Birthright to a Jewish education

Secular Jews who received even a quasi-Jewish education have kept some sort of faith-based identity.

Taglit-Birthright (photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
(photo credit: Courtesy Taglit)
Jewish philanthropists: I offer a New Year’s Resolution that can potentially change the face of American Jewry for decades. Create a Birthright to a Jewish education.
Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on Taglit-Birthright, the program that sends Jewish young adults on a 10-day educational trip to Israel to deepen their commitment to their Jewish identity. But 14 years after the program was launched, not much has changed.
It’s time for the folks who are funding Birthright to realize that their hearts are in the right place, but their pocketbooks aren’t.
Birthright began in December 2009, when Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt pledged $210 million towards the initiative. Since then, over 330,000 participants have joined the program. And while the results have certainly been positive, the reality is that their commitment to Judaism doesn’t seem to last very long.
According to a study called, “A Mega-Experiment in Jewish Education – The Impact of Taglit-Birthright,” participants certainly seem to feel more connected with Israel and Judaism. “More than a year after they return home,” it finds, “their attitudes and engagement in the Jewish community were different.”
But, the study continues, “a clear involvement in Jewish ritual and activities did not increase dramatically.”
This leads the researchers to conclude that “the success of the program poses a challenge for the Jewish community.
The community now needs to find ways to transform participants’ inspiration and motivation into Jewish commitment.”
In my opinion, Birthright was a good start, but as the study sadly shows, it is equivalent to putting a bandage on a patient who really needs major surgery.
According to the recent Pew Research Center study, assimilation is rampant. The Jewish community is bleeding way too heavily for Birthright to make a major lasting impact. It is time for visionaries in the mold of Charles Bronfman and Michael Steinhardt to step up to the plate and really invest in saving the Jewish nation.
After much thought and discussion with Jewish activists around the country, I am proposing a new program, “Birthright to a Jewish Education.”
An authentic Jewish education is oxygen for the Jewish soul. All Jewish children deserve to know and understand their heritage. That education will inspire them to learn, to grow, to build, to dream and as history has illustrated, all of society, not just the Jewish community, will benefit.
The opportunity to send a child to a Jewish school from kindergarten through 12th grade should be available to every Jewish family that understands the tremendous risk of ignoring such opportunities, and the immeasurable rewards of seizing the moment. Developing a strong sense of Jewish identity is the key to sustaining the Jewish faith in ever more secular America.
This education must be financed by an entity called Birthright to a Jewish Education, which will be a designated central fund. This endowment fund should be managed with the highest ethical standard, with oversight by a board of America’s most respected and trusted philanthropists. It should be parent-driven, via a voucher system they will receive directly and control entirely, in terms of the Jewish school to which it is designated.
Preference should be given primarily to those who are in the greatest danger of denying themselves the right to a Jewish education, as well as those who are lowest on the socioeconomic ladder.
This concept should and could work, as long as it remains both apolitical and non-denominational as a policy of criteria for eligibility. Jewish parents across the spectrum should have a choice as to the type of education they prefer for their children.
Realistically, this effort will only be universally accepted if the parent dictates which school the child will attend – hence, all Jewish schools will be eligible for funding.
That said, today it is the Orthodox model that is at the forefront of stemming Jewish assimilation, as confirmed by the Pew study.
We are losing thousands of children every year. Every child should have the opportunity to an authentic Jewish education, one that their parents might have been denied. The stakes are simply too high to ignore any longer.
For the first time, we are also witnessing parents send their child to a public school as opposed to a day school due to financial constraints – and this is simply unacceptable.
For those like myself who spend considerable time outside the protective bubble of Boro Park and Williamsburg, it is painful to watch as the secular community rapidly diminishes. Secular Jews who received even a quasi-Jewish education have kept some sort of faith-based identity.
Those that were deprived of a basic Jewish education may be lost forever.
Taglit-Birthright was a noble idea, but the notion that a 10-day trip will provide the antidote to the spiritual Holocaust taking shape across America is naïve, and insulting to all of us who care deeply about Jewish continuity.
Wherever there are emerging or established Jewish communities, one will find thriving yeshivot and day schools. Visit the communities of Passaic, New Jersey or Phoenix, Arizona, and you will witness scores of school buses filled with children en route to Jewish schools every morning. In these areas, Jewish identity and Jewish investment is flourishing.
There is no reason why others cannot duplicate this success. It is a matter of commitment, and yes, funding.
Instead, I suggest that the Jewish community take the limited successes of Taglit-Birthright and really invest in a plan to save the next generation of American secular Jews. I believe there is enough funding available within the community to subsidize a program on the scale I am proposing.
For those who feel that I’m dreaming, I assure you that the money is there. According to Forbes Israel, there are currently a total of 165 Jewish billionaires around the world with a combined wealth of $812 billion. Many of them do support a variety of Jewish programs and activities, but not Jewish education. Imagine if just some of them earmarked funds for this purpose.
I am not remotely pretending to address all the issues, logistics and otherwise.
My sole intention is to start a conversation and encourage caring and committed Jews from all backgrounds to face the harsh realities facing us as a people, now before it is too late. Let’s change the face of American Jewry by ensuring that all of our children are educated and inspired to be proud of their Jewish identity.
I’m willing to discuss my plan and my ideas with those who are willing to rise to the challenge.
A worthy New Year’s resolution to consider, indeed.
The writer is the CEO of The Friedlander Group, a public policy consulting group based in New York City and Washington.
Follow him on Twitter: @ezrafriedlander