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Looking to thwart assimilation through Jewish and Israel education

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Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman recently speaking at the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Feb. 18, 2014 unveiled a radical proposal to completely overhaul world Jewry's approach Jewish education, that would solve many of the problems plaguing the North American Jewish community and the present system of Jewish education. Liberman called on the Israeli government and American Jewish communities to take a more active role funding Jewish education as the top "priority" to curb the "biggest threat" to "Jewish continuity," the assimilation trends the Pew Research Center survey published on the American Jewish community this past November.

The Pew Research Center's recent survey on American Jewry entitled "A Portrait of Jewish Americans" showed a growing a trend of American Jews identifying only culturally as Jews, but not religiously. What is even more troubling about the results is that this new trend is widely represented among the youngest American Jews, putting the future of the religion in peril in the United States. Liberman proclaimed that "these statistics demonstrate that the Jews of America are facing nothing less than a demographic catastrophe."

Intermarriage was identified as a major problem and threat according to the Pew Report, not only a myth of being an issue anymore. Since 2000, young Jews getting marrying, end up with a non-Jewish spouse by an overwhelming majority at 58 percent. A total of 44 percent of Jews are intermarried across all ages. Most of the intermarried Jews are coming from those who are Jews of no religion by 79 percent, and only 36 percent of Jews by religion tend to intermarry.

The survey also looked at Americans Jews views on Israel, with trends that show that among the more religious there is a greater attachment and support for Israel. The trends also demonstrated that older Jews are more attached than younger Jews, co-relating with religiosity. Support for Israel in all areas surveyed showed a similar trend, both relating to religiosity and age, with younger Jews more critical and less supportive of Israel, whereas in general the support and attachment was far less for Jews of no religion.

The startling results has prompted a larger conversation among American Jewish communal institutions about finding solution to curb the growing trends of assimilation and intermarriage among American Jews, one of the solutions discussed is through Jewish and Israel education.

The foreign minister introduced his two-pronged program aimed at combating assimilation and promoting "Jewish continuity" at Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. Liberman believes assimilation is Israel's "most pressing policy issue," not even Iran's nuclear weapons or the Palestinian peace talks ranks higher in Liberman;s opinion. The program would bring 3.5 million Jewish immigrants a year to Israel and provide each year $365 million for Jewish education in North America.

Although the numbers seem inflated, money needs to be infused in Jewish education in North America, the rising cost of tuition is astronomical and the main reason Jewish parents are thwarted from enrolling their children in Jewish schools. Jewish education now costs between $10,000 to $20,000 a year or even more, with prices varying according to grade level and location. Although there are some subsidies for parents that fit the requirement for the financial aid, the stigma often attached to acquiring those subsidies, prevents from parents pursuing those options. Although there have been some attempts at a solution to ease the burden without the stigma, no permanent resolution has been determined to really ease the costs.

Liberman addressed the high costs; "Today, unfortunately, Jewish children are being kept from the Jewish classrooms because of the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of Jewish education in the U.S. It cannot be, it should not be, that a Jewish child will not be able to receive a good Jewish education because of financial reasons." The foreign minister dramatized the ramifications of the high cost of Jewish education for future generations. FM Liberman stated; "If this situation persists, we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two." A reference that eluded that assimilation is the major 21st century threat.

Even among those that can afford the Jewish schools, many opt against them because private preparatory schools have higher educational standards. The standard disparity is also linked to the rising cost of Jewish education, and lack of funds, which has caused Jewish schools throughout the continent to close, because of shrinking enrollments with not enough funds to continue to operate. Liberman concluded that except for the most religious, very few Jewish families choose a Jewish education anymore, Liberman stated; "Sadly this is also reflective of the general Jewish population in places like the U.S., where only around 12% of Jewish children attend Jewish schools, and when the Orthodox children are removed from the equation; it drops down to no more than a few per cent."

The foreign minister recounted that after years of the Diaspora donating to Israel, the attention has to be turned towards helping the American Jewish community; "We believe it is now time to concentrate on the challenges facing your own communities, especially those emanating from the dangerous trends in the Jewish community demonstrated in the recent survey."

