All continuity is local

If national Jewish organizations won't step up to address our demographic crisis, each community must.

There is an apocryphal story about a conversation between the 19th-century Jewish-born British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli and the reigning monarch at the time, Queen Victoria. When Victoria asked Disraeli if there was a miracle that could prove God's existence, Disraeli is reported to have said: "The survival of the Jews." Indeed, we Jews have survived against all odds. Despite 4,000 years of persecution, expulsions, pogroms, genocides and forced conversions, we Jews are still here. Not only have we survived, but we have flourished and contributed to the societies we were a part of. It is no accident that prior to World War II, Europe led the world in the arenas of culture, the arts and science. Once the continent was largely bereft of Jews, post-Holocaust, it was American universities that achieved preeminence in these spheres. Most impressively, throughout the millennia we Jews have maintained a sense of our distinctive peoplehood. But we 21st-century Jews are now witnessing the unraveling of this 4,000-year continuity. Though Jews are by now sick of hearing the statistics, the signs of decline can hardly be ignored. One recent study showed that only 44 percent of Jewish teenagers believe in a personal God, the lowest rate among teenagers in any American religious group. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute has just revealed that 56% of those born Jewish in the United States are now intermarrying (70% outside New York). According to most experts, "the trend of out-marriage is most erosive on long-term demographics, with only a minority of all the children of out-marriage identifying as Jewish. (JPPPI Annual Assessment, 2004-2005)." It is so sad that it has come to this. Our children are voting with their feet. They are leaving en masse, becoming spiritual refugees, failing to find a sense of belonging in a tradition that has sustained generations of our ancestors, that constituted their very heart and soul. But what study after study shows is that Jewish education is the antidote. According to the 2000-1 National Jewish Population Survey, 93 percent of Jews who obtained day school education married a Jewish spouse. Assimilation seems to be a product of ignorance, rather than choice, for our young people. SO WHAT is the organized Jewish community doing about this, the single greatest threat to Jewish survival? Notwithstanding clear evidence that each successive generation is becoming less Jewishly affiliated and supportive of the State of Israel, no national Jewish philanthropy has moved massive resources or reprioritized budgets to counter this projection. It is just getting worse. Yet few dispute that if universal, high-quality intensive and affordable Jewish education were available to all Jewish children, regardless of their religious affiliation or financial status, the challenges of assimilation, intermarriage and Jewish spirituality would be largely addressed. Due to the high cost of tuition, currently only a minority of Jewish children can attend day schools. With tuitions ranging from $10,000 to $19,000 per student annually, the only families able to give their children an intensive Jewish education are those that are very rich, or those prepared to make extraordinarily debilitating financial sacrifices. It is absolutely clear that the only thing preventing affordable, much more widespread Jewish education from becoming a reality is the communal determination to pay for it. If we really cared about our children, we could and should mobilize the necessary massive resources to fund Jewish schooling for all our kids. In the secular world education is funded communally, by taxpayers. The local community will pay for all its children's education whether the family has one or 10 children. The governments of Western countries adopted this policy of mandatory education out of a clear recognition that an educated citizenry is necessary to maintain the continuity of their democratic societies. In the same way, if we are to maintain Jewish continuity it must be recognized that funding our schools is a community-wide responsibility. While our community is the most prosperous in the history of our people, we continue to do nothing and watch our children lose their Jewish future. The existing Jewish philanthropic structure is either unable or unwilling to make Jewish education its number one priority. And with the numbers of donors declining precipitously each year, no philanthropy will take away allocations from existing beneficiaries. Since national Jewish philanthropic organization are not reprioritizing their agendas, the only way to solve this funding problem will be by forming new local organizations dedicated to raising the enormous amounts of money needed for the funding of our kids' Jewish education. THE SUPERFUND for Jewish Education and Continuity is just getting started in Chicago. If this Herculean initiative is going to succeed, every concerned Jew must participate. The Superfund is divided into an annual campaign and a planned giving campaign. The former will fund quarterly scholarship distributions to all the eligible day schools in the community, or to a particular school designated by a donor. The planned giving initiative promotes an ongoing campaign called Operation Jewish Education/The 5% Mandate. Every Jew should allocate 5% of his or her estate, either by will or lifetime gift, to the Jewish educational endowment fund of their choice. The principal donated should never be invaded and annual distributions will be made from interest earned in perpetuity. If every Jewish community in the Diaspora implemented its own model of the Superfund for Jewish Education, many of our communal problems could be solved. We can no longer act like deer frozen amid oncoming traffic. There is no excuse for the wealthiest Jewish community in history not caring for the spiritual future of all our children. We are their guardians. The only way to guarantee our communal future is to ensure the teaching of our past. The writer is chairman of the Superfund for Jewish Education and Continuity.