Eric Yoffie’s call for a renewed emphasis on Jewish education at the recent Reform biennial convention must be seen as a positive development. [Like his call for more Torah study and a reconsideration of traditional Jewish practices at the last biennial, Yoffie’s emphasis on Jewish education reflects a recognition that Reform must offer its adherents something more than political liberalism.]
Unfortunately Yoffie devoted almost equal time in his state-of-Reform speech to attacking public policy proposals that would ease the burdens on financially strapped Jewish day schools and parents. He urged Jewish philanthropists to end their romance with day schools.
Particularly galling was Yoffie’s condemnation of the "naked self-interest" of those Jewish groups that support school vouchers to secure funding for yeshivos and day schools. That support, he averred, leaves him "ashamed and embarrassed."
Selfish is not exactly the first term that comes to mind when describing day school parents struggling under tuition bills of $30,000-$40,000 per year (and that’s after taxes, much of which goes to support public education.) Ignoring the burden of those Jewish heroes takes more than a little callousness.
If anyone is being selfish, it is those who support day school education in the abstract while fighting against every initiative to make that education accessible to more Jewish children. They would cheerily limit a day school education to those earning several hundred thousand dollars a year and/or who have 1.8 well-spaced children.
Yoffie’s emphasis on social policy over Jewish survival is emblematic of much of what is wrong with American Jewish leadership. The Reform movement worships at the Establishment’s Clause wall of separation between church and state as if it were the Western Wall, and has consistently adopted an absolutist position. Thus the movement opposes parental tuition tax credits, governmental aid for the secular components of religious schooling, and school voucher plans. (Interestingly, the strongest advocates for the latter have been inner city parents and educators, and such leading students of American public education as Diane Ravitch of Columbia.)
Yoffie doesn’t contest the premises of the following syllogism, just its conclusion: (1) All studies show that day school graduates – no matter what the denominational affiliation of the school – are far less likely to intermarry and far more likely to incorporate significant Jewish observance in their adult lives; (2) Almost every day school is struggling to remain financially solvent and many more Jewish parents would choose a Jewish education if they could afford it; (3) Therefore the Jewish community should support public policy initiatives that improve the financial viability of day schools to the extent consistent with the U.S. Constitution as interpreted by the Supreme Court.
While American Jewry shrinks dramatically from census to census, Yoffie remains far more pious than the Supreme Court on the separation of state and religion and frets about the future of public schools, which provided American Jews with a ladder "to affluence." Affluence, however, is not necessarily a Jewish value, and it certainly has not assured the future of American Jewry.
The concern with public education, which is today better funded than ever, while American Jewry disappears, reflects a failure to confront the gravity of the Jewish future. [It is of a piece with the la-la land sensibility of American Jewry that worries more about virtually non-existent anti-Semitism than about the intermarriage that is sealing its doom. (Indeed, one might argue that intermarriage and the disappearance of any identifiable Jewish existence, is American Jewry’s preferred way of combating anti-Semitism.)]
German Reformers saw those who insisted on maintaining a particularistic Jewish identity as threatening their quest to prove themselves loyal Germans worthy of emancipation. And today Yoffie takes pain to establish his credentials as the champion of American public education, and suggests that advocates of governmental support for Jewish day schools lack patriotism. Indeed the charge of anti-Americanism has been leveled at the day school movement from its inception by critics within the Jewish community.
Today, however, day schools serve nearly 200,000 Jewish children (nearly 40% of those receiving any Jewish education at all). Such schools convey to their students a message that their Jewish identity is paramount, not something peripheral at best. For that reason they provide the best hope for the future of American Jewry. Nevertheless such schools receive less than 5% of total Federation funding, and almost all are in severe financial straits.
Yoffie should, of course, do everything possible to improve Reform Sunday schools given that few Reform Jews will follow his example and send their children to day schools. But Hebrew and Sunday school did not become, in his words, the "castor oil of Jewish life," a rite of passage inflicted by (an ever smaller number of) Jewish parents on (an ever smaller number of) Jewish kids, by accident.
In the turn-of-the-century cheders of the Lower East side, described by Irving Howe in World of Our Fathers, poorly paid melamdim and their charges, who wanted to be outside playing stickball, confronted one another with mutual loathing. The situation was little different in my suburban Conservative Hebrew school. After seven years of thrice weekly lessons, I could haltingly read the prayers and knew less than 100 words. That Hebrew verbs have past and future tenses remained a secret to me. Yet even my paltry knowledge earned me the title "rabbi" among my friends who went to Reform Sunday schools.
The weaknesses of Sunday school and after school education are inherent – resentful students, incompetent teachers, and a lack of content. Yoffie is hoping to breathe life into a system with a hundred year record of failure.
It’s about time Jewish leaders recognized that their first duty is to the survival of a 3,500 year tradition and did everything possible to support those institutions dedicated to that task.