Should Jews support public funding for day schools

NEW YORK — There are increasing signs that the organized Jewish community is inching toward at least reconsidering its long-sacred policy of opposing any breach in the separation of church and state. The issue: funding Jewish education.

Until now, the community, with the exception of some elements of the Orthodox, has opposed any government assistance to religious schools or to families who send their children to these schools. The consensus has been that church-state separation helps protect us as a minority in an overwhelmingly Christian society, which is why many Jewish organizations have come out against vouchers. Any breach in the wall would weaken American Jewry or the public school system, or strengthen the Christian right, or impose government influence on the curriculum of Jewish day schools.

But some of our most thoughtful communal leaders are questioning these suppositions. They argue that the need to improve Jewish education is vital if we are to survive as a people in this century. They maintain that church-state separation need not be total and that the costs of Jewish education are so enormous that some form of government funding is needed.

This sea change in thinking is underscored by the fact that a recent day-long conference here on Jewish education and public policy was convened by the American Jewish Committee, once the bastion of the liberal Jewish establishment. But times have changed, and in December the AJCommittee issued a statement calling on the community to step up its financial support for Jewish education on all levels, from day schools to afternoon Hebrew schools to summer camps and informal programs. It suggested establishing a communal endowment fund to provide per-student subsidies for quality Jewish education.

Much of the discussion at the conference focused on funding Jewish day schools. Once the exclusive purview of the Orthodox community, these schools are now recognized widely as the most effective means of ensuring Jewish continuity.

The day-school movement has grown dramatically in recent years, particularly with the creation of a number of pluralistic community high schools. There are about 210,000 students in day schools and yeshivas around the country, though about 80 percent of Jewish youngsters do not attend such schools.

With tuition generally ranging from about $7,000 a year per child to more than $15,000, the day shcools are inaccessible for many families. What's more, many of these schools are in dire financial straits, unable to pay competitive salaries for teachers.

This crisis for day schools led George Hanus to start a national grassroots effort several years ago, encouraging every Jew in America to leave 5 percent of his or her wealth in an endowment to a Jewish school. Speaking at the conference, the Chicago businessman said Jewish education must be our highest priority and the 5 percent gift should be seen as a voluntary tax to that end.

While applauding Hanus' commitment and approach, others argued that the cost involved was too great. Jack Wertheimer, a professor at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary, said that providing even a modest Jewish communal stipend of $2,000 a year for each child now in day school would amount to $420 million. That would require an endowment of more than $4 billion, a far greater sum than the current endowments of all U.S. Jewish federations. And the $2,000 stipend would "barely make a dent on family budgets," given the cost of tuition, Wertheimer said.

"If we are truly serious about day school education, the organized Jewish community must reconsider the role of government funding," he said, since the community alone "cannot muster the resources, despite the fine talk to the contrary."

He argued that day schools and other private schools offer quality education and provide a service to the state by teaching general subjects. What's more, he suggested that American Jewish resistance to government funding is based more on fear and close-mindedness than on the current situation.

John Ruskay, the top professional at the UJA-Federation of New York, renewed his call for strengthening a wide range of institutions "where most marginal Jews encounter Jewish life," from synagogues to summer camps. On a personal note, Ruskay said, "It is time to seriously reconsider" the "extension of public funding in Jewish day schools."

Noting that the separation of church and state has not been undermined by the state's funding needy children in parochial schools with transportation, lunch or special education, Ruskay wondered why such funding could not include "food services, physical education, guidance, clerical support, maintenance of facilities and even reading and math."

While calling for increased communal spending for Jewish education, Ruskay agreed with Wertheimer's thesis. He said that "only public funding has the capacity to enable the quantum leap that is needed to both reduce financial barriers to participation in Jewish day schools and to substantially raise the quality of Jewish day schools throughout the system."

As the day went on, some of the speakers at the conference insisted there was no dissonance between Judaism and American society while others suggested Jews need to be different to survive. So for all the discussion of dollars, it seems the bottom-line American Jews must grapple with is cultural identity.

While the specific question may be whether significant numbers of Jews are prepared to opt for and fund day schools for their children, there is a larger issue. Are Jews willing to choose Jewish priorities when they conflict with American values, on issues ranging from abortion to intermarriage to Jewish day schools vs. public or private secular schools?

In the end, only when we as a community are fully committed to the primal responsibility of the mitzvah of teaching our children Jewishly will we find the faith and fortitude — with or without government funding — to provide the quality education they deserve.