Trading places

State aid to parochial schools is not such a bad idea.

ethiopian child 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
ethiopian child 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
We're not yet at the point where Israelis are raising money for the poor Jews of America. There are no synagogue appeals in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak for American Jewry; no red, white and blue pushkas in Israeli homes; no United American Jewish Appeal. But in a practical sense, Israelis are already assisting their downtrodden brethren in the goldene medine who are suffering severe spiritual privation. In the words of Amos' prophecy: "Behold, days are coming… when I will send hunger into the land, not a hunger for bread or thirst for water, but for the words of God." The role reversal extends beyond the financial as Israeli officials attempt to shape activities aimed at strengthening Jewish life in the United States. The New York Jewish Week's Gary Rosenblatt reported last week that President Moshe Katsav had convened a conference in an "attempt to establish a World Jewish Forum to counteract the various threats to Jewish survival in the Diaspora." In addition, Israel is a major force in birthright israel. And with the Jewish Agency, it will play an even greater role in MASA, a far larger initiative that contemplates bringing to Israel each year thousands of American Jewish youngsters of college age for up to a year of meaningful educational, cultural and religious experiences. If MASA takes off, the annual expenditure could be in the tens of millions of dollars. ALL OF this is in response to the spiritual bankruptcy of nearly all of American Jewry. From the outside there is a picture of a vibrant community, chock-full of organizations and activities. But that's a mere fa ade. It is not now crumbling because it is propped up by a multi-billion dollar infrastructure. Beyond the fa ade, however, there is enormous decay. Israelis know this. They are not buying the cooked books of demographers which give robust population figures, or claims that we are in the midst of an American Jewish renaissance. While Michael Steinhardt and Charles Bronfman were primarily responsible for the creation of birthright, it is substantially an Israeli operation because that is where the activity takes place. It is important not to exaggerate birthright's success, yet the project deserves support because it is a desperate effort to ward off further Jewish losses, and also because the results so far have been moderately encouraging. This success arises from the program being an encounter with our birthright, with our land and our religion. Without apology, it includes religious experiences. Let's hope that MASA will follow a similar path, and that the two efforts will be linked to avoid duplication. More importantly, good coordination between MASA and birthright israel could yield optimum results. I WONDER about the likely outcome of the latest Israel-based initiatives to influence American Jewish life. The great physical distance separating the two communities is a formidable barrier to effective Israeli intervention. The road will be harder still because our American Jewish establishment prefers to stick to what hasn't worked. President Katsav plans a follow-up gathering during Succot. Gary Rosenblatt is right to ask: "Will the list of invitees include a significant number of young, creative thinkers and doers, and not just the usual organizational leaders?" Another key question is whether American Jewish participants will again sabotage aid to Jewish education, especially to day schools. Through the Jewish Agency and other channels, Israel has for years provided support for US Jewish education, but not on a scale to make a difference (except in a handful of schools). What is now contemplated is a larger effort which might include advocating US government aid to parochial schools. This is a nono for most American Jewish leaders, who regard such support as a violation of their "sacred" secular beliefs. We have created a fantasy scenario of what government aid entails, and embraced and marketed this fantasy as reality. There are 40 years of experience under the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which includes parochial schools in some of its grant programs. There is also state legislation providing government aid to parochial schools. If we were intellectually honest we would explore what this positive experience teaches our community about government aid. We might learn that when aid is available in religious schools for secular activities, the constitutional roof does not fall in. AN INTEREST-FREE loan program to assist day school parents with tuition is reportedly about to be unveiled. Any effort to ameliorate the expanding Jewish tuition crisis deserves consideration. I sense, however, that this is not the way to go - even with $100 million available for loans - because the dollars and numbers do not work out in view of the size of day school families, the number of years (as many as 14) that children are enrolled in day school and the rising cost of tuition. Yossi Abramowitz, a leading advocate of the loan approach, seems to think that it will go a long way to resolving the tuition crisis. American day school education is now a $2 billion dollar a year enterprise. While Abramowitz favors loans, he opposes government aid, saying that "if we go after [tax] credits and vouchers, we'll divide the country over church-state issues for a mere $1,000." If he did the arithmetic, he would see that "a mere $1,000" per day school student amounts to more than $200 million dollars a year, which is a far larger sum and far more meaningful than a one-time loan program. While it may be unrealistic to expect Israelis to fund our educational needs, we ought to be pragmatic about ways we can help ourselves. The writer, a former law professor, lives in New York and is president of The Rabbi Jacob Joseph Yeshiva.