By: Dr