I write these words from Israel on the eve of Yom Hazikaron, the saddest day of the year, when we remember the 23,447 casualties of war and terrorism. It’s immediately followed by Yom Ha’atzmaut, the happiest day of the year. This roller-coaster of emotions reflects Jewish history, with its tragedies and moments of triumph. Israel is where tomorrow’s Jewish history is being made today. Only here is Judaism more than a religion. It’s a way of life for a reborn nation.
As a sovereign state, Israel has the opportunity to deal with issues that, while central to Judaism, have lain dormant for centuries. Economics, social welfare, taxation, health care, freedom of the press, criminal justice, and transportation are some of the issues the Jewish state grapples with.
We can remove the dust from volumes of Jewish teaching that are now most relevant. Walking the streets of modern-day Israel, one begins to see the fulfilment of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s dream that “the old will be renewed, and the new will be sanctified.”
A Jewish state means a publicly funded education system. I would argue that one of the reasons we have a state today is because throughout our long sojourn in the Diaspora, Jewish communities created publicly funded school systems.
Jews today are wealthier than any other generation in Jewish history. It’s therefore even more tragic to witness rampant assimilation, much of which would be avoided if day schools were expanded. Sadly, while many would have little interest in Jewish education even if it were free, for many, the main barrier is cost, which for high school is approaching $30,000 a year in Toronto. We can and must do better.
Throughout the 1990s and the first decade of this century, few paid attention to the increasing cost of Jewish education, as enrolment was rising. But since the financial crisis hit in 2008 and costs reached a breaking point, there have been substantial decreases in enrolment, to the point where the sustainability of Toronto’s day school system in its current form is in serious doubt.
I was gratified to see that UJA Federation of Greater Toronto recently included among its top priorities making day school affordable for middle income families, and given the costs of tuition for three or four children, a family income of $300,000 may barely qualify as middle class.
A recent survey by federation found that 75 per cent of parents said cost is a significant factor in deciding whether to send children to a Jewish high school. And for those whose day school education for their children will end after Grade 8, 29 per cent said they’d consider high school if tuition were lowered by 20 per cent. Drop it by 30 per cent, and the number greatly increases, since the increase in tuition compared to the cost of elementary school would be negligible.
To this end, federation is spearheading a pilot project that gives interest-free loans for up to one-quarter of high school tuition fees.
It’s only because of financing – with interest – that most can afford homes or cars, and financing education is common at the university level. The time has come to do so at the high school level, which would allow many to get a Jewish education they otherwise couldn’t afford and wouldn’t affect the tax receipt parents receive.
This is something we should all embrace, but it’s only a first step. Our goal must remain capping tuition at 10 per cent of family income, regardless of the number of children in the system.
When Theodor Herzl said “If you will it, is no dream” regarding the establishment of the State of Israel, it took much more than will, but lowering tuition to 10 per cent of income requires no more than having those blessed with wealth to dream a little bigger.
Our children are counting on you.