Taking Aim At A Trial Balloon

October 30, 2013

The recent Pew study on American Jews has lent a sense of urgency to those who want to see Judaism flourish and affiliation rates rise in this country. In a recent op-ed in Forward, which also appeared in the Huffington Post, two leaders of the Jewish Federations of North America, the umbrella group for the system of 152 local federations, sought to address those challenges.

JFNA President Jerry Silverman and Board Chairman Michael Siegal sought to move from hand wringing to action and argued for increased communal funding for what they said were four of the “most effective vehicles for engaging people in Jewish life:” Jewish camping (“We need to … increase the percentage of children attending Jewish camps from 10 percent to 30 percent”), Birthright alumni (“There are over 350,000. … We haven’t effectively followed up with most of them”), Jewish development zones (“We also have to strategically address those places where we are strong in numbers but weak in connection”) and Jewish preschools (“We must commit to offering free Jewish preschool to every Jewish family, a ‘Jewish Head Start’”).

It was the last proposal that got the most attention: Free Jewish preschool? How realistic is that?

Although presented with a flourish in their much-touted op-ed, the four ideas from the JFNA leaders were designed to be conversation starters, not fully developed proposals. But that didn’t stop those seeking to find a “gotcha” moment or other perceived flaws with the ideas. For example, Uriel Heilman, managing editor of JTA News Service, attacked the viability of the free preschool idea. Through some back-of-the-envelope calculations and citations to several recent studies, Heilman concluded that, by a conservative estimate, free early childhood education would cost the American Jewish community $1 billion a year. Quite a princely sum and a number not likely to be achieved. Instead, Heilman suggested: “Why strive to make Jewish preschool free when simply making it less expensive than the alternatives could go a long way toward attracting more families?” And then he asked, “Is cost really the main impediment to higher enrollment?”

The problem with Heilman’s attack is that the JFNA proposals were Big Idea proposals that were designed to generate communal discussion. Heilman’s statistical and financial analysis may be right, but that doesn’t end the conversation. Indeed, it extends it. And, as more attention is focused on the ideas and more comments are generated and shared, each idea can be refined, perfected and, if appropriate, implemented.

We applaud JFNA’s communal challenge and embrace the idea of a careful vetting of those and other ideas to address a clear danger to our national community. And we encourage active dialogue from all segments of our community, seeking to find solutions rather than perpetuating failure.

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