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Our Chelm-like Leadership And The Crisis In Jewish Education


In Yiddish folklore, the real-life Polish town of Chelm was characterized as a legendary community of fools. According to this folkloric tradition, Chelm’s residents were exceedingly proud of their tradition of non-wisdom and convoluted insight into the world’s problems. They viewed themselves as brilliant.

There are many hilarious stories about the backwards logic of Chelm. Even Chelm’s beggars had their own matrix for proper conduct: Shlomo the beggar went every week to solicit money from a wealthy merchant to help feed his family. Each week the merchant gave Shlomo the same amount of money. One week, the merchant gave Shlomo a little less money saying that business was very bad that week. Feeling aggrieved, Shlomo responded with the famous line, “Because you had a bad week, why should I suffer?”

Chelm’s citizens lived with certain basic standards of expected behavior. The “fallen buttered toast rule” was commonly known and generally accepted. When toast was dropped on the floor, it would always fall with the buttered side facing up. One day a woman dropped her toast and it fell with the buttered side facing down. She ran to the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm for an explanation as to how this unexpected violation of a rule could happen. After much deliberation, fumbling and arguing, the Council determined that she had obviously buttered the toast on the wrong side.

With that stroke of wisdom, the woman and the rest of the town were satisfied and reassured that all was well with the world.

These Chelm stories would be funny if they were confined to fairy tales. But sometimes our current American Jewish leadership act as if they were members of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm.

America is a country of many organizations. There are groups to monitor the environment, save the whales, rescue pit bulls, and restore abandoned buildings. The number of non-profit advocacy and charitable organizations ranges in the tens of thousands.

In our community, too, there is a plethora of specialized organizations. The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations represents 50 national Jewish agencies from across the political and religious spectrums. There are Jewish organizations that focus on saving trees in Israel, maintaining water levels in the Sea of Galilee and preserving Jewish cemeteries. Everyone is aware of the myriad local Federations and rabbinic organizations.

The list of special interest Jewish organizations is lengthy. All these organizations are very important and do wonderful and magnificent things on behalf of the Jewish people.

But strange as it may seem, there is not one national Jewish fundraising organization whose sole focus is ensuring that every Jewish child has access, if his or her family seeks it, to a quality and affordable Jewish education, irrespective of stream of affiliation or financial resources.

Impossible, some will say. If there is not a national Jewish organization that is solely focused on funding Jewish education for all of our children, then surely the existing national philanthropic Jewish charity chests and Federations and rabbinic organizations have made funding Jewish education their number-one agenda item?

Every year, most organizations hold annual conventions to discuss the issues most relevant to their constituencies. Yet there has not been one national Jewish fundraising organization, lay or rabbinic, that has dedicated its entire annual plenary or general meeting to the crisis of funding Jewish education.

Not one rabbinic organization – Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist – has convened its national convention and put communal funding of Jewish day schools at the top of the agenda. One rabbinic organization did find time in 2005 to pass a resolution that opposed the prominent display of the Confederate flag on the front lawn of the South Carolina state capitol.

Assimilation, intermarriage, and general spiritual malaise are dramatically impacting the trajectory of Jewish continuity. It is widely known that there is a direct correlation between increased Jewish education of children and their subsequent involvement in the Jewish community as adults. It is also well documented that many Jewish families would love to send their children to Jewish day schools but can’t afford the high tuition.

The answer is clear: Lower the cost of Jewish day schools so that they are universally affordable (or, better yet, free) and many more kids can attend; increase the quality of the educational experience by dramatically increasing salaries for teachers who can then earn a dignified living wage. This will attract more of the best and the brightest to the profession.

These suggestions, if implemented, would reverse the rapid course of American Jewish assimilation. Logic and self-preservation would dictate that every national Jewish philanthropic and rabbinic organization stop business as usual and hold national emergency meetings to discuss and implement massive funding of Jewish education.

In many ways we live in a surreal modern-day Chelm, and our Jewish leadership is reminiscent of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm.

Should our contemporary version of the Grand Illustrious Council of Wise Men of Chelm meet in the near future to discuss the problem of exorbitantly high tuitions preventing Jewish kids from receiving day school educations, the first thing they would do, in all likelihood, is convene important sounding committees and blue ribbon commissions to study the issue. If past performance offers any indication, they would, after much self-righteous and tortuous hand wringing, publish a very lengthy report with fancy graphs and charts and then do absolutely nothing.

And after all that they would probably implement the precedent of the “fallen buttered toast rule” and opine that Jewish kids are prevented from receiving a day-school education because their parents are obviously not working to full capacity and not earning enough money to pay tuition.

Chelm is a nice place to hear about in fairy tales. It is an altogether different story in real life. Let’s stop this institutional foolishness and join together to demand that every Jewish child be granted his or her legitimate birthright: communally funded Jewish education.

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In Yiddish folklore, the real-life Polish town of Chelm was characterized as a legendary community of fools. According to this folkloric tradition, Chelm’s residents were exceedingly proud of their tradition of non-wisdom and convoluted insight into the world’s problems. They viewed themselves as brilliant.

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