A new year, a new opportunity

A new year, a new opportunity

A new school year is upon us, and once again, it begins with huge uncertainties:

• How will parents afford the ever-climbing tuitions our day schools charge, not to mention some of those “unofficially required” extras (“expected” donations, journal ads, and so forth)?

• How will financially strapped synagogues meet the educational needs of their afterschool students?

• How will the community as a whole live up to its obligation to provide a first-class Jewish education – in day school and afterschool, both are deserving – to every child who seeks it, no matter his or her parents’ ability to pay?

These questions and others like them have sat high up on the communal agenda for a very long time now, but little progress is ever reported. Part of the problem, clearly, is the bifurcated nature of our community.

That we are near a crisis stage is obvious, especially in the non-Orthodox segments of our northern New Jersey community. In recent years, we have seen the closing of a school in Rockland County to which a number of area students traveled each school day. This came just a few years after the failure of a Solomon Schechter high school in Bergen County, and last year’s discontinuance of the Bergen Academy of Reform Judaism (BARJ) after-school program for eighth- through 12th-graders.

In the past, sectarianism, pure and simple, has tied the hands of some communal leaders, including local rabbis of all stripes. Some – thankfully, nowhere near all – Reform rabbis have argued that what happened in day schools was an Orthodox or Conservative concern, and not something for a broader communal involvement.

Efforts to save the BARJ program by merging it with the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies also failed to materialize. In that case, some Conservative rabbis had concerns about their young congregants fraternizing with patrilineally descended Jewish teenagers from Reform or Reconstructionist synagogues.

While there is cooperation at some levels between day schools in our area – there are so many of various shades of ideology, including a seemingly growing list of Orthodox day schools and yeshivot and two Conservative day schools – there is so much more that could be accomplished. That, however, would require breaking down ideological barriers, both within the various Orthodox streams and then between those streams and the non-Orthodox world.

The Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey designated this year as one of study to see how best to spend the limited education dollars it has available to allocate. We applaud the foresight and the effort. We would like to offer our suggestion: Create and fully empower a Board of Jewish Education in our area along the lines of the BJE of Metropolitan Chicago.

“The BJE is mission critical to the success of Jewish education in Chicago,” says its website. “We are the starting point in the educational progression of Jewish children. A strong Jewish preschool experience moves families to affiliate and continue their children’s Jewish education in either synagogues or day schools. Once they are in school, our children need to be inspired by quality Jewish educators, and the BJE is at the forefront of training synagogue and day school educators. We recognize that a child’s parent is his or her most influential Jewish teacher, so parent education is also part of the BJE portfolio. Special needs Jewish education has been underserved, and so the BJE is stepping up to provide resources and support there. The teenage years present a wholly different set of challenges, and the BJE is rising to meet that challenge as well. What sets the BJE apart is our awareness of Jewish educational needs as they develop and our ability to quickly and professionally respond to those needs.”

The BJE of Metropolitan Chicago is very active and involved, and, say Chicagoans in the know, really is “mission critical to the success of Jewish education” in the Windy City and environs. Yet it almost disappeared in the early 1990s. How it was saved and what it has achieved are lessons for us here in northern New Jersey.

Schools in our area would not be required to be a part of the BJE we propose, but schools that seek allocations from the communal coffers would have to be full and equal participants.

No principal, no headmaster, no board president, no synagogue rabbi wants to relinquish any degree of control to a third party. If the very real problems facing Jewish education are to be resolved, however, there is no choice.

Nothing less than the Jewish future is at stake here.