The future of Jewish education

Last week’s cover story, in which author Zev Steinfeld described his experience with the tuition subsidy board at a Jewish day school, definitely got people talking. My extensive network of shul agents reported over the weekend that Steinfeld’s essay was a hot topic around the kiddush table. And before and after Shabbat, it garnered tens of thousands of clicks and shares on and social media.

Steinfeld’s piece hit a raw nerve – this much is abundantly clear. His words evoke the resentment and frustration that have been building for some time among young Jewish families struggling to pay for Jewish schooling – and now it’s bubbling to the surface. Something needed to be said, and I know many of our readers appreciated Steinfeld’s courage in speaking up.

Some readers, though, were not pleased with Steinfeld, and that’s understandable, too. In many ways, the tuition debate boils down to whether you believe Jewish day school is a right or a privilege – if you find yourself in the latter category, you were likely perturbed by Steinfeld’s criticism of the subsidy process. 

That’s a defensible point of view, no doubt, but some of the criticism levelled at Steinfeld is, in my opinion, not. Specifically, I’m referring to the complaint that his essay targeted one day school in particular. It’s clear to me that wasn’t the author’s intention. Steinfeld addressed a system-wide problem – as he reiterated to me over the weekend, his focus was the experience of applying for a tuition subsidy, not any particular institution’s subsidy committee. Frankly, I don’t see how you could read his piece any other way, regardless of whether you happen to know where his kids go to school or not. 

It’s convenient to suggest that the day school debate raised by Steinfeld is a sign of generational divide in the Jewish community – an older generation arguing young people simply need to prioritize and make sacrifices for Jewish education, and a younger demographic countering that the old model doesn’t work anymore. There’s some truth to that, but over the past week I’ve been encouraged to hear from plenty of older people expressing sympathy and understanding for the difficult decisions facing parents of school-age children. (Admittedly, I was also surprised by a number of younger parents who suggested they have little or no problem with the current subsidy system.)

So, it’s not exclusively a generational thing. And that’s good, because the young and the old have a lot to learn from each other at time when Jews across Canada are re-evaluating how best to support and grow communities. Jewish education is central to this project, and the appointment last year of CJN columnist Daniel Held to lead the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education in Toronto signalled a readiness on the part of major Jewish institutions to embrace new ideas. 

From what I know, Held recognizes Jewish education has reached an important crossroads and that changes are needed. At the same time, he appears determined not to snub a generation that got us as far as we have come today. He understands that when it comes to Jewish education, everyone has to work together. — YONI