The nexus between Jews and money, a topic of perennial curiosity for philo-Semites and anti-Semites alike, has drawn renewed interest during the economic downturn. With most attention riveted on the celebrities—investment titans and philanthropists brought low, con artists jailed, and economic wizards appointed to oversee the recovery—other aspects of the American Jewish economy have receded into the background. One such issue is the plight of the Jewish poor. Well before the recession, the national Jewish population study of 2000-01 claimed that “seven percent of American Jewish households have incomes?.?.?.?below the federal government’s official poverty line, and double that proportion, fourteen percent, have incomes that?.?.?.?can be considered ‘low income.’” That is below the national average, but the needs of these people are real and should be a primary concern of the organized Jewish community.
According to estimates of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty, 350,000 of the 1.4 million Jews in the New York area live at or below subsistence levels; in Chicago, Jewish leaders believe that 20 percent of the local population is living close to the federal poverty line. Among the poorest are the elderly, Holocaust survivors, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and the most self-isolating pockets of Orthodox Jews, as well as individuals who earn a minimum wage or less because they are in some way disabled.
The economic downturn has now added to the ranks of those in financial pain. Precise data are lacking, but local Jewish newspapers all around the country have tracked the impact of layoffs on individual Jews and their families. Over the past year, synagogues and agencies sponsored by federations of Jewish philanthropy have experienced a surge in demand for job fairs and family counseling. Not surprisingly, under such circumstances, Jewish communal life has also been hit. Membership organizations have been forced to accommodate long-time constituents with dues relief, and significant numbers of families have opted out of membership entirely. As for philanthropic support, many agencies and institutions have seen their annual campaign receipts contract by double-digit percentages and have slashed their budgets accordingly—in the process adding to the ranks of the unemployed. Sheer institutional survival now preoccupies the heads of Jewish institutions, at great expense to forward momentum and new initiatives.
In households and communities, the recession has also brought to the fore an “affordability crisis” that has been gathering for decades. At the heart of this crisis is an unyielding reality: above and beyond what Jews expend on the usual necessities and conveniences, it costs a great deal to live an active Jewish life. Growing numbers of families worry that they will not be able to pay the ever-rising bills associated with full participation in Jewish life.
Writing about the impact of the Great Depression on the American Jewish psyche, the historian Beth Wenger observed that “Jews worried about their financial stability and security as a minority group in America, questioned the usefulness of their educational endeavors, and doubted whether their communal institutions would survive.” Jews living through the great recession of our time are troubled by a similar set of anxieties.
The high cost of Jewish living is evident even from so mundane an item as the grocery bill. Families observing the dietary laws must expect to pay a premium for kosher food. Poultry slaughtered according to Jewish ritual law costs 50 to 100 percent more than its nonkosher equivalent, and when it comes to beef, prices rise by many multiples. Monitoring the spending of an observant family in Houston, a recent CNN report noted the high kosher price differential. Among the anecdotes: a brisket purchased at a kosher store was over seven times more expensive than the same cut of beef at the nearest nonkosher supermarket. Even canned and bottled items sold at many supermarkets can cost several-fold more if they bear a kosher certification on their label. Prices routinely surge around the Jewish holidays, with no time more costly than Passover, an eight-day holiday that can set observant Jews back by many hundreds if not thousands of dollars owing to the numerous dietary practices.
Then there are membership fees. Synagogue dues can range from a few hundred dollars to well over $3,000 for the purposes of supporting a staff of professionals and maintaining physical facilities. (Some synagogues set the “suggested dues” for families earning more than $250,000 at $6,000 a year.) In addition, they impose a range of payments to help defray expenses for special programs, school tuition, and building funds. When all was said and done, the Jewish family in Houston featured on CNN expended $3,600 a year at its synagogue, which happens to be Orthodox—the Jewish subgrouping that tends to charge the lowest congregational dues. To this we might add a hidden cost: more traditionally observant Jews must live in easy walking distance of a synagogue because they will not drive on the Sabbath and holidays, precisely the days they are most likely to attend religious services. In a Jewish variation of the first law of real estate—location, location, location—the values of homes near synagogues tend to be more expensive.
