I had the pleasure of attending the Israeli American Council conference in Washington this past week. I love their mission to engage Israeli Americans with American diaspora Jewish life and to engage them along with their children in identity building, learning and Israel advocacy. As a Jewish professional and as a Jewish mother, I was forced to think about the cultural differences between the Israeli American community and the established Jewish American community and institutions. IAC has changed my perspective on Jewish engagement and how these two community identities are disconnected while having common goals. That is a powerful takeaway.
If our common goals are identity, education and continuity then let’s invest in the one thing that few are talking about, Jewish day schools. On a national level we must strike at the core barrier of tuition. I am not advocating that day school be free. To the contrary, it is essential that every parent should pay something, because Jewish day school has value — both to the individual family and to the community as a whole — and we all need to be invested in its success. Jewish day school has a proven track record of being the most powerful form of Jewish engagement — the form most likely to lead to continued Jewish engagement and living – but let’s face it, it also is the single most costly form of Jewish engagement. In essence, the value proposition is tremendous, but the cost of entry is high. As a community we must share in the investment, and as a community we will share in the reward.
Why Jewish day school? Because we are permanently shaped and influenced by our experiences from preschool through middle school — our children grow and learn more during their school years than at any other time of life. Our personalities, behaviors, language, learning skills and values follow an arc of development with the steepest climbs coming early. To be instilled with a love for Israel and anchored in a Jewish identity that permeates the generations, our experiences must begin at an early age and the learning must be nurtured throughout the critical arc of development. The science and data are there to back that up.
During the IAC conference, Birthright Israel dominated the engagement conversation for youth, for raising the next generation of Jewish leaders. Multiple times throughout the conference, we were told how 35,000 young adults traveled to Israel on Birthright this year and how we need to keep that going to ensure a Jewish future and relationship to Israel. One-off initiatives like Birthright have value, but age 18 is awfully late to be starting the process of planting roots. Philanthropy focused on Birthright provides an immediately tangible impact, but that instant gratification may not end up having the long-term impact that everyone desires. The data does not yet back up the assumption that Birthright is changing the landscape of our Jewish future.
A free trip to Israel may well be spreading good will among Jewish young adults. But good will without roots is not a very rigorous investment. Rather, with these free programs, we have created entitlements. These apparently free programs have perpetuated the cycle of consumer Judaism where no one wants to (or thinks they need to) pay for anything: not a program, not a membership, not camp, not day school. But, offer it for free and suddenly the answer is of course! Happy to participate! Sounds great! We talk about the high price of being involved in the Jewish community, but scratch the surface, the actual issue is less about whether a program can be afforded and more about whether it is valued. If something has value, then we are willing to pay something (even some agreed upon minimum amount) and if everyone paid something then no one would have to pay everything.
Jewish day schools and Jewish overnight camps are proven to make a lasting impact on identity, engagement, leadership and above all else, the children and teens who come out of day schools and camps, are educated, armed with responses to BDS on campuses and proud of their identity as Jews.
The fear of raising our children in a bubble is a Jewish and Israeli failure of our generation. The strong core identity of Jewish day school graduates enables them to enter the public high school, college, or workforce more equipped to contribute to diversity and appreciate the unique qualities of others in those environments.
Many day school students travel to Israel on a peer trip in eighth grade, interweave that with camp and follow that up with a high school program or youth group experience and then onto campuses with Hillels and Birthright Israel, now you have a life cycle hand-off that is valuable and becomes an identity forming transformation rather than a single experience.
If we want to change the future of the diaspora Jewish community, if we want to ensure that the Israeli Americans maintain their sense of “Israeliness” culturally and emotionally, we have to start younger. We can’t cop out and exclude day school from the engagement conversation because the cost of Jewish day school is too big of a challenge to tackle.
Jennifer Scher is the director of development at Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax.