Mandel Commission on Jewish Education Releases Study Recommending Overhaul

Following two years of study, the Commission on Jewish Education in North America has concluded that the current Jewish education system is beset by serious problems, and has recommended several strengthening steps, including raising $25 million to $50 million in funds.

The commission also created a new organization — the Council on Initiatives in Jewish Education — to implement its recommendations.

After two years of digesting commissioned reports and testimony from Jewish education professionals, sociologists and consultants — at a cost of approximately $1 million — the commission cited deficiencies in funding, communal support and professionalism in Jewish education.

Pointing out that Jewish education in the United States and Canada costs about $1.2 billion a year and employs some 30,000 educators, most of whom work part time at thousands of Jewish institutions, the commission’s report noted that close to 60 percent of the 1 million Jewish children of school age in North America do not receive any form of formal Jewish education.

Only about 40 percent of the Jewish children in the United States, and about 55 percent of those in Canada, are currently enrolled in any Jewish school, and the problem becomes far more pronounced once kids are past Bar Mitzvah age.

The report noted problems including “sporadic participation; deficiencies in educational content; an underdeveloped profession of Jewish education; inadequate community support and the absence of a research function to monitor results, allocate resources and plan improvements.”

PERFORMING A PIVOTAL ROLE

It concluded that “a massive program will have to be undertaken in order to revitalize Jewish education so that it is capable of performing a pivotal role in the meaningful continuity of the Jewish people.”

The commission a group of 44 top educators, philanthropists and community officials, was assembled in 1988 by Morton Mandel, a Cleveland businessman and philanthropist who served four years as chairman of the Jewish Agency’s Jewish Education Committee beginning in 1984.

The group boasts participants from a range of organizations, including the presidents and chancellors of the major seminaries from across the denominational spectrum, and some of North America’s leading Jewish philanthropists.

They include: Rabbis Alfred Gottschalk, Arthur Green, Norman Lamm and Ismar Schorsch; Mona Riklis Ackerman, Charles Bronfman, Lester Crown, Eli Evans, Max Fisher and Ludwig Jesselson.

Two areas of Jewish education were singled out for specific recommendations: building the Jewish education profession and mobilizing community support for Jewish education.

Expanding professional training institutions, raising the salaries and benefits of educational personnel, and focusing on recruiting from new sources were some of the suggestions made by the commission.

A Jewish Education Corps made up of outstanding college students, the commission says, would be a rich source of talent.

Modeled on the Peace Corps, young people would commit to a number of years of part-time teaching and, as they continue their general studies, would receive special training as well as remuneration.

Another source of new talent could be corporate, legal and arts professionals who want to make a career change.

More support from the community, which would lead to more funding for and participation in educational programs, should be developed by recruiting community leaders, according to the commission, as well as working to change attitudes toward Jewish education at the local level.

MIXED REVIEWS

The commission’s work received mixed reviews from Jewish education professionals, some of whom felt that the recommendations themselves were not particularly interesting or new.

“I don’t think it required two years and this much money to get to this point,” said one education specialist familiar with the commission.

It was Mandel’s connections as a philanthropist, some suggested, that got the commission off the ground at all, and which may make the council a worthwhile endeavor.

As a philanthropist, Mandel was able to bring together the heads of Jewish organizations with divergent ideologies, and the heads of important North American foundations with an interest in Jewish education.

Educators said the influence of the Council on Initiatives in Jewish Education could have positive impact in the long term, by catalyzing interest in, and the funding of, rebuilding Jewish education’s weak spots.

“A lot has been going on beneath the surface in terms of building the relationships that will make this initiative successful,” said Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, and a senior policy adviser to the commission.

The Council on Initiatives, created to implement the Mandel Commission’s ideas, has defined several tasks for itself: to “advocate, initiate, connect, research, synergize and energize.”

While these may seem little more than fashionable buzzwords, they, more than any substantive educational suggestions, are the council’s strength, educators say.

ANNUAL $500,000 BUDGET

The body is to have a small staff of three or four professionals, currently led by acting director Stephen Hoffman, who is also executive vice president of the Jewish Community Federation of Cleveland.

The annual $500,000 budget comes from several foundations, including the Mandel Associated Foundations.

The council will work through already-established organizations like JESNA, the Jewish Community Centers Association of North America, the Council of Jewish Federations and the seminaries to evaluate existing programs and implement new ones.

“This small group will work with existing institutions to strengthen them,” Mandel explained, “By pushing, kicking, gouging and scratching, when necessary.”

Mandel’s effort has already sparked some community efforts; about 10 cities around the country have initiated local versions of the commission’s evaluation of the state of educational quality.

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