proponents of blended learning for enabling it to diagnose individual learning weaknesses and strengths and then customize lessons that respond to the needs of the individual student.

They also point out how much less expensive a “blended” learning experience than the conventional one.

“At Westchester Torah Academy, an Orthodox school of 148 students from preschool to fifth grade, tuition is below $11,000 – about 50 percent less than at nearby Jewish day schools,” Kessler notes.”

Three other Jewish day schools in the U.S. currently use an all-blended teaching system. Kessler also adds “scores of traditional Jewish day schools are also using some degree of blended learning programs.”

The point of bringing a blended learning model to our readers’ attention is not to tout it above other teaching models. Rather, it is simply to point out that the status quo within the day school system is failing. And different communities of parents, teachers and administrators are trying new and different approaches to bring down the cost of Jewish education – such as blended learning – that suit their particular set of circumstances.

It is indeed imperative to implement cost efficiencies in every school, whether an “old-time” school or highly digitalized new one. But cost efficiencies alone cannot make tuitions affordable. We must not neglect looking for and finding new approaches to funding our schools too so that the excellence of the education they deliver is never impaired.

Good luck to everyone trying to bring Jewish education within reach of the Jewish families who wish it for their children. We applaud and cheer them.

The full Kessler article can be found at: https://www.jta.org/2018/03/14/news-opinion/embraced-low-tuition-jewish-schools-blended-learning-now-catching-widely

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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An important conversation about Jewish education

We have, on other occasions in our weekly update, referred to the opinion of Dr. Erica Brown. She is renowned among scholars and educators for her writing and for her focus on Jewish education. We do so again this week.

Dr. Brown is the director of the Mayberg Center of Jewish Education and Leadership and an associate professor of curriculum and pedagogy at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, The George Washington University.

She published a long article last week entitled Reflecting and Celebrating: Conversations on Jewish Education. In it, Dr. Brown encapsulates the key summary points from nearly a year of formal and informal interviews of “professionals in and around the universe of Jewish education”. She was “interested in the hard-earned wisdom of notable professionals in and around the field.”

In particular, she was determined to find out what the experts see “as the current contributions of Jewish education, particularly day school education, and could they point to successes? What are the most pressing leadership challenges today and the viable initiatives tackling these problems? What skill sets do they believe are most important to the work, and what kind of lay support is most helpful in achieving their goals?”

Dr. Brown distilled the most salient and repeated observations from her eclectic resource of experts into 18 bullet points with accompanying elaborative text. She hopes the document will “inform a communal agenda” aimed at ensuring the excellence of Jewish education.

We have reproduced only four of the 18 summary points – without any of the accompanying text. Their relevance to our situation in the GTA is evident merely by their titles.

Summary points:

4. Success lives at the nexus of strong practitioners and strong leaders.

5. We are generally more honest about acknowledging difficulties.

13. Day school education outside of the Orthodox community is really struggling.

18. Jewish education needs to be higher on the communal agenda

Readers are advised to consult the entirety of Dr. Brown’s article to benefit from the full effect of its substance and discussion. It is instructive. The full text can be found at: http://ejewishphilanthropy.com/reflecting-and-celebrating-conversations-on-jewish-education/.

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Shabbat Shalom.

GAJE

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