Jews often join a local Jewish Community Center where they can partake of cultural and educational programs, arts activities, recreational facilities, and create for themselves and their children a social bond with other Jews. Membership fees covering all these activities can run between $1,000 and $2,500 for a family.
Above and beyond these essentials for Jewish living are contributions in support of charities. Close to home, the local federation of Jewish philanthropy and Jewish educational institutions require support; on the national level, funding is needed by agencies that engage in everything from advocacy to collecting funds for Israeli institutions, sponsoring Jewish religious and cultural life, and aiding Jews abroad. The family monitored by CNN donated $5,000 a year to various charitable causes.
By far the greatest costs for many families are incurred from Jewish education. A considerable minority of families now enrolls its children in the three most expensive forms of Jewish education: day schools meeting five or even six days a week, usually for seven to 10 hours a day; residential summer camps, which run sessions lasting from three to seven or eight weeks; and extended programs in Israel for a summer, semester, or year. Schools with well-appointed facilities and an enriched educational program matched by a panoply of extracurricular activities can cost about as much as prep school—more than $30,000 a year per student. Schools housed in bare facilities with only a limited number of classes devoted to general studies—which cater primarily to the most insular Orthodox—may charge only a few thousand dollars a year. But most day schools charge somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 a year for each child. Residential summer camps can cost between $650 to more than $800 a week. And trips to Israel range from $7,000 to $9,000 for a summer, to $18,000 for 10 months at a religious school, and even more for programs in which students can earn college credit.
Why do parents spend these sums of money? For the same reason so many American parents expend staggering sums on college tuition: they believe they are getting value for their dollar. Immersive Jewish education may not provide the same kind of material payoff as a college diploma, but it greatly increases the chances of children learning the skills necessary for participation in religious life, living active Jewish lives, and identifying strongly with other Jews. Day-school tuition is the cost many parents believe they must bear if their children are to retain their heritage in a society that exerts enormous assimilatory pressures.
They are right. It takes time and considerable effort to transmit a strong identification with the Jewish religion and people; to nurture a facility in the different registers of the Hebrew language: biblical, rabbinic, and modern; to teach young Jews the classical texts of their civilization; to expose them to Jewish music, dance, and art; and to socialize them to live as Jews—all the while providing a first-rate general education. Ample research has limned the association between the number of “contact hours” young people spend in Jewish educational settings and their later levels of engagement. Simply put, “more” makes a significant difference. It is not hard to find adult alumni of day schools, summer camps, and Israel programs who attest to the formative impact of their experiences. Not surprisingly, many parents committed to Jewish life want their children to enjoy the same benefits.
Families recognize that they can no longer rely upon institutions that once had been central to the socialization of young Jews: most Jewish parents have neither the time nor, in many cases, the knowledge to transmit Jewish learning to their children; extended families are now widely dispersed, so they cannot play an active role; and few Jews reside any longer in densely populated Jewish neighborhoods, where in years past Jewish mores and customs were internalized through osmosis. Thus, conclude Carmel and Barry Chiswick, two authorities on the economics of Jewish life, “the formation of Jewish human capital must rely on a system of Jewish education.”
Adding things up, an actively engaged Jewish family that keeps kosher and sends its three school-age children to the most intensive Jewish educational institutions can expect to spend somewhere between $50,000 and $110,000 a year at minimum just to live a Jewish life.
As the various cost lines have risen, in some cases doubling over the past 10 years, the response has been predictable. Many regard day-school education as out of the question, the cost utterly prohibitive. Even within Orthodox communities, some parents feel compelled to pull their children out of day schools. Anecdotal reports suggest that some families interested in placing their children in Jewish educational settings decide not to proceed for fear of embarrassing encounters with scholarship committees. In a reversal of earlier patterns, when Jewish religious involvement was weighted toward the poor, increasingly in our own time only the well-to-do can afford to live fully as Jews, while many in the middle class are in danger of getting priced out.