According to Liberman the only way to the curb the depressing statistics about assimilation and intermarriage from the Pew survey is through Jewish education, declaring; "It is my strongest belief that the antidote to this rising assimilation, intermarriage and disengagement is education."

Continuing he expressed the tools Jewish children need to remain involved in the religion throughout the lives, recounting; "In order to prevent this tragedy, all Jewish children should have the capacity and capability to attend a school where they will receive an education that will teach them about Jewish history, values and traditions, to treasure their Jewish identity and to have a strong attachment to Israel and Zionism. We need to ensure that Jewish schools will be among the best in the world."

Liberman delineated his proposed plan, which differed from the education system already in place, explaining; "We need to create a global network of Jewish schools that are superior in standard to the American and international school network. Only through this effort can we ensure our endurance as a people."

In addition to supporting Jewish and Israel identity building programs such as Birthright Israel and Masa, Liberman thinks Jewish and Zionist education has to take a central place, declaring; "the Government of the State of Israel, would like to assist in creating a program which ensures that any and every Jewish child will be able to receive a high-level Jewish and Zionist education."

The lofty proposal involves a great amount of funds; Liberman indicated the amount of funds the Israeli government would provide for the major project, and thinks the North American Jewish community needs to match the funds for the proposal to work to reach its maximum potential. Libermen made it clear; "I believe that the Israeli Government should contribute $1 million for every day in a calendar year, making a total of $365 million, which we hope you, the Jewish community in the Diaspora, will match for this educational project. This cannot become just another small project and needs to be the central point of partnership between us."

The foreign minister believes that the funds should be part of Israel's annual $100 billion budget, and that Jewish education has also to be a primary concern for American Jewish federations and a funding "priority" for their budgets as well; "These funds will be found in our budgets, it is just a matter of prioritizing Jewish education above all other issues. This must become the most pressing issue on the global Jewish agenda."

FM Liberman indicated the proposal is a specific initiative his party, Israel Beytenu is championing and working towards, and he hopes the next Israeli budget will provide the necessary funds. Liberman further explained; "The essence of the partnership between the Israeli Government and Jewish leaders in the Diaspora should revolve around ensuring that together we contribute $2 million per day to save the Jewish people. I hope that when we create the next budget, one of its cornerstones will be the allocation of $365 million for this program. This is something that my party, Yisrael Beytenu, will be very active in promoting."

To add to the education initiative, Liberman declared that immigration to Israel has to rise dramatically from the current rates; "However, the creation of an international network of Jewish schools is only the first part of my vision. In addition, my goal is to bring an additional 3.5 million Jews from the Diaspora in the next ten years so that the Jewish population in Israel will exceed 10 million."

Although some of the statistics and funding allotment have been questioned for far exceeding the realm of what is possible, and not being properly researched, the general idea behind boosting Jewish education however, is one that should be explored. The most skepticism was reserved for the foreign minister's plan increase of Jewish immigration from 19,500 olim, the official number from the Absorption Ministry for 2013 to 3.5 million each year. Most thought it is impossible unrealistic goal given to the current immigration rate, and resulted in many Jewish officials, and Sergio DellaPergola, an expert in Jewish demography to not take Liberman's proposal seriously.

Although the funding number at $1 million each day seems high, Jewish officials are more hopeful about the increase in any funding for Jewish education to be critical on that front. Jerry Silverman, the President and CEO of Jewish Federations of North America issued a statement about being open to Liberman's plan; "The grand task of maintaining a vibrant Jewish people around the world must be jointly shouldered by both the Israeli government and global Jewish communities. Jewish Federations have already committed ourselves to participating in the Government of Israel's World Jewry Initiative, and Jewish Federations look forward to explore, with the Foreign Minister, further ideas to enhance Diaspora Jewish education in partnership with the State of Israel."

The Jewish Agency for Israel responded positively to both the education and immigration initiatives Liberman presented, stating; "the Jewish Agency views aliya and Jewish identity as being closely intertwined, and strengthening both lies at the very core of our work. We welcome any initiative to strengthen aliya and Jewish identity around the world and are pleased to see that these issues are being discussed at the highest levels of the Israeli government."

