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The Great Jewish Education Debate

Our Eastern States counterparts have the Jewish education debate raging once again.   The sustainability of Jewish day school education is under threat due to increasing costs pushing fees beyond affordable limits for the average family.  The focus of the Melbourne debate is one of resource rationalisation – whether 9 schools for 6,000 kids is really necessary, and whether the administrative duplication and physical facilities of the schools can be consolidated without necessarily compromising the hashgafa and identity of each school brand.  There are many viewpoints on the table, some of which  have been debated in the Australian Jewish News in recent weeks.

There are no right or wrong answers in this discussion.  Lifting the level of discussion to principle level, everybody would agree on several objectives:  To maximise the opportunity, quality and effectiveness of Jewish education.  A mega-campus, and core secular resources which are supported by dedicated Jewish educational streaming sounds like a good hybrid model, but it is easier said than done.   If I were in Melbourne, I would argue that the status quo is unsustainable, and therefore a new innovative model needs to be developed for the common good. 

Across the 100,000 + Australian Jewish community, education affordability is going to remain the number one concern and the biggest barrier to Jewish continuity.  Most families who have children at Jewish day schools make big sacrifices to their lifestyle.  Giving up holidays and expensive cars is a relatively easy choice.  Putting a roof over your head and a loaf of bread on the table is a much harder one.   Some families pay 100% of their first income and 20-30% of their second income to school fees, then try to manage a mortgage and balance a household budget.   Yet they make this committment without burdening others.   Fee relief in these hard economic times is starting to escalate beyond control, and each year the Jewish community is losing the opportunity to build its next generation because we do not have a system that is adequately funded, or valued in educational terms, by the community as a whole.  We cannot bury our heads in the sand and pretend there is no crisis.  Therefore it is a positive sign that Melbourne is seriously debating the issue of how to restructure its limited Jewish education resources with a new level of intensity.    

It was interesting to see Melbourne look east to Sydney, noting that their fees are lower, and that the infrastructure of a Jewish community appeal supports day school education to the tune of several million dollars per annum.  However, to date, and to their detriment, the Melbourne community have not sought to look west. 

Perth is Australia’s third largest Jewish community.  We have about 1,000 Jewish children, and approximately 60% of them go to Carmel School.  No doubt more children would go to Carmel if the same affordability problems did not also arise here, but even then, Carmel School may not be suitable for every last Jewish child. 

Yet the Perth Jewish community makes a sole school structure work.  Because we have to. 

There are actually huge advantages to having a single school infrastructure.  It binds the community together like no other communal institution.  For the kids it means that the one school has to cater for them all:  religious and non-religious, Australian, South African, Israeli, talented and gifted, not so talented and gifted.  There is a genuine and healthy respect, for the most part led by the students themselves, as to how friendships are built.  Most importantly the children learn from within a practical setting that they have no right to be judgemental about the level of Jewish observance or identity that their friends determine based on their own experiences. 

Carmel School is not problem free.  However it is living proof that a single school model can serve a diverse Jewish community.  The school is modern orthodox.  It streams additional studies for those who require extra curricular Jewish learning.  It has a culture and record of success, and no shortage of Jewish pride.  The Jewish community is less fractured because of Carmel School, and this in itself is an observation that our friends in Melbourne might like to take note of. 

The Jewish day school movement is barely two generations old.  It has been credited for a resurgence in Jewish community identity and involvement in the Diaspora.  However like all social movements, it requires continuous development and modification.  It is comforting and encouraging to think that each day in Australia some 10,000 Jewish children go to Jewish classrooms in Jewish schools.  The academic standards are high, the Zionist identity that pervades the system is spectacular, and we have a lot to be thankful for.  However more needs to be done, and urgently.  Maybe we could even look nationally towards what can be done to further enhance our collective responsibility and opportunity to grow the Jewish education system. 

Here are some suggestions:

1)  Use a greater portion of the funds that are donated to Israel to bring Israel to Australia, instead of just remitting the funds.   Bringing educators, shlichim, hebrew and Jewish studies teachers, national service volunteers and similar people from Israel to work in our community would significantly relieve the budgets of schools that fund Jewish studies to the collective tune of millions of dollars a year.  Investing in bringing people to Australia from Israel would be a far reaching use of funds, and deliver more worth to Jewish continuity than it does by investing in capital development projects for Israel, even the very worthy projects.  The bigger picture vision is that we create more Zionist Jews in Australia who both visit and relocate to Israel to build up the Israeli economy into the longer term.

2)  Centralise the adminstrative functions such as accounting, curriculum management, professional development, procurement and compliance into a single unit of centralised expertise who can deliver to all Jewish schools in Australia (approximately 20 schools at this point in time).

3)  Diversify the Jewish educational ambitions of our schools.  Make them Jewish educational institutions and not just day Schools.  Bring in VET education and deliver both vocational and academic programs through adult and informal education.  Offer Hebrew School, Cheder, and Yeshivah.  Know that the classrooms and facilities of the schools sit idle on weeknights, and during school holidays, when they could be filled to capacity.  Run courses in Jewish cooking, Jewish history and culture, Hebrew, and philosophy.  Create interfaith and community exchange programs at a communal level.  We have already made Jewish day school education work.  What about trying Jewish night school?

4)  Embark on the philanthropic campaigns for endowments and trust funds to build long term capital reserves to support fee relief.  These initiatives have recently commenced (including Perth), but there has to be a 20-30 year focus on building up a secure funds network that can meet future demand. 

5)  Bring the role of Shules and schools closer together.  Many school campus’ currently operate Synagogues off their premisis.  Further consolidation could see space provisioned within a school campus that is dual purpose.  The capital costs of maintaing and servicing assets make buildings a burden and liability to the community.   The luxury of having separate Shules to accomodate minyanim may be too much if the opportunity cost is that we are denying our children access to Jewish education.  Even here in Perth there are opportunities to shift millions of dollars of wealth by transitoning from capital assets into liquid funds that could serve as educational reserves.  If it is a matter of priorities, the latter is worth more than the former when it comes to securing the next generation.

JewglePerth welcomes your feedback and additional ideas.

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