If there was cause for concern a decade ago about how, as Gerald Bubis put it, Jewish families would respond when “cost becomes a barrier,” the affordability of Jewish living should be a central issue on the Jewish communal agenda today, given the staggering surge in costs coupled with the current economic climate. With some noteworthy exceptions, it is not.
Most federations of Jewish philanthropy have neither the resources nor the will to make affordability a priority, and other types of organizations don’t even pretend to pay attention. It is not as if they have not been warned about the severity of the problem: for the past 25 years, studies have periodically catalogued rising prices. Nearly two decades ago, in an address to the General Assembly of the federations, Jacob Ukeles urged vigilance:
Living Jewishly shouldn’t force people into poverty. If a?.?.?.?family is forced by the value it places on living full Jewish lives to use all its discretionary income and then some to buy Jewish education, synagogues, center membership, kosher food, etc., it is left with the effective income of a poor family to meet all its other basic needs.
The message fell on deaf ears. And there is little evidence that the problem is drawing more attention today.
Why? The prevailing attitude of too many in positions of authority is that affordability is a private matter. If families want to live an observant life, they alone should bear the costs. Why privilege day-school families? Most Jewish children attend far less costly part-time Jewish schools or receive tutoring. Let those who want more pay for it themselves.
Missing from this cold calculus is any recognition of the value Jews well-versed in their religious culture are adding to American Jewish society. A disproportionate number of leaders and activists have been shaped by the most immersive forms of Jewish education. As for the rank and file, we would expect a community that places great value on general education for all to ensure a comparably high level of literacy in Judaica.
Lacking, too, is a principled appreciation for the responsibility Jews must assume for building Jewish social capital so that there will be a vital Jewish community in the future. A proud and self-confident community would do all in its power, or so one would think, to prepare its youth for active participation in Jewish life. Indeed, the signature philanthropic initiative of the past decade—Birthright Israel—is premised on the belief that Jewish education is an entitlement. A 10-day educational trip to Israel was explicitly defined as the “birthright” of every Jew between the ages of 18 and 26. Funded by a consortium of philanthropists and communities, Birthright Israel during its first 10 years has sent nearly 200,000 American Jews to Israel. Owing to an insufficiency of funding, only one-third of applicants currently are accommodated, but the ideal has been enunciated: every young Jew should be entitled to participate for free. As yet, however, there has been no similar commitment to treating intensive Jewish education as the birthright of every young person who wishes to study in a day school, attend a residential Jewish summer camp, or spend significant time studying in Israel. Such a commitment would not mean a free ride but rather financial help to make Jewish education possible for all who want it.
Communal institutions are also banking on something else: they feel confident that Orthodox institutions will not turn away any child on financial grounds. Unlike schools under other kinds of auspices, which base their budgets overwhelmingly on tuition fees, Orthodox day schools and many camps raise a large portion of their revenues through philanthropy and may therefore offer a great deal of scholarship assistance. This is possible because Orthodox Jews regard Jewish education as a communal enterprise for which all are responsible, whether or not their own children are attending. It should not surprise us that enrollments in Orthodox day schools have largely held steady over the past two years despite the recession. By contrast, day schools under other types of patronage cannot offer the same kind of scholarship aid because they lack a wide base of support. Schools under Conservative, Reform, and general-community auspices therefore have seen enrollment declines of 5 to 7 percent over the past year of financial turmoil.
The reason these drop-out rates are not higher is that some federations and philanthropists have stepped into the breach. Several federations of Jewish philanthropy increased their allocations to day schools by significant sums over the past year. In Boston, financial awards rose by 24 percent; in Phoenix, by 15 percent. Despite, or perhaps because of, the hard times, the Chicago federation disbursed record sums to support day-school students. These efforts were augmented by several philanthropies, most notably the Jim Joseph Foundation, which created an emergency action fund of $11 million to benefit young Jews in five communities around the country, and the Grinspoon Foundation. In Boston, anonymous philanthropists pooled their money to pay back the entire mortgage of the Gann Academy, a communal day high school, thereby freeing up significant new funds for scholarship assistance. And in other communities, individual donors have stepped forward with gifts to fund scholarships.
