Everyone is familiar with the age-old question: If a tree falls in the forest, but nobody is around to hear it, does it make a sound? To some, that may sound like a silly rhetorical quandary, but it actually provides a wonderful metaphor to describe a huge problem facing today’s Jewish community.
A unique social experiment is currently unfolding in Hollywood, Florida. A former Florida congressman, Peter Deutsch, has formed the Ben Gamla Charter School that will teach Hebrew language and culture. His goal is to make Jewish education available for more children.
The charter school concept is very simple. Parents who send their children to a charter school do not pay tuition. The taxpayers in that particular community foot the bill. In an attempt to improve education across the country, charter schools are being established to create competition among educational institutions.
Anything that changes the status quo always triggers controversy – and the critics and proponents of Ben Gamla are vocal and strident. One of the central issues is the alleged breach of the Constitution’s sacred separation of church and state. Should taxpayer money be used to pay for the religious education of its citizens?
Notwithstanding the importance of the question, people are mistakenly making it the primary concern in this debate. The real Jewish quandary here is not constitutional, an issue that ultimately can only be resolved in the courts. The real problem here is why the leadership of the local Jewish Federation, along with local rabbis, is deaf to the tens of thousands of Jewish families desperately yearning for their children to receive a high-quality Jewish education.
When the Ben Gamla school first received its charter, without any fanfare or publicity, hundreds of parents enrolled their children. They did so without total knowledge of the curriculum or teacher roster. The Ben Gamla school initially planned for 200 children, but the demand was explosive. In fact, the school capped enrollment at 425 kids because that’s all the school building could hold. Ben Gamla already needs a larger facility.
It is outrageous that no Jewish leader in South Florida or across the entire United States has said: “Wow. There is an enormous demand for free Jewish education. How can we create a system of free Jewish education that is underwritten by the larger Jewish community?”
All constitutional issues would be moot if the Jewish community paid for the Jewish education of its children. The primary concern of Jewish lay philanthropic leaders and rabbis should be educating more Jewish children. Their silence on this issue is deafening and embarrassing.
When first published, the 1990 and 2000 National Jewish Population Surveys triggered institutional alarms about the frightening rates of intermarriage, assimilation, spiritual malaise and disaffection in the Jewish community.
Local and national Jewish institutions sprang to action and did what they do best: form committees. Task forces were mobilized with fancy-sounding names, and blue-ribbon commissions were initiated that reported to no one. After much hand wringing and long-winded oration, elegantly crafted resolutions were gallantly passed and then … nothing substantive was done to fund the Jewish day schools.
This past July, an ambitious conference was convened in Jerusalem by the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute under the leadership of two extraordinary individuals, Prof. Yehezkel Dror and Avinaom Bar-Yosef. These two gentlemen assembled 120 intellectuals, activists and social scientists from across the world to study the future of the Jewish people. As can be expected, when you get very smart, well-educated people in a room together, many agendas and statistics are considered.
A working paper prepared for the conference by the preeminent professors Chaim Waxman and Sergio Della Pergola, entitled “Identity, Identification and Demography,” highlighted a list of frightening realities facing the Jewish community:
• Declining rates of membership in secular as well as religious Jewish organizations.
• Declining rates of Jewish in-group marriages.
• Declining rates of Jewish neighborhood concentration (increasingly Jews reside in ethnically and religiously heterogeneous neighborhoods and express less value in living among Jews).
• Declining significance of Jewish friendships (increasing number of Jews state that their best friends are not Jewish).
• Indications of declining degrees of emotional attachment to Israel.
Moreover, young Jews are donating more and more to non-Jewish philanthropies and appear less committed to Jewish causes and to Jewish philanthropies.