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American Jewry's Financial Birth Control
by Michael Freund

The numbers are in, and they don't look too good.

Earlier this month, the results of the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-2001 were released and they confirmed everyone's worst fears. American Jewry, it seems, is shrinking faster and more profoundly than even the gloomiest of pessimists might have imagined.

In just a decade, the number of Jews in America has shrunk by 5.45%, from 5.5 million in the 1990 survey, to just 5.2 million now. To put it even more starkly: on average, American Jewry lost about 100 Jews per day, every day, over the past 10 years. And with the median age rising, and Jewish birthrates declining, that dreary statistic seems almost certain to grow worse.

But despite the crisis, there is no atmosphere of crisis. Ironically, America's Jewish leadership continues to devote an inordinate amount of time and energy to fighting anti-Semitism, as if that were the community's number one concern. But the real question they fail to address is: will there be any Jews left in America for the anti-Semites to hate?

There are undoubtedly many reasons behind American Jewry's decline, but the primary factor is a plague of Jewish ignorance that has reached epidemic proportions.

At universities across the country, countless Jewish students excel in French and Spanish, but they do not speak a word of Hebrew. They pore over Milton, but have never opened a Mishnah, study Shakespeare yet remain oblivious to the Shulchan Aruch.

Ask them about the mother of Jesus, and they will know the answer. Ask them for the name of Moses' mother, and you can expect to receive blank stares.

Sadly, it seems fair to say that most American Jews are more familiar with Ralph Lauren than with Rashi. The People of the Book have become the People of the Look, neglecting the eternal for the sake of the ephemeral.

The solution, of course, is Jewish education, and lots more of it. Studies have shown that full-time Jewish day-schools provide the best defense against Jewish ignorance and assimilation, giving students the tools they need to maintain a strong Jewish identity. But the cost of attending such schools has become so prohibitive, that many Jews are simply getting locked out of the system.

Take, for example, New York, where the bulk of America's Jews reside. I checked with four of the area's leading Jewish day-schools, and discovered that tuition prices ranged from $11,800 to as high as $17,050. Believe it or not, that is just for kindergarten.

Hence, for a Jewish family with two or three children, the cost of school alone can easily reach $30,000 to $40,000 per year, which does not include clothing, food or even baseball cards.

Who knows how many Jewish parents are choosing other educational options, simply because they cannot afford day-school tuition?

Not surprisingly, many Jewish parents are also thinking twice about being fruitful and multiplying. Among young Orthodox couples I know in New York communities such as Riverdale and Long Island, the high cost of raising a Jewish child is often a major factor in determining family size. Though it may sound far-fetched, it is an increasingly common reality.

Indeed, the survey released earlier this month found that the average American Jewish couple has just 1.8 children per family, which is less than the 2.1 figure which demographers describe as the "minimum replacement level."

If Jewish education were more reasonably priced, some couples might be willing to have that "extra" child, which is precisely the kind of trend that needs to be encouraged. But, unfortunately, little is being done about it.

As a result, day-school tuition is effectively serving as American Jewry's birth control, which ensures that the Jewish growth rate will continue to diminish, rather than grow.

Drastic measures need to be taken to tackle this problem. As things stand now, fewer than 20 percent of American Jewish children receive a day-school education, and a mere 7 percent are said to attend Jewish summer camps. The only way to boost those figures, and thereby raise a more Jewish next generation, is to radically alter the community's priorities.

To begin with, there is simply no compelling reason why American Jewry needs four major organizations - the ADL, American Jewish Committee, American Jewish Congress and the Wiesenthal Center - with virtually identical mandates to combat anti-Semitism. One or two would be more than sufficient, and would save the community tens of millions of dollars that can and should be put to better use in financing Jewish education.

A 1999 study of Jewish federation funding of day schools found that the average allocation is a paltry $530 per child annually, which amounts to less than two weeks' worth of school. Clearly, American Jewish officialdom has yet to put its money where its mouth is, and to invest in the Jewish future by investing in Jewish day-schools.

In still another remarkable bit of shortsightedness, many Jewish organizations continue to oppose government vouchers for private religious education, in the process closing off a potentially crucial source of funding. By putting their narrow political agendas ahead of the best interests of the larger community, American Jewry's leadership is sentencing Jewish day-schools to never-ending budgetary squeezes and financial crises.

But the real crisis is already upon us. American Jewry is hemorrhaging, and the bleeding is growing worse from year to year. The only way to stop the flow, and save the patient, is to make Jewish education affordable to all.

Day-school tuition must stop serving as a contraceptive device and instead become an aphrodisiac. Because, as the survey results showed, what we need now are more Jews, not less.


Michael Freund served as Deputy Director of Communications & Policy Planning in Israel's Prime Minister's Office from 1996 to 1999. This article first appeared in the Jerusalem Post.

 






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