These are important steps, but they have touched only a minority needing help. Many federations do offer per capita contributions to day schools, usually in the vicinity of a few hundred dollars per child, but such subventions cover only a small fraction of the costs. And though some funds are made available for camp scholarships and even trips to Israel, the total sums are small. There are political reasons why more has not been forthcoming: many who sit on federation boards give higher priority to social-service agencies or Jewish community centers or other types of institutions, while others are loath to give pride of place to day schools, which educate only a limited sector of the Jewish population.
An additional impediment is ideological: the affordability of Jewish living is not on the vital agenda of the federations and most other institutions. When the Jewish Federations of North America announced its legislative priorities for 2010 with much fanfare, we learned that it was prepared to lobby for all manner of government funding for social and health services and in support of strengthening ties between the United States and Israel. The only reference to education came under the vague rubric of “Speaking out for Children,” which meant “rais[ing] awareness on children and youth issues.”
The federations are not alone: Jewish community-relations organizations, which have not been bashful about endorsing huge government-spending plans like the massive federal stimulus bill of 2009, refuse to consider creative ways for governments to offer relief to Jewish families struggling to cope with their most onerous financial burden—day-school tuition.
Adhering religiously to their separationist faith, most organizations claiming to represent Jewish interests continue to give greatest priority to the maintenance of the most impermeable wall separating church and state—even at the expense of thousands of children who are deprived of the Jewish education their families would like them to have. The head of the Washington office of the National Council of Jewish Women articulated the priorities of her own and other organizations when she declared a few years back: “We can’t put a chink in the wall [of separation] just because it will help Jewish children.” The zealotry of strict separationists is a faith to behold!
It is not as if there are no ideas about how to help with day school affordability while maintaining separation: some groups with an interest in Jewish education have made common cause with Catholics and minority leaders to explore ways out of the conundrum facing American families of different faiths who pay school taxes but cannot derive any benefit from them in a school under religious auspices.
Among the options under consideration:
• Vouchers that would enable families to direct their educational funds to the school of their choice, an approach that seems to work just fine with the GI Bill, which in effect offers a voucher to attain a higher education. Although a few voucher plans are currently operating, state courts have not been consistently receptive to their use in religious schools or by any but the poorest of families.
• Tax credits for individual and corporate contributions to scholarship funds that aid non-public-school students.
• A change in tax laws so that families could deduct day-school-tuition payments on their federal tax returns. This would go some distance toward relieving the sting of unrequited taxes they pay for public education.
• Additional state reimbursements for textbooks, technology, mandated tests, busing, and health services.
• Tax credits are granted to corporations and individuals making contributions to a not-for-profit institution. These credits, which are in place in a few states, reduce state taxes but currently are capped. Until the limits are raised, state tax credits will not offer much relief.
• Most helpful would be direct subsidies to reimburse day schools for the general studies education they offer, which relieves the public sector of educating more than 230,000 Jewish children annually. Alternatively, if day schools could utilize public-school educators to teach general-studies classes at taxpayer expense, tuition costs would drop significantly.
To move such an agenda forward, Jewish organizations would have to rethink their priorities. In addition to lobbying to ensure that Jewish agencies receive their fair share of funding for services to families, the aged, and the full range of subpopulations in the Jewish community, they also would have to rethink their reflexive and by now ossified opposition to any “breach” in the wall of separation, so that families sending their children to Jewish day schools in the United States could receive governmental support the way their counterparts do—with no apparent dire consequences—in Australia, France, Germany, parts of Canada, and in several other democratic countries.
