Archive for the ‘Jewish Education’ Category

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Dispatches From Jerusalem: The Jewish Agency and the Future Face of Olim

June 22, 2010

“After a certain number of years our faces become our biographies. We get to be responsible for our faces.”  – Cynthia Ozick, American author

In the midst of running back and forth among business meetings in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem earlier this week, I was happy to have the rare treat to spend time connecting with a young post-collegiate daughter of a friend from back home.  Mara, a recent olah from Atlanta, has decided to make her life in Israel, finding love with a new fiancée and satisfaction with a new job with an Israeli NGO. A daughter of Young Judean alumni and a product of Jewish day schools in Atlanta, Mara is deeply rooted in her family’s and people’s history and values, and their shared love of Israel. Stepping out of the heat of the day, we met for coffee in a small café within a used bookstore, a perfect setting for sharing a little bit of old biography, a some of discussion of the ongoing drama in the world and even a few words of childhood stories. We sat together, sharing the texts of our lives, each looking from our different vantage points, but nonetheless facing one another.

And that is when, looking at Mara, I realized something important, not only to me, but also to the way we all should look at Aliyah in 2010  – while the need to attract olim has remained the same, the face and biography of the typical olah has changed.

Yes, we still live in a world where aliyah of necessity remains a constant possibility (consider the newest olim from Kyrgyzstan that arrived this week), but the truth of the matter is that necessity is less of likelihood than it has been for generations. As Jewish Agency Chairman Natan Sharansky shared with the Agency Assembly earlier this week, 94% of Jews live in countries with relative freedom and prosperity, with little need to leave these countries under duress or for lack of tolerance. Instead, the majority of the new olim are making ‘aliyah of choice’ – a personal desire to be living in Israel and Israeli society at this unique and extraordinary time in Israel history. These olim come with a different face than the waves of recent olim, they are not fleeing a totalitarian state or an economically devastated area, they are coming because of a sense of pride, an aspiration of change and inspired sense of their Jewish selves. In short, they are coming to Israel because of who they are, not where they are.

So this, in a nutshell, is the changing face of olim – where once it the face was of Jews uprooted from their homes, now it is the face of Jews deeply rooted in their identity. They can make it anywhere, but they want to make it here – here in the homeland of their people and an axis of their identity.  With this change comes an important question: will we meet these changing faces with a new face of the Jewish Agency grounded in helping reinforcing identity and inspire aliyah, or will we look for the faces no longer coming with a face of an Agency that is grounded by unchanging ways? The truth is, it would be responsible to do the former, and wasteful to do the latter.

With that in mind, it is time for the Jewish Agency, as part of its new strategic plan, to look closely at its aliyah operations and make not only strategic decisions regarding the operation of the department, but also the overall strategy of inspiring aliyah. There must always remain a basic ability to assist olim, especially for Jews in need, but the Agency must not only react to the needs of the current olim, it must inspire the future olim – by helping give root to individual identities and then strengthening those roots so they grow all the way back home to Israel.  This will not be easy, and it will take a reimagining of the very way the Agency operates, the way the government of Israel views the role of the Agency and the way the Diaspora Jewry embraces the strategies of the Agency.

Possible? Yes. Achievable? Hopefully. But it will take more than lip service to identity to change the face of aliyah, it will take political courage and new approaches to the Israeli-Diaspora partnerships; and it will take many more biographies and faces…

just like Mara’s.

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Will We Let This School Fail?

March 10, 2010

Rarely a day passes without hearing from one of my friends in the Jewish world about a new project in which they have become engaged or an organization for which they are fundraising.  The conversation that ensues is often one about shared interests and common concerns. Sometimes the conversations result in my renewed optimism and other times they cause me to have sobering realizations; but never have they made me sick to my stomach.

Until last week.

An unexpected call from a former colleague who  left Atlanta to move to Asheville, North Carolina started out with the usual pleasantries – work, family, memories of old times. But quickly the conversation turned to the matter that was obviously on my friend’s mind – the state of affairs of the nascent community Jewish Day School in Asheville where his children attend and of which he is president. His story started out inspiring enough, nineteen families had come together in 2006 to create a fully integrated core/Jewish curriculum day school for their twenty-one children, with plans to increase the school size by the incremental addition of students and grades. In the middle of North Carolina, where so much of the Jewish community had migrated away from to lager population centers like Charlotte and Atlanta, the small but resilient Jewish community of Asheville was not going to yield to demography. Grounded in a community with religious diversity and a small but strong JCC, the school would be an extension of the Jewish community’s efforts to create a rich Jewish experience for their children. At least that was the intention.

Now, like every school (and other community organization) in the country that is facing the hardships of the Great Recession, the Maccabi Academy of Asheville is in financial crisis. Its $40,0000 deficit is too big, its community is too small; it is literally on the edge of going from a school that could be much more to a school that might be nothing more than a memory. It made growth decisions that anticipated financial security and now must revisit those decision with deep cost-cutting measures.  It must ask more from each family, and has already received more than most families can afford.   Looking beyond its small community it has reached out to friends throughout the Southeast that might have connections to Asheville or North Carolina in the hope they might find an angel or an unexpected benefactor from afar. But one decision my friend, his board, and his fellow parents are loathe to consider, but nonetheless must – without the needed funds, will it be possible to continue this Jewish day school experience for those nineteen families?

As a Jewish people we say that education is one of the most important elements of sustaining ourselves. As a North American community we insist that day school education is one of the most critical means to provide our children an immersive educational and communal experience (often at the expense of investing too little in congregational education). We encourage families to send their children to day schools; we cajole parents to give more of their resources to make those schools strong. We know that education is expensive and we say to one another that we face an affordability crisis that threatens our ability to provide the education we know is needed. Yet say every child matters, so we mustn’t fail in providing that education, no matter the cost. We say all of these things.

There are nineteen Jewish children in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the Jewish centers of life in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. These children are getting a daily dose of Jewish education, culture and language, and they are sharing experiences that will help cement their identities for years to come.  They may go elsewhere in life, far from Asheville – perhaps even to our own communities. We know this.

So with all we know, let me ask this – will we, the Jewish people, let this school fail?  And if we do, what does it mean about what we say?