Since a group called the Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education formed earlier this year to address the current crisis facing Toronto parents who can’t afford Jewish education for their children, the initiative has been gaining momentum.
Mordechai Ben-Dat, former editor of The CJN and one of six founding members of the think-tank established to frame the issue of affordable Jewish education as the most important priority for the community, said the entire community must become part of the solution.
Since the group was founded last spring, about 40 people, half of whom are young parents in their mid-20s to mid-30s, have volunteered to work toward a solution.
Ben-Dat said there have been monthly meetings at Beth Emeth Bais Yehuda Synagogue that are meant to educate the community about the Jewish education crisis.
“At the second monthly meeting, we learned that there is a lot of misinformation and misconceptions about the relationship between [UJA Federation of Greater Toronto] and funding,” Ben-Dat said.
They responded by inviting Daniel Held, executive director of the federation’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education in Toronto, to speak on how much federation spends on education funding and its role in the day school system.
“We’re independent of federation, but we’re not competing with federation. We’re all striving toward the same faint light at the end of the tunnel,” Ben-Dat said.
The group has established four subcommittees: one that focuses on funding, one that explores legal and political options as they relate to the funding of private education, a marketing subcommittee, and another that will plan an upcoming symposium early next year.
Sara Dobner, a senior policy adviser with the Ontario government and a founding member of the group, said one of the marketing strategies is to provide rabbis with talking points about the initiative in hopes that they will speak about it from the pulpit.
“There is a crisis and this is what drives the whole thing. Tuition has increased by, I think, 60 per cent in a 10-year period, while income has increased by 10 per cent only during the same period. There is a crisis and a question of sustainability and affordability for most of the members of the community,” Dobner said.
According to a fact sheet from the group, tuition for Jewish day school education in Toronto is about $15,000 a year for elementary school and $26,500 for high school.
Federation currently allocates 23 per cent of its $53-million annual allocations to Jewish education, most of which is designated for tuition subsidies. Although it’s the highest share allocated to Jewish education of any Jewish community in North America, it only accounts for 10 per cent of the schools’ operational costs.
Zac Kaye, former executive director of Hillel of Greater Toronto, said he has met with countless Jewish couples who feel helpless about the current situation. “Anyone you talk to, particularly the younger families that have seen what we’re doing – even ones with very young children, who are not yet really in the system – they are terrified that they won’t be able to afford it,” Kaye said.
But Rabbi Jay Kelman, an educator, accountant and CJN columnist, said despite the hurdles, there’s a solution to the crisis and the community should not lose hope. “There are many ideas that can be used to make it affordable for everybody. That is our core goal, and we really believe it 100 per cent – that this is a solvable problem and that people should still have hope,” he said.
“The more of us that work together, the more we’ll solve the problem. I think part of it is really to raise awareness to the leadership – I don’t always think it is front and centre. I think a lot of the leadership feels that it is not solvable and therefore they feel like there is nothing they can do.”
“It’s not just somebody else’s problem,” Ben-Dat said. “I know it sounds extreme, but Jews fight back, in every realm. They fight back against the bully, and they fight back against losing the Jewish future.”