Jewish Education Needs a Marshall Plan
Posted on 04/01/2022 @ 08:00 AM
On Tuesday this week, Rabbi Efrat Zarren-Zohar, the Executive Director of CAJE, was invited to serve on a panel at the Jewish Funders Network, which was meeting in Palm Beach Gardens.
The panel was titled Driven by Data: Using Research to Strengthen the Jewish Future and included presentations by Dr. Ariel Levites, Managing Director of CASJE, Arnee Winshall, Board Chair of Hebrew at the Center, and Amanda Abrams, Executive Director of the Zalik Foundation.
Below is the text of her (5 min) address:
How many of you have ever served as a classroom teacher in a Jewish or secular environment? Raise your hand.
How many of you have been a camp counselor and had to lead a camp program?
How many of you have ever had to be a role model to your children or grandchildren, by reciting Hebrew at a Shabbat or lifecycle service or a Pesach seder?
Each of these are educational roles, and somehow you were educated, at some point, to be able to perform them.
But what if there were few, if any, paths in the future to getting the education that you yourself have already received?
That is tragically what I and many of my colleagues are seeing, when we look at the future of the Jewish people here in North America.
“Who will teach our children and grandchildren?” — that is the title of this recent EJewishPhilanthropy article, authored by the leaders of all the major North American central agencies of Jewish education.
And it was written after reflecting on the CASJE (Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) for data you just heard.
In Miami, our Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education was chosen as one of the 8 communities for data collection that contributed to the CASJE outcomes.
And it was this data that gave directors of community educational agencies, and myself, the ability to gather with each other in working groups to analyze it, to create a task force on recruitment and retention with volunteer leadership in Miami to guide us in local strategic planning, and to turn to our Federation partners and proclaim — it’s not only our own anecdotal evidence anymore; this data clearly shows we are in a state of emergency.
Now I acknowledge that in every generation there are Chicken Little’s who proclaim the end of the Jewish people as we know it.
However, this challenge, to me, appears far more fundamental – if there are no knowledgeable and skilled Jewish educators to teach the next generation in the many ways we now expansively define education — then I cannot understand how we will be able to keep this Jewish enterprise alive and self-replicating.
And history tells us why.
Ever since the Temple’s destruction, we have understood and sustained Judaism based on rabbinic values, which always and in every age meant, enormous and expensive individual and communal support for educating, at least, our sons.
While I am not a scholar of contemporary religions, I can confidently state I know of no other religion or civilization that proclaims, as the sage Hillel does in Pirkei Avot (2:4), “One who is ignorant cannot be pious.”
Meaning you cannot be an ideal Jew without a decent Jewish education.
Everything that you and I have become Jewishly was because of our teachers along the way — be they in schools, summer camps, Hillels, adult education classes, and so many more venues.
Knowledgeable and skilled teachers have kept Judaism salient and thriving through every era of the last 2000 years… until now, under OUR watch.
The data is clear: our building is officially on fire. And it’s difficult for us to see because the fire is in the foundation of the building. It’s under our feet. But one day soon, I fear the floor under us will completely collapse.
Across the board — in progressive and hareidi schools, early childhood, day school, congregational education, in summer camps, in communal service— there isn’t any area of Jewish life that is not suffering from a lack of qualified people and it’s only getting worse.
So here I am representing all those professionals who look around and see that the Jewish people is turning its collective back on what was once the time-tested way of ensuring our continued success and relevance -- as Jews -- in this world: Investing in Education.
I call on all of you to gather the kind of focus and financial resources and excitement about this issue, as so many funders did in constructing Birthright.
How do we engage and incentivize our children to consider teaching as a wonderful and rewarding profession?
How do we reward our teachers today so they become objects of emulation for the next generation?
How can we build a Marshall Plan for Jewish education writ large so that we do not destroy the one factor that has enabled our people to thrive in Diaspora life over centuries of difficulties and joys?
I beg you to not wait one more moment to take action because a big project like this is greater than schools and central agencies and it’s larger than Federations. It needs big funders and big foundations and big thinking to spur big change.