The chicken, the egg and the preschool

American Jewry's commitment to giving has created social pressure to be successful enough to be generous.

jp.services1 (photo credit: )
(photo credit: )
My journey through American Jewish communities with seven other Israeli journalists enters its fifth day Thursday as we lift off for our third destination: New York. Flipping through notes from Chicago two busy days after leaving the town, I'm struck by a small snippet of our conversation with the Chicago Jewish federation's chief executive Steven Nasatir. "Aren't day schools the answer to restoring the Jewish affiliation of young people?" I asked Nasatir, assuming I was throwing out an easy one to set him up for my follow-up - which would probably be, "so what are you doing about it?" But Nasatir doesn't play by the book. "Day schools are not the panacea they're made out to be," he answers. The reasons include cost - "in New York, day school costs $24,000 [in tuition] a year" - a cultural commitment to integration - "there's a value to sending kids to public school, to create the melting pot" - and, most interestingly, "the chicken-and-egg story." What does he mean? "People who send their kids to day school," he believes, "are already committed," so it's not the institution that will bring in the unaffiliated. Or, in the words of his colleague Misha Galperin, head of the Washington, D.C., Jewish federation who spoke to us Wednesday morning, "it's not about cost, but about price." Those who value intensive Jewish education will pay whatever they must to give it to their children. Those who do not value that experience won't pay even if they can afford it. So, if even day schools aren't the answer, what can bring in the young people? Nasatir pins great hopes on his community's "next big idea" - subsidized Jewish preschool through $1,000 vouchers to one child in each family, a program for which the Chicago federation has set aside tens of millions of dollars. "Sending every Jewish child to preschool changes the Jewish behavior for the young parents," he explains. By keeping their young children in a Jewish institution, young parents are regularly engaged and activated by communal institutions. It's a good idea, "and we're going to see if it works over the next couple years," he says. After all, "the American Jewish community is not going to wake up tomorrow and send all its kids to day school." Yes, there are poor Jews One out of five American Jews is poor. Whatever conventional wisdom or stereotypes - even those held by Jews - may say, the Jewish community has many hundreds of thousands of members living below the abysmally low American poverty line. Visiting Chicago's EZRA Multi-Service Center is an eye-opening window into this phenomenon. It's not easy being a poor Jew. Paradoxically, American Jewry's cultural commitment to giving has created the corollary social pressure to be successful enough to be generous. EZRA, a federation arm which costs some $2.3 million each year, tries to be the JCC, the "hevre," for Jews who cannot afford membership dues. "Yes, there are poor Jews," says EZRA director Anita Weinstein. "There are poor and homeless Jews living in cars in forest preserves." The problem is exacerbated in the Jewish community, where "there's a risk and shame factor in coming forward as poor. You won't find these people in shul with you." How does EZRA create a community among non-donating Jews? Using federation money and help from synagogues - "the shuls are extremely generous" in supporting EZRA's work, Weinstein enthuses - "we have created a hevre here, a very real community for them." The 3,000 people who come through EZRA's doors each year find not only the basics, such as food, medicine and clothing, but Shabbat dinners, holiday celebrations, old friends and even a vocational service that will find them work. Perhaps best of all, the members participate. "We've been together as a community for 20 years, and we have a phone tree so that if someone's sick you can get on the phone tree and someone will go visit them."