There is one more reason why Jewish organizations have not offered more substantial relief to families: their financial resources are severely limited. This certainly is true today, as virtually every major Jewish institution and agency has cut its budget by 20 to 30 percent over the past year. But like the affordability crisis, the fiscal meltdown has been building for quite a while.
Five years ago, during the economic boom, I conducted a series of interviews with some 40 knowledgeable observers of Jewish communal life. The more astute argued that it was only a matter of time before much of the Jewish organizational infrastructure collapsed under its own weight. It was noted that several organizations relied on a single big donor to keep them afloat (although this did not necessarily deter them from grandly claiming to represent the greater “community”). Others derived the lion’s share of their revenue from non-Jewish donors. The majority depended on an aging donor base. And just about all were surviving through the largess of an ever–shrinking number of supporters.
The most dramatic and far-reaching decline has beset the North American network of federations of Jewish philanthropy, the umbrella bodies for local Jewish agencies in more than 150 North American communities. In 1973, at the time of the Yom Kippur War, federations claimed they had collectively received 1 million individual gifts. In 2007, the system collected gifts from under half a million donors. According to one report not even 300,000 contributions were received in 2009, and the overall charitable take declined by a staggering $100 million compared with the previous year. National membership organizations like Hadassah and B’nai B’rith have also seen significant declines in their donor bases. It has also not helped matters that so many of the remaining donors are well into their 70s and 80s and have not been replaced in equal numbers by baby boomers or even younger contributors
Organizational leaders have acknowledged these trends but justify their focus on large donors on practical grounds. The time and personnel required to solicit 1,000 small gifts can be invested far more productively in cultivating a few heavy hitters. Indeed, as long as such givers continued to shoulder the burden, the system worked. But the recession’s toll on the portfolios of many philanthropists has battered the fundraising of almost all Jewish not-for-profits.
Some observers have editorialized that the turn of events offers an unparalleled opportunity for Jewish institutions to free themselves of dependence on large gifts. One writer poignantly asked, “When the big spenders fail, who will save Jewish charity?” Her wistful response was to evoke the days when Jewish charities collected nickels and dimes from the masses in pushkes (charity boxes), and when small checks in the $10 and $20 range were gratefully received. Indeed, something fundamental has been lost when Jewish institutions rely so heavily upon the wealthy and do not involve wide swathes of Jews in their work. The disappearance of the grassroots deprives organizations of their connection with amcha, the so-called Jewish street, and erodes Jewish social capital.
Broadening the base, however, will not solve the economic problem of prohibitively expensive operating costs. Most midsize synagogues have annual budgets in the millions of dollars, and even medium-size national organizations and educational institutions expend $30 to $40 million dollars each year; the largest federations need two to three times those sums to fund their agencies. Nickels and dimes won’t get them very far.
Moreover, the alienation of many Jews from collective Jewish activity has begun to take its toll on Jewish institutional life. A good many conventional institutions have failed to position themselves attractively for younger Jews in their 20s and 30s, many of whom are unaffiliated. Large synagogues, establishment organizations, and federations of Jewish philanthropy attract some in the younger demographic but appeal only to a minority because they are seen as rigid, doctrinaire, and unwelcoming of fresh blood. It is so much easier for energetic young Jews to rise to positions of influence in other types of organizations, including those they have established themselves, than to wait patiently for their time to come.
But this problem, which may be reparable, skirts the larger dilemma facing Jewish organizational life. A great many descendants of Jews no longer identify actively with Jewish collective activity. Between soaring rates of intermarriage and the defections of the assimilated, there are fewer Jews who can be called upon to help. In the past, these losses could be dismissed by Pollyannish commentators as irrelevant. Numbers do not count, they argued. Strength comes from vital engagement, they said. Let’s stop worrying about quantity, and instead focus on the quality of Jewish programs. Now suddenly, numbers apparently do matter, as those who would like to push aside the big givers are trying to make up for their shrinking contributions by amassing many small gifts. Unfortunately, there is no massive grassroots base to recruit.
