JESNA: Don’t cut Jewish education


The President of JESNA, Donald Sylvan, weighs in with this Op-Ed in reaction to the spate of funding cuts in Jewish education.

At JESNA, we advocate for quality Jewish education. We do this because it is our responsibility and because it is our privilege. We do it out of love for the richness of the tradition that we have inherited and we do it out of fear, because we know that Jewish learning is the single most effective response the Jewish community can offer against the dangers of continued erosion, ignorance, and assimilation. The link between Jewish literacy and Jewish identity is strong and proven and leads inexorably to the link between Jewish identity and Jewish behaviors of all types. If we care about Jewish continuity, then we must act to strengthen and enhance Jewish education on all levels. Period.

What does that mean, though, in these very difficult and painful economic times? For too many communities, we fear, Jewish education has been an easy target for extreme budget cutting, rather than strategic measures that cut costs without destroying capacity. We have watched in disbelief as entire networks and years of cumulative progress created and supported by central agencies for Jewish education have been swept away. We understand the terrible pressures communities face today and the competing needs they seek to meet, but we cannot remain silent in the face of one-dimensional reactions to these complex challenges.

National organizations like JESNA and central agencies and bureaus of Jewish education act as a hub-and-spoke mechanism to generate value for the communities we serve – providing higher quality programs and greater economic efficiencies for local day schools, congregations, alternative supplementary programs. JESNA is unique among Jewish education organizations operating in North America in that our primary mission is to strengthen Jewish communities as a whole, rather than focusing only a specific venue or demographic, and the local central agencies are our natural partners, with energy and ideas flowing both ways between us. Together, we seek economies of scale, leverage points that maximize effectiveness, and workable remedies for educators, schools, camps, and congregations, so that the whole for every community is greater than the sum of its parts.

Because of our 27-year history of service to local communities and a remarkable web of relationships in which we take great pride, we believe we have a unique perspective on the role and value of local central agencies for Jewish education. At their best, central agencies bring a much-needed dimension to their communities — straddling differing cultures, dealing with on-the-ground challenges in local institutions, and implementing change in ways that complement a Federation’s strengths. When Federations and their central agencies are aligned, in both vision and planning, both learners and communities are better served.

At its best, these relationships and the programs and consultations that flow out of them represent the most effective kind of long-term investment we can make to ensure a healthy, thriving, rich Jewish community. We recognize and respect, in these difficult economic times, the need to work with Federations, philanthropists and agency leaders to bring down costs in Jewish education as in every aspect of our communal endeavor. But we also know that this is, first and foremost, a time to focus on first principles and core missions. Jonathan Sarna recently wrote about the consequences suffered after the Great Depression, when our leaders allowed the existing infrastructure – bureaus of Jewish education, schools, and teachers – to be razed…and it took two generations for our communities to recover. We can learn from their mistakes. We must preserve that which we most value as a people, and that must begin with the agencies and institutions that provide and improve Jewish education.

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