In a recent editorial, The Jewish Standard reminded us that communal educators and leaders must continue to address the tuition and economic crises with the same vigor and sense of urgency with which the issue was introduced some months back into the public arena. We couldn’t agree more.
We at the Orthodox Union’s Department of Day School and Educational Services are studying and addressing the devastating effects of the tuition and economic crises on Jewish communities and institutions around the United States. We can say with confidence that Bergen County is the scene of one of the most energetic, inspired, creative, substantive attempts to address the crisis, and the work being done here will have repercussions across the country.
In recent years, one of the most remarkable achievements and exciting developments on the Jewish scene has been the creation of the Kehillah Fund in Chicago, an eloquent example of what a small group of talented people with idealism, creativity, passion, and dedication can accomplish. The OU has been privileged in recent months to help export the model created and pioneered in Chicago to other Jewish communities around the United States.
Recently, Bergen County introduced its own version of the Kehillah Fund – its official name is Northern New Jersey Kehillot Investing in Day Schools, or NNJKIDS (www.nnjkids.org). In its first few weeks of existence, NNJKIDS has already raised a significant amount of money and enlisted the participation of an impressive percentage of the Jewish population of Bergen County.
NNJKIDS has been doubly blessed with wonderful program coordinators and volunteers who have been able to stand on the shoulders of the gracious visionary giants in Chicago. We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the dedication, enthusiasm, and professionalism of Bergen County’s talented congregational rabbis and day-school principals who helped launch this endeavor.
The congregational rabbis spearhead this campaign by introducing the project to their respective shuls, encouraging their congregants to participate. The program coordinators establish the infrastructure for collecting monies monthly via credit card or checking debit. A small group of advocates from each synagogue contacts members personally and enlists their participation. All monies collected are allocated to the local day schools based solely on the number of students they have.
While there is certainly a value in attempting to persuade families to give as much as they can, the greater victory is in enlisting universal participation, at whatever level of financial commitment families can afford, in accordance with the halachic ruling that “even those who collect tzedakah from communal funds are themselves obligated to give tzedakah.” The most important goal is 100 percent community-wide participation in the fund.
The Talmud tells of Rabbi Yehoshua ben Gamla. Prior to him, every family was charged with the responsibility of educating its own children. Yehoshua ben Gamla recognized that not every family is equipped to provide its children with a high-quality, substantive Torah education. Unwilling to allow any Jewish child to be deprived of a Torah education, he created a network of schools throughout the country; the Sages honor him as the one “who saved Torah for the Jewish people.”
This, in fact, is the conceptual foundation for NNJKIDS. Those who created and administer the fund and those who contribute to it are the ideological heirs of Yehoshua ben Gamla, who reminded the community that it bore the responsibility for the education of each and every Jewish child.
And that, in its profoundest sense, is exactly what NNJKIDS does: It sensitizes the entire community to assume responsibility for the educational institutions in our community. Those institutions must exist for the community to survive and thrive. Even if we don’t happen to have kids in the schools anymore, yet, or ever, the quality of our lives as committed Jews depends, in large part, on the existence of the excellent day schools in the community in which we live.
The schools in Bergen County are some of the greatest that halachic community has produced. If they survive and thrive, our community remains strong. If, God forbid, we allow them to falter or fail, our community in its entirety will not be far behind.
We are not foolish or naive: We recognize that, even with NNJKIDS, the lion’s share of the tuition burden remains with the parents. But, with the creation of NNJKIDS, the program designers and sponsors have, like Yehoshua ben Gamla, presided over a fundamental attitudinal shift by enlisting the aid of the community as a whole and reminding the community that Jewish education for every child is a communal – not familial – responsibility. This paradigm shift will, ultimately, prove to be the basis for any real long-term comprehensive response to the economic crises that confront us.
The NNJKIDS fund doesn’t just generate money; it creates achdut (unity), and it instills within each of us a shared sense of responsibility for our precious educational institutions. And that – far more than any amount of money – will guarantee our success, God willing.
We at the OU have been proud to play an advisory role in the creation of NNJKIDS, and pledge to continue our efforts – increase them, in fact – on behalf of this vitally important fund. Like its illustrious predecessor in Chicago, the impact of what is being done in with NNJKIDS will extend far beyond Bergen County. As Bergen County has been inspired by the Kehillah Fund of Chicago, Bergen County is, in turn, inspiring other communities through its creation of NNJKIDS.
The Jewish Standard is to be commended, too, for the important role it has played in advancing this initiative as well as in encouraging a thorough, balanced, ongoing public discussion of the systemic issues that have allowed our community to reach this crisis stage and the possible solutions. We agree wholeheartedly with the editorial by Josh Lipowsky that said we dare not become complacent about this all-important issue and allow it to fade from public discussion.
If you haven’t yet signed up to become a supporting member of NNJKIDS, we encourage you to do so today. A quick visit to www.nnjkids.org is all it will take.
The selfless men and women who have created, and now administer, the NNJKIDS fund – volunteers all – are working harder than ever throughout the summer. In the merit of that kind of communal concern for, and efforts on behalf of, His Torah and His children, we are confident that He will bless the Torah institutions of Bergen County and its advocates, and crown their efforts with success.
This is an abridged version of a piece that will be distributed on Shabbat in Bergen County synagogues.