Education cuts are hasty and shortsighted

By Gil Troy, Canadian Jewish News, 6-10-09


In July, 2007, amid much fanfare, the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education became the Centre for Enhancement of Jewish Education, widely called the Mercaz – Hebrew for “centre.”“The name says what the priorities are,” the Mercaz chair Lou Greenbaum exulted. This spring, less than two years later and amid much less fanfare, the Mercaz was abruptly downsized and thus marginalized, shedding at least 10 full-time jobs.

What happened in Toronto is happening throughout the Jewish world. The last two decades’ gains in Jewish education and identity-building are disappearing as quickly as people’s net worths have plummeted. The legendary Boston Board of Jewish Education recently lost 80 per cent of its funding and will likely close. Birthright Israel, perhaps the most successful Jewish program of the 21st century, has turned away thousands of applicants this year because of limited funds.

These cutbacks are dangerous. Capitalism is cyclical – economic busts are usually followed by economic booms – but education and identity-building are more linear. Opportunities missed are rarely recovered. Children uneducated frequently remain ignorant. Young people turned off are rarely turned back on. Jewish leaders in Toronto and elsewhere can’t afford to be shortsighted. We must continue investing in education and outreach programs that foster Jewish pride and knowledge.

During the last two decades, Jewish education and identity-building boomed. Philanthropic visionaries such as Charles Bronfman, Michael Steinhardt and Lynn Schusterman made funding Israel trips, initiating teen programs, and even building Jewish day schools sexy.

They understood – as did many other generous donors and passionate professionals – that anti-Semitism doesn’t pose the greatest threat to this generation of thoroughly North Americanized Jews that it did to the immigrant generation. In fact, Jews today risked being loved to death by intermarriage, especially after having been bored to tears by so many initial encounters in synagogues, Jewish schools, and youth groups. The writer Leon Wieseltier adds that this generation’s great crime is not intermarriage but ignorance – most are extremely educated in secular subjects and appallingly uninformed Jewishly.

These insights – backed by sobering demographic studies – galvanized the community. Birthright Israel, which has brought more than 120,000 18-to-26-year-olds on free 10-day trips to Israel, has been the flagship program, generating the most buzz. But Birthright’s success reflected a broader reorientation toward education and identity building, accompanied by massive investments in teachers, teacher training, curricula, programs, infrastructure and central educational agencies such as the Mercaz.

I recall that in Montreal, as we planned our own massive, ambitious “Gen J” program to invest in our kids’ future, Toronto’s 2007 launch of the Mercaz inspired us – and made us feel a tad inadequate. We wondered whether our community could mobilize similar support for Jewish education. At the risk of feeding the Toronto-Montreal rivalry – although all of us should compete regarding who cares most about Jewish education and identity – so far Montreal has kept Jewish education front and centre, despite the economic downturn.

In fairness, Toronto continues to lead North America in providing tuition assistance, fostering quality Jewish day schools, and identity building. Still, shrinking the Mercaz is a big blow. Boards of Jewish education such as the Mercaz serve essential roles in professionalizing teachers, coaching administrators, providing quality control, nurturing reforms and upholding city-wide standards.

“I have always felt that the Mercaz did very important work and made significant contributions to Jewish education in Toronto,” Prof. Martin Lockshin of York University told me via e-mail. “They were, for example, indispensable for us at York in making our Jewish teacher education program work. They also provided indispensible services to many day schools and many teachers, particularly new teachers. I am very worried about how this gap will be filled. From conversations that I have had, I sense that my concerns are shared by many respected educators here in Toronto.”

The financial crisis is forcing Jewish communities worldwide to clarify their priorities, abandon unnecessary projects and focus on initiatives that work. Such retrenchment, while always painful and involuntary, can be constructive, resulting in more focused and effective communities. But hasty and thoughtless cutbacks can be particularly destructive, dooming this generation to ignorance and apathy.

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