The Israel government is already sponsoring one program aimed at strengthening ties between the Diaspora and Israel entitled "Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative," and is the brain child of Economy, Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett, who is also the chairman of the right leaning and religious Bayit Yehudi Party. The initiative is a "joint project of the Prime Minister's Office, the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry and the Jewish Agency" compromising "formal and informal education" including established programs such as Taglit-Birthright and Masa, and was recently envisaged and introduced at the Jewish Federations of North America General Assembly conference in November 2013 as a direct response to the Pew survey.

Bennett commenting on the "Government of Israel and World Jewry Joint Initiative" in a recent interview with the American Jewish Telegraph Agency after the plan's draft report was released, stated; "What worked in terms of Israel-Jewish Diaspora relations doesn't work anymore. Instead of viewing the Diaspora as a wallet, the new objective is keeping Jews Jewish and connected to Israel even if they don't make aliyah."

As the leader of Yisrael Beytenu party Liberman offered an entirely new alternative education initiative increasing Diaspora-Israel ties. Many at the Conference of Presidents thought that the World Jewry Joint Initiative was what Liberman would be speaking about. One attendee commented; "We thought he was talking about the Prime Minister's Initiative. But then we realized this was something completely new, and that they hadn't talked to anybody about it or coordinated it with anybody."

Right after Liberman's speech even a spokesman for the Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry believed Liberman's proposal would be part of their own program; "[Liberman's proposal] would be a part of the World Jewry Joint Initiative. The idea of $1m. a day, or $365m. a year, rounds out to about NIS 1b. a year." That is the Israeli government's budget for the program, while the Jewish federations have to provide double the amount in return, amounting to "NIS 2b. annually, or roughly $570 million."

Liberman's spokesman Tzachi Moshe however, responded that it is a separate program and there was no coordination with Jerusalem and Diaspora Affairs Ministry in the announcement, Moshe clarified; "there isn't any plan. It's a vision. Just like Zionism started with a vision." However, the programs could merge in the future.

The foreign minister expressed that "We need a strong response to the looming demographic catastrophe and we need direct investment in our Jewish youth to ensure that they remain Jewish and acquire the tools to remain part of a vibrant Jewish community." Liberman also stated that proposal he outlined was at this point a "vision," rather than a concrete plan; "I would like to accomplish this vision that I have laid out today and not merely say that I have a dream and then walk away happy that my words made some headlines."

Despite the criticism, FM Liberman also acknowledged in his speech that his proposal seemed "unrealistic" he believes the modern state of Israel sounded the same way over a 100 years ago, and the importance of his project requires that that it become a reality. Liberman optimistically concluded; "I know this might sound unrealistic to some, and others will say that it is merely a slogan. However, I say: 'If you will it, it is no dream.' This has been the rallying call for the attainment of so-called unrealistic goals for over a hundred years and we have consistently managed to achieve the impossible, especially when our future depended on it."

An informed Jewish youth will become far more active in their religion and remain in the fold, and revising Jewish education is a long time coming. Without infusing high amount of funding, the rising the cost of Jewish education will ensure the disappearance of the only way to completely pass on Jewish values on to the next generation, especially with the increasingly lax Jewish observance in the homes and almost complete disconnect between those who intermarry and their children with formal ritual observance.

Sometimes however, Jewish education does not help enough, without the values taught being brought home or strengthened by the actions of parents in the home. Even children who have gone through fine Jewish education systems still do end up inter-marrying. Still, at this point it is the only optional defense to curb assimilation in North America and the Diaspora in general and everything must be done revitalize Jewish education.

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Bonnie K. Goodman is the Editor of the Academic Buzz Network, a series of political, academic & education blogs which includes History Musings: History, News & Politics. She has a BA in History & Art History & a Masters in Library and Information Studies, both from McGill University, and has done graduate work in Jewish history at Concordia University as part of the MA in Judaic Studies program. Her specializations are Northern American Jewish news, Israeli news & politics, and Jewish history, religion and cultural news.

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