A community’s shame

A community’s shame

We did it. Rabbis, community leaders, and parents all rallied together and saved the area’s only non-Orthodox high school for another year.

Maybe. This assumes that collectively we can somehow manage to raise $500,000 before the start of the school year in September. In the Orthodox world, that would be a given. Orthodox Jews put their institutions ahead of other communal concerns, with educational institutions at the top of the list. Non-Orthodox institutions cannot count on similar support from the people they serve, with educational institutions among the least supported.

With the exception of a handful of generous (but not unlimited deep-pocketed) donors such as Saul and Mary Sanders, Sy and Trudy Sadinoff, and David Brown, to whom the non-Orthodox community here owes a huge debt of gratitude, the arguably richest Jewish community in America utters a loud and defiant "Hell, no" when it comes to supporting Jewish education. This attitude cascades down to all levels of the non-Orthodox Jewish population. For the non-Orthodox, Jewish education is simply res non grata. This is true elsewhere, as well.

Do you want to build a new JCC or expand an old one? Overnight, many millions can be raised. A non-Jewish arts center wants to expand its facilities? Jewish donors will line up with checkbooks at the ready.

"Secular" Jewish causes abound, and many can find money in a minute. Most are worthy causes, to be sure, but none hold a candle to the sacred cause of Jewish education. Unless we educate the next generation of Jews, it will not be too long before we will not have a next generation of Jews outside the Orthodox world.

The other fund-raising pariah is the non-Orthodox synagogue, where the Jewish future also is an ever-current concern. It, too, is a place where donations are harder to come by than a midweek minyan. Yet in the pews are people who will not think twice about endowing college scholarships or building research labs.

In a sense, synagogues are a bit more fortunate than the non-Orthodox schools. There are more people who are more likely to donate to them than to the schools, mainly because some donors do not believe in segregated Jewish education. They recall the era when Jews were excluded from many institutions and now fervently believe that Jewish children should go to public schools. They argue that Jewish youth need to mingle with "the other" and a day-school education precludes that. Let the synagogues serve the Jewish needs of our youth, they say, obviously oblivious to the fact that the worst-funded educational programs are the ones synagogues run precisely to educate the Jewish children who do not attend day schools.

This attitude is lamentable. Before we send our children out into the world to mingle with "the other," we need to teach them what it means to be a Jew. More important, we need to teach them the role Jewish values must play in their contacts with the non-Jewish world. If we fail to teach them these things, then every dollar spent on supporting synagogues is a dollar tossed into the wind — because there will be no synagogues.

As it is, non-Orthodox synagogues are disappearing before our eyes. And the remaining ones have a limited future because — what a surprise — there are precious few young people who belong to them or attend their services and events. Contrast this to Orthodox synagogues that are teeming with young people of all ages happy to be there.

The bottom line is this: Non-Orthodox Judaism in America is not getting its message across. This is not because non-Orthodox Judaism in its various iterations has nothing legitimate to say or to offer, but because the interest of its constituents has not been significantly engage. For now, they are more concerned about whether their health club has the most up-to-date leg press than whether their great-grandchildren will still be Jews.

Where are the major donors who are willing to shell out the really big bucks to, say, keep Metropolitan Schechter alive? Ten million dollars on the table will guarantee that school’s future for at least five years, long enough, we would hope, to put it on its feet. Few, however, are convinced the community can raise a mere $500,000 so that the doors will open again for just another year. By contrast, the JCC on the Palisades set an ambitious $’6 million goal for its expansion and almost immediately announced $18 million in donations to kick off the campaign.

Why are synagogue after-school programs so poorly funded? Why are the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies and the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism always on hands and knees begging for a buck? Why are schools such as the Schechter school in Oakland always on the brink? Why is that the case even for a day school seemingly as successful as the Schechter school in New Milford?

The fault for this rests with the non-Orthodox failure to convey a commitment to Jewish learning and Jewish continuity.

The non-Orthodox community needs to get its priorities reorganized, with Jewish education at the top of the list. Maimonides, in his code of Jewish law, states bluntly: "If it does not employ teachers, the [community] deserves to be destroyed."

Indeed, Judaism holds teachers in highest regard. In Midrash Rabbah to Lamentations (second prologue), we read that Rabbi Ammi and Rabbi Assi were sent by Rabbi Yehudah Ha’nasi on an inspection tour of various communities, to see how they handled the education of their children.

"They came to a city and said to the people, ‘Bring us the guardians of the city.’ [The people] fetched the captain of the guard and the magistrate. The Rabbis exclaimed, ‘These [are not] the guardians of the city! They are its destroyers!’"

The guardians of a town, the Rabbis explained, are its teachers.

Every Jewish child should have the opportunity to receive a Jewish education. It is the job of every Jewish adult to assure that this education is available.

And it is the job of the non-Orthodox rabbinate to hammer home this message to our congregations. Not to do so will only exacerbate the problems facing our movements.

This Shavuot, the time of the giving of the Torah, is the perfect time to commit ourselves to this sacred task.