American Jewry is lagging behind Jewish communities across the globe in the sphere of Jewish education. In the U.S., the percentage of children attending Jewish day schools is significantly lower. The prime factor is cost. In every western democratic society, the tuition dollar follows the child to the school of their choice. In Australia, Canada, the UK, France, and numerous other countries, even Russia, government does not discriminate against religious institutions. Support is given to the secular portion of education in schools operated by religious groups. The results are clear, wherever more children attending Jewish schools there is a more vibrant Jewish community. Also, support for Israel is higher, assimilation is lower, synagogue affiliation and every other measuring stick of Jewish engagement is much higher.
All of this might change soon in the U.S.. Whatever wariness Jews feel about the new administration, they should applaud the appointment of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. She has championed vouchers and competition in education. Her appointment sets the stage for revolution in American Jewish life. If vouchers are adopted across the U.S., there will be an unprecedented Jewish renaissance in America. We will follow the ranks of every other western democracy, empowering parents to choose where their educational dollars go.
For decades, some in the Jewish community have stood at the ramparts against efforts to bring about parental choice in education. Historically this was driven by the two publicly stated factors. The fear that the intermingling of religion and state, as happened in Europe centuries ago, would endanger Jews. Second, that quality public education was the ticket to success in America. There was a deeper unstated reason. As many Jews departed from religious observance, they feared that Jewish education would bring about a renewal of what they had abandoned. In their quest for secularism, they viewed Jewish schools as a threat to their newly found secular values system.
Jewish communal priorities have shifted, as many have seen the value of day school education. Some groups retain the old thinking, sounding the cry of doom and gloom. Claiming dangers of all kinds threaten American Jews if “the wall of separation comes down” even an inch. They refuse to look at the experience of Jews in France, the UK, Belgium, Australia and numerous other countries. In almost every Western democracy tax dollars are guided by parental choice. Radical groups have not established schools, nor has government regulation been an undue burden. Their fearful forecasts have not happened elsewhere, and it’s doubtful it will happen here.
The Jewish community should rejoice at the potential for change in educational funding in the U.S.. Let’s put our kids first and let parents decide what’s best for them. Let schools compete for students. Vouchers and educational choice will unleash a new culture of competition and educational excellence. With government providing funding for the secular portion of education, untold numbers of Jewish families will finally be able to make the choice to send their children to a Jewish school.
Rabbi David Eliezrie is rabbi at Congregation Beth Meir HaCohen/Chabad. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.