The fiscal consequences of these trends in institutional life are now apparent. Insufficient resources are available to meet the basic needs of the American Jewish community. In communities around the country, agency funding for all kinds of services has been slashed, leaving their clients wanting. Though the grim consequences are barely covered by the domestic Jewish press, the Jewish Chronicle, the official organ of British Jewry, had no difficulty capturing on film Hasidic Jews in New York City scavenging dumpsters for food and clothing or detailing the impact of cutbacks on kosher soup kitchens and food banks.
The impact is being felt by Jews abroad too. The two largest international Jewish aid organizations funded heavily with money channeled to them by federations of Jewish philanthropy have been forced to make deep cuts to their programs. One is the Jewish Agency for Israel, which offers support to needy Jews in Israel and educational programs to Jews in different parts of the world. The second is the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC), whose mandate is to provide social services to impoverished Jews around the globe. American Jewish federations cut their allocation to the former by nearly a quarter between 2007 and 2009, and by nearly 15 percent to the latter. Due to these cuts, the JDC was forced to eliminate in the former Soviet Union 290 local social-service organizations whose clients were often survivors of the Holocaust and/or Soviet repression. Only half the number of children could be accommodated in Jewish-agency camps last summer as compared with two years earlier, and spaces for children in day schools have also declined. As the resources of the American Jewish community contract, aid to Jews in faraway lands is also diminished, with predictable consequences for the impoverished and tenuously connected.
And just at a time when Jewish communal institutions are failing to attend to the needs of Jews at home and abroad, the hot trend in Jewish philanthropic and organizational circles, incredibly, is to channel ever more of their resources to nonsectarian causes. Preachers in every corner of the Jewish community are intent on urging the faithful to drop their parochial concerns for the welfare of fellow Jews and instead think globally. How can Jews worry about their own, they ask, when so many unfortunates in Africa, Latin America, and parts of Asia are suffering even worse afflictions? Last May, at my own institution, the Jewish Theological Seminary, the commencement speaker exhorted newly ordained rabbis and cantors, along with graduating educators and communal workers, to do nothing less than focus their energies on eliminating poverty and injustice from the world, even as she gave short-shrift to the impact of the economic downturn on Jewish needs.
“What is required, first,” declared Ruth Messinger of American Jewish World Services, “is that we embrace those with whom we do not share a faith or a neighborhood, a country, a language, or a political structure. We must bend our minds and our voices, our energies and our material resources, to help those most in need, both at home and abroad.” In today’s American Jewish community, this kind of talk is hardly an exception: representatives of every denomination have discovered a Jewish imperative to “repair the world” (Tikkun Olam), a commandment unknown to Jews for most of their history but that now, in the view of its most outspoken advocates, is preeminent.
Last spring, a partnership of Jewish foundations even saw fit to launch a new initiative, called “Repair the World,” with the self-declared “mission?.?.?.?to make service to others a defining element of American Jewish life.” Who are these “others”? The organization’s website helpfully points people to six domestic and international service opportunities—not a single one of which is under Jewish auspices or serves specifically Jewish populations. A bit more exploration of the website, in fact, did unearth a list of Jewish organizations offering Jewish service opportunities, which then raises the question of why yet another effort is needed to convince Jews to engage in “healing the world” when they do so already, and in vast disproportion to the contributions of other groups. Indeed, surveys regularly make clear that big Jewish givers channel the preponderant bulk of their philanthropic largess to nonsectarian causes—such as universities, museums, and hospitals—and only a small percentage of their philanthropy to aid fellow Jews. And hundreds of synagogues of all denominations sponsor social-action committees to spur volunteering at local soup kitchens, homeless shelters, and other venues aiding the downtrodden.
No one in a position of responsibility in Jewish organizational life has suggested that Jews should be indifferent to the plight of their fellow human beings, and all the evidence suggests that American Jews engage actively in civic and philanthropic activities. Why, then, the incessant barrage of exhortations to do more for the world, even as Jewish needs go unmet?
