Operation Jewish Education: The 5% Answer Visions for 21st Century Judaism

by George D. Hanus

There is a crisis in our community. Rampant assimilation and intermarriage are obvious to all and, tragically, accepted by far too many. They have taken an enormous toll and threaten to decimate the American Jewish community, representing a peril more insidious than any external enemy. Until all of our children can connect with their heritage, substantial elements of the North American Jewish community will continue to drift into oblivion.

The crisis proportions of this trend became evident to all with the 1990 population study. Since its publication, Jewish organizations and philanthropies have scurried about to establish institutional programs under the banner of "continuity," and "saving the at-risk population." Very few, if any, substantive solutions have been implemented. Band-aid approaches have been proposed where radical procedures are needed. The true solution to this crisis is actually quite simple and obvious: We must educate our children Jewishly. The real question is not how to solve the problem, but whether we have the bold leadership and internal fortitude necessary to implement and fund this solution.

This solution is found in the Torah and dicta of the Talmudic sages, where all our societal or personal answers should be sought. In tractate Baba Batra, the Rabbis bestowed the rare accolade that Yehoshua Ben Gamla should be recalled in cherished memorial forever. The accomplishment for which Yehoshua Ben Gamla received this high praise, conferred in the Talmud on only one other person, was his decree that every community must provide Torah education for its constituents by furnishing at least one teacher for every 25 pupils.

In the case of a city divided by a river, this minimum had to be satisfied separately for each side of the river. In other words, fulfillment of this need was deemed so important that communal Jewish education was not only mandated, but it had to be conveniently accessible to all children. The Talmud tell us that but for Yehoshua Ben Gamla's enactment, the Torah would have been lost to the Jewish people.

Our current experience demonstrates that the bleak Talmudic vision of a possible future without Torah was not mere hyperbole. In the absence of affordable, quality Jewish education, Torah and Jewishness are being lost to the vast majority of our young people. This should not come as a surprise. Only approximately 14% of our young people have been receiving an intensive Jewish education. The remaining 86% have been intermarrying and assimilating at extraordinary high rates. Why shouldn't they? What bond do they possess to link them to our 4,000 years of heritage and history? Historically, we have been called the People of the Book. Our problem today is that most of our children don't even know the name, not to mention the content, of the Book. The key to our survival as a people is the diligent teaching of Torah to our children. This essay will examine the enormity of the crisis and then delineate a prospective solution.

The families of the 14% that are attending day school are under extraordinary financial burden. There is even a grim 'joke' circulating among young families that day school tuition is their most effective form of birth control. This is unacceptable. The $6-10,000 per pupil annual tuition is beyond the means of the vast majority of those families and it is clear that the system itself will break down because of the escalating cost per pupil of Jewish education. Without a source of revenue besides tuition, the system will hemorrhage.

As to the families of the 86% not in the day school system, many view the high tuition as an economic barrier to entry that is insurmountable. Even if they are predisposed to send their children to day school, they don't give it a second thought because of the high cost. The ramifications of this situation are enormous. The intermarriage rate of the non-day school population is approximately 62%. This disastrous impact of 3 non-Jewish family units being created for every Jewish family unit will result in two polarized segments of Jews: a minority that is educated and committed and the much larger majority that has little or no affiliation with Jewish heritage or institutions. The prognosis for the mainstream Jewish organizations is deva-stat-ingly poor. All Jewish federations around the country are already witnessing a significant decline in giving units among the younger donors.

We are witnessing the annihilation of our people. In confronting this tragedy, many of us experience an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and respond at first that there is nothing we can do. Upon further reflection, however, we recognize that, making quality, affordable Jewish education available to all is the obvious solution. But far too many, unable to overcome their initial helplessness, conclude that the solution is too expensive to implement. We must not fall prey to this defeatist attitude. An individual diagnosed with a terminal disease will spend everything he has saved for a "rainy day" and then borrow more to obtain the best medical treatment available. No expense would be spared for a chance to live and see light of another day. As a Jewish society, we must recognize that our "rainy day" is now. The time to act is now. The first step in averting the crisis and reversing these tragic trends is the recognition of financial ability or stream of religious commitment. The next step is meeting the enormous funding requirements of a universally accessible day school system.

The National Jewish Day School Scholarship Committee has commenced an initiative that is resonating across the country. The basic premise is that every Jew is obligated to participate in funding this obligation. Acting on Talmudic precedent and authority, a national mandate has now been promulgated by rabbinic and lay leaders representing tens of thousands of constituents declaring that it is incumbent on every Jew to donate 5% of his or her estate, either by testamentary disposition or inter vivos transfer, to a day school endowment fund of his or her choice. If every Jew would participate in this program over the next decade (during which the largest inter-gen-erational transfer of wealth in world history is projected to occur), it is estimated that $35 billion dollars would be allocated to these endowment funds. Currently, Harvard University has $11 billion in their endowment fund. If the six million Jews in the Diaspora could only duplicate Harvard's achievement, at a 7% investment return, every single day school and yeshiva would be tuition free.

Currently, a program is operating in Chicago that should serve as a national model. Every Day School is Chicago has now established its own endowment fund. In cooperation with the Chicago Jewish Federation, an umbrella endowment fund has also been created. The Chicago Federation has agreed to manage these funds with the contractual understanding that the principal can never be invaded and that only 5%-7% can be distributed annually. The goal for Chicago is to capitalize these funds with $300 million. At a 7% payout, every student can go to day school and yeshiva for free.

Every single Orthodox Rabbi and a substantial number of the Conservative and Reform Rabbis in the city have signed similar documents stating that every Jew is mandated to participate in this initiative. The Chicago Federation has pledged to provide staff to facilitate this program and has also promised a 10% match for every dollar raised. The results thus far have been phenomenal. Millions of dollars have already been pledged. Life insurance policies have been assigned to schools to fund donors' prospective obligations. An active marketing campaign, which includes billboards and weekly rabbinic sermons, has been undertaken to disseminate the message to every corner of the community. As more communities adopt this initiative, which Chicago has already proven to be feasible and effective, the program gains momentum and credibility. Individuals and leadership must assume responsibility to launch such an initiative in their respective communities. We can no longer sit on the sidelines and watch events overcome us.

The consequences of our action or failure to act should be clear. We stand at the cross-roads of two possible futures for the North American Jewry. One in which Torah is forgotten and we perish as Jews; and one in which the Torah is ascendant and sustains us as a thriving and vibrant Jewish community throughout the generations.

If we act now in the tradition of Yehoshua Ben Gamla, there will be no need to predict the future, for we shall create it. It is true that the solution requires our sustained efforts and will come only at a high cost. Given the alternative, however, we cannot afford to do otherwise.

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