Investing in Jewish education in the Diaspora is the best way to address the “demographic catastrophe” facing North American Jews, and Israel wants to help, Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said last week.
In a speech to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations last week in Jerusalem, Liberman cited “Jewish continuity” as the most pressing issue affecting world Jewry and pledged that starting with its next budget, the Israeli government would invest $365 million annually – an amount to be matched by federations in the Diaspora – to improve the accessibility and affordability of Jewish education.
“For many years, Israeli officials have called on our brothers and sisters in the Diaspora… to donate your time, energies and funds to Israel,” he said.
“However, I turn to you today and say that, while we are enormously and forever grateful for your assistance, we believe it is now time to concentrate on the challenges facing your own communities, especially those emanating from the dangerous trends in the Jewish community demonstrated in the recent survey.”
Reacting to the Pew survey on American Jewry that documented an intermarriage rate as high as 58 per cent and found that 31 per cent of American Jews said they didn’t feel attached to Israel, Liberman said he believes “that the antidote to this rising assimilation, intermarriage and disengagement is education.
“Today, unfortunately, Jewish children are being kept from the Jewish classrooms because of the exorbitant and prohibitive costs of Jewish education in the U.S. It cannot be, it should not be, that a Jewish child will not be able to receive a good Jewish education because of financial reasons.”
He added that if this trend continues, “we will lose another six million Jews in a generation or two.”
The commitment from the Israeli government, in partnership with Jewish federations in North America who are expected to match Israel’s investment, “cannot become just another small project and needs to be the central point of partnership between us,” Liberman said.
“This must become the most pressing issue on the global Jewish agenda.
From my point of view, this is more pressing than any other issue, including the Palestinian negotiations or the Iranian nuclear threat.”
Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, said this paradigm shift that has the Israeli government investing in the Diaspora has been brewing for more than a decade.
“It is something I predicted would happen as the State of Israel matured and recognized its duty to the Diaspora – that if it invests in the Diaspora, it’s really investing in itself,” Sokolsky said.
“When you think about it, from 1948 on, the first 60 years was about building the State of Israel, and, now it’s about building the people of Israel. In that endeavour, Israel can take the lead. Birthright was the first example of that. It was a groundbreaker in terms of the government of Israel investing hard-earned Israeli tax dollars into Jewish identity in the Diaspora. It was unheard of before then.”
Despite Liberman’s suggestion that Diaspora Jewish communities ought to focus their fundraising allocations on continuity efforts, Sokolsky said he doesn’t believe Liberman was implying that funding for Israel is no longer necessary.
“I didn’t read it that way at all,” Sokolsky said, adding that Liberman’s statements won’t affect the amount of money the federation donates to Israeli causes, which stands at about 20 per cent of its annual campaign funds, or about $12 million a year.
UIA Federations Canada president and CEO Linda Kislowicz said the idea is that federations will continue to support Israel as they traditionally have in the past.
“But Israel has a role to play financially and otherwise in helping to strengthen Diaspora communities because we are one global Jewish People,” Kislowicz said.
Sokolsky said he’s hopeful that Liberman’s education proposal could be in the works within the next three or four years.
“I think it will be realized. I think this is the first of many announcements, but it’s going to take time,” Sokolsky said, adding that federation would jump at the opportunity to be a part of this international Jewish education network.
“Our federation gives more than any other Jewish federation to Jewish education, so we have no problem matching what a fair share for Toronto would be. We put in $12 million a year to Jewish education already – $10 million of that is in subsidies for Jewish education. That’s more than New York, Chicago, Miami, Baltimore, Boston and Los Angeles combined. No one comes close to what we put in. So we’re happy to meet that challenge.”
But, he added, “$700 million [a year] is probably not going to be enough to significantly lower the cost of Jewish education, but it would sure help.”
What’s most important about Liberman’s announcement is that the Israeli government understands “that there is a strong and compelling need to invest strategically and financially in strengthening the education of Diaspora Jews and that is a wonderful thing,” Kislowicz said.
“I think the message is that we need to be investing more aggressively… in strengthening Jewish education… and making Jewish education more affordable and more accessible to families and young people because… that’s the foundation,” she said.
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