The rationale for the latest push to involve Jews in universal causes now focuses specifically on young Jews, and goes something like this: Jews in their teens, 20s, and 30s are deeply invested in contributing to the world at large—a commitment, we might add, many have imbibed from their parents. To get their attention, Jewish organizations must harness this idealism and teach young people that their quest to aid fellow human beings is in fact congruent with the deepest teachings of Judaism. In this way we can do good for the world, while simultaneously bringing together Jews of different backgrounds and educating them about their traditions.
One could ask, of course, why this effort to repair the world cannot also extend to aiding fellow Jews? Proponents of Jewish service learning express great confidence in the sufficiency of resources in the Jewish community to address all needs—a demonstrably incorrect assessment, as we have seen. Alternatively, they will say that young Jews do not want to be bothered with their fellow Jews. If we are to attract anyone outside the committed core, they argue, programs must direct young Jews to nonsectarian causes, bearing out the truth of Cynthia Ozick’s dead-on observation that “universalism is the parochialism of the Jews.” And so, based on these rationalizations, an entire set of organizations under Jewish auspices now seeks to rally Jews to help everyone except their own co-religionists.
But even this is no longer good enough for those marching under the banner of universalism. Under the headline “Not Only for Ourselves,” the Forward, the country’s only national Jewish newspaper, editorialized in November 2009 against “elevating Jewish identity to a goal of [Jewish service programs, for it] undermines their very purpose.” The argument seems to be that the cause of social justice is perverted if it is motivated even partly by the desire to connect Jewish volunteers to each other and to Jewish teachings. Lest we miss the point, David Rosenn, a rabbi in the forefront of such efforts, adds, “The last thing we want the Jewish community to do is use communities in distress as a vehicle to build identity.” The measure of Tikkun Olam’s authenticity, it would seem, is that it be solely a Jewish mission to the Gentiles.
Before they invest even more funding and direct still more volunteers to nonsectarian causes, Jewish philanthropists should consider a different path. Think of what they could do for the cause of Jewish literacy by creating a Jewish Teach for America. Such a program would serve the dual purpose of deepening the Judaic knowledge of volunteers, while simultaneously directing much needed personnel to the understaffed field of Jewish education. Philanthropists could also create a Jewish Service Corps with the mission of sending volunteers to Jewish communities in the United States and around the world where poverty, inadequate Jewish education, and social problems exist. Imagine what several thousand dedicated volunteers serving in Jewish educational and social-service institutions for two years might do to lessen the two-fold crises of affordability faced by families and understaffing afflicting most major agencies.
New initiatives might also strive self-consciously to teach Jews what they need to know, not only what they want to hear. They could begin by explaining that Jews, too, suffer from poverty and illiteracy. Remarkably, this obvious point is not widely understood. After working in a service program aiding Jews in the former Soviet Union, a volunteer expressed amazement that in all her years in a Jewish day school, she had never heard about poor Jews who require help. With some knowledge, idealistic young Jews who have grown up in the suburbs of the large American cities will discover that they do not have to trek around the globe to find human beings living in poverty; all they have to do is look in their own communities to find Jews trying to make ends meet and who could benefit from their help.
A program of serious Jewish education could also open some eyes about the unique perspectives offered by traditional Judaism. There is, for example, a rabbinic injunction proclaiming that “all of Israel is responsible one for the other.” Another fundamental teaching regards the study of Torah—deep Jewish knowledge—as equal in value to all the other commandments combined; the corollary is that helping people learn Torah by offering them scholarships is a communal value, and ignorance of Jewish tradition is woeful.
To cite but one more example, we might broadcast the fundamental Jewish belief, widely understood until the day before yesterday, that when Jews guide their lives in accord with the religious commandments, they fulfill God’s will. Jewish values are expressed through a lifetime of observing specific religious rituals and active participation in a sacred community, not through episodic service activities. Something quite important and enduring could come from spreading such basic Jewish teachings: not only would many more Jews be enriched by exposure to authentic Jewish values, but they might also enlist to address the physical and spiritual poverty afflicting their own people.