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Fisher Calls for New Ideas, Approaches to Jewish Education

In a broad-searching overview of the future of the American Jewish community, Max M. Fisher, president of the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (CJF), observing that the effect of today’s social climate on youth has “brought home to every thinking American Jew how heavy are our casualties on the Jewish front,” signaled the vital role that must be played by Jewish education in preserving Jewish continuity and survival. In a major address last night at the 71st commencement exercise at Gratz College where he was awarded an honorary degree of Doctor of Humane Letters, Fisher, while noting that Jewish education is now on the “top level of priorities” of Federations and Welfare Funds, nonetheless called for “fresh and revitalized approaches toward making the past more meaningful to Jewish youth” while reaffirming Judaism’s viable heritage for tomorrow. Fisher prescribed “exciting ideas and promising programs as first steps toward enlarging and improving Jewish education in America,” and as vital to securing the survival of American Jewry. He urged that “we must put a high value on Jewish survival, not only because of what we are–but because of what we can yet give.”

At the urging of students and young people, Fisher noted; many communities are taking a fresh look at their overall education programs–responsive to their critique which called on communities “to strengthen what is good, replace that which is bad, to fill in gaps and to find and test new programs and methods.” Concurrently, he added, “instead of leaving Jewish education as something isolated, the attempt is being made to relate it more to the quality of Jewish life. Instead of stressing only classroom education, we are addressing ourselves to all those Jewish influences which can shape the lives of our children and our people–formal and informal, here and in Israel.” While much has and is being done, much more remains, Fisher told his audience. Of paramount importance, he cited the “vital need to enlarge and improve both the recruiting and the training of administrators and teachers in Jewish education. Everything we do will be only an exercise in futility, unless we have administrators and teachers of the highest quality and in sufficient number.” Fisher observed that over the past 10 years “Federations and Welfare Funds have increased their allocations for Jewish education 76 percent–more than for any other field of Jewish service. Cities like Philadelphia and Chicago are already allocating $1 million or more annually for education.”

Reflecting on the present situation in America as it relates to American Jewry, particularly the youth, Fisher observed that what until recently was an “open society,” now “has become something else–the turbulent society. Every day,” he added, “we seem to count vast losses among our young people as they flee their heritage, or just drift away. They look for meaning in their lives and never guess that meaning is available–if only they knew their Judaism.” In contrast to those segments of Jewish youth who have neglected their “Jewish birthright,” Fisher reported that a significant development on many campuses across the country was the emergence of the student who has “suddenly recognized that his search for freedom and justice is the same search that has been at the center of the Jewish experience for four thousand years.” The honorary degree, presented to Fisher by Gratz president Dr. Elazar Goelman, cited the CJF president’s years of dedicated service to the overall community in general and to the Jewish community in particular as a communal lay leader, philanthropist and presidential advisor. Also honored was Dr. Solomon Grayzel, professor of Jewish history at Dropsie University, author of the classic study, “A History of the Jews” and past editor of the Jewish Publication Society of America.

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