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Let's Stop Pretending
David Zwiebel

The jig is up. Rabbi Eric Yoffie has us figured out, and the time has come to `fess up.

Delivering his keynote sermon at the UAHC convention earlier this month, Rabbi Yoffie attacked supporters of school vouchers who "claim that their goal is to help the poor and improve public education by creating competition" when their "real aim is to secure funding for their own schools." And, the rabbi revealed, it's not only Protestant and Roman Catholic groups whose pro-voucher stance is founded on parochial interests, but also (gasp!) "Jewish organizations that have supported vouchers, or remain silent, hoping to secure funding for yeshivas and Jewish day schools."

Well, all right, we'll admit it (though we've never pretended otherwise):

The organization I represent (Agudath Israel of America) supports vouchers primarily because we think they will help Jewish schools and Jewish families. We also think they will help other segments of the American population, especially the inner-city poor who desperately seek but are unable to afford an alternative to the failing public schools to which their children are consigned. But, to be perfectly frank, that consideration is only of secondary significance in our admittedly self-interested calculation.

Indeed, if the factor of self-interest were removed - if all Jewish schools were on firm fiscal footing, if all Jewish parents who would want to enroll their children in Jewish schools could afford to do so - we might well disengage from the entire voucher debate.

But the reality is that many Jewish schools are struggling mightily - sometimes unsuccessfully - to meet skyrocketing budgets. Some of the most outstanding teachers are being driven away because paychecks are skimpy and late. Facilities are often inadequate, basic maintenance and repairs frequently neglected, educational materials in short supply, resource rooms and other special education services few and far between - all for a shortage of funds. Worst of all, despite extremely generous school scholarship policies, all too many children are being turned away because of their parents' inability to pay tuition.

Frankly, if we had our druthers, we would much prefer not having to look to government to help address these problems. Our first choice would be to rely on Jewish communal sources of support for what is, after all, a precious Jewish communal resource. Unfortunately, while Federations across the United States have supported Jewish schools to some extent, the reality remains that the schools continue to be woefully under-funded.

And so self-interest is very much a factor in considering the question of vouchers. If we stand accused of formulating our positions on educational policy with a primary focus on how they might help our choking schools, and how they might impact on parents seeking a Jewish education for their children, we plead guilty.

The rabbi is "embarrassed and ashamed when [he] hear[s] such arguments coming from Jews" - because, after all, "the public schools were the ladder that we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, and how dare we deny it to others." However, we wear our commitment to Jewish schools as a badge of Jewish pride, not shame. And we question whether public school education is as closely aligned with Jewish interests as this rabbi thinks.

It is not difficult to understand why so many of our parents and grandparents embraced the ideal of American public education. They arrived in this country, having escaped persecution, pogroms and even Holocaust, determined to ensure that life in America would be different. Their children, they resolved, would be part of the great American mainstream, fully integrated in American society, shedding once and for all the burden of being outsiders. Their children would attend school with children of other faiths, develop friendships with children of other faiths, and eventually share equally in all the wonderful opportunities America had to offer.

The plan succeeded - but it succeeded too well. Jews in the United States have today become accepted in virtually every nook and cranny of American society. But immersion in the American melting pot, whose fires were stoked at the doors of the public schools, has robbed the large bulk of American Jewry of the religious identity and heritage that is its most precious possession. With intermarriage rates soaring, with so many Jews feeling entirely disconnected from their roots and heritage, Jews in the United States are, G-d forbid, at risk of disappearing.

We stand at a moment in American Jewish history when the crisis in Jewish continuity is broadly acknowledged as the single largest problem facing our community. What should be causing us embarrassment and shame - and, frankly, sleepless nights - is the sorry state of Jewish knowledge and Jewish commitment, and the prospect that our children or grandchildren may grow up without any sense of meaningful Jewish identity.

If public schooling was the antidote to the problems our forebears faced when they arrived in this country, religious schooling is the antidote to the problems we face today. As the Louis Guttman Israel Institute of Applied Social Research concluded in a 1993 study, "Jewish day schools are the best vehicle for implementing Jewish involvement and are the only type of Jewish education that stands against the very rapidly growing rate of intermarriage" in the United States.

To his credit, the rabbi does appear to recognize the essential link between Jewish education and Jewish continuity; he used his convention platform to call on his movement to establish new day schools and strengthen after-school "Talmud Torah" programs for public school children, calling religious schools "critical to our future." Yet despite that recognition, he rails against Jewish groups whose position on vouchers is motivated principally by concern for that very Jewish future.

To be sure, Americans of all faiths have a stake in improving education for all children. Reasonable people can differ whether expanding parental choice through vouchers will advance or inhibit that cause. But whatever the outcome of that debate, let's not lose sight of the fact that our most urgent Jewish priority today must be the strengthening of our own educational institutions.

And let's stop pretending that there's anything shameful about Jewish groups formulating public policy positions with a focus on Jewish interests - especially when what's at stake is nothing less than Jewish survival.


[David Zwiebel is Agudath Israel of America's executive vice president for government and public affairs. This article first appeared in the January 4, 2002 issue of the Forward.]



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