As parents we all wonder how to instill Jewish values in our children in an open, democratic society. Back in the Shtetl, the small European village of a century and half ago, it was simple. Jews lived in autonomous communities with little interaction with the outside society. Their freedoms and opportunities were limited. We live in a different world. We are blessed with great freedom. However, our values must compete with a host of other ideals in an open, free-market society. The internet has broadened these horizons even more.
There is one Jewish community that is excelling over all others. Melbourne, Australia, is the greatest success story of a Diaspora Jewish community. Its intermarriage rates are the lowest, around 15 percent, its per capita giving to Israel the highest. Los Angeles with a population of half a million raises just under $50,000,000 a year for the Jewish Federation campaign, half of it going to Israel. Melbourne with a population of one tenth of that raises just under $18,000,000. Eighteen times per capita higher than LA.
Why is Melbourne so successful ? There are three factors:
The primary one is that more than sixty percent of Jewish children attend Jewish day schools. They range across the spectrum from Adas to King David. This experience instills a strong Jewish identity in children that is creating a new generation of Jewishly engaged families. Australian Jews are solidly connected to tradition and robust supporters of Israel. In Australia there is government support for Jewish education, making it a bit more affordable. (The US remains the only western democracy that denies parents school choice) Still families pay significant fees for school.
Second, a significant segment of the community comprises descendents of Holocaust survivors who doubled the local Jewish population in a postwar surge. LA also had a large influx in the same era. In California many children of those survivors are drifting from Jewish life with a high intermarriage rate. In LA most do not place children into Jewish day schools. If they gave the children any Jewish education at all, it was in a Hebrew school setting, which is marginally successful.
Third, ninety percent of the synagogues in Melbourne are Orthodox. The great majority of members are not Orthodox observant; nevertheless, as in other countries, such as in Europe and South Africa, they affiliate with Orthodox shuls. There is no Conservative movement and the Reform or Progressive, as it is called, is very small. Affiliation to more traditional congregations has pulled Jews towards tradition. Close to 85 percent of the rabbis of these mainstream Orthodox congregations are Chabad rabbis. Their warmth and openness has created an avenue for Jews who are not personally observant to be strongly connected to Jewish tradition.
It’s clear that the most important factor is Jewish education. In Europe we also find that Orthodox synagogues are the majority; still in those regions Jewish continuity is not as successful since the percentage of children attending Jewish Day Schools is lower.
For us in California, the message is clear.
As a community, Melbourne teaches that it is crucial that our greatest resources must be invested in Jewish education. On a personal level, the message is also clear. If you want our kids to be strongly connected to the Jewish community and tradition, we must send them to a Jewish school. Here in Orange County with around 100,000 Jews, there are about 1,000 children enrolled in day schools; in Melbourne with half the population the number is over six thousand. It’s not too late. School starts in a month. You can still enroll your child today.
Rabbi Eliezrie just returned from a visit in Australia where he celebrated the birth of his first Australian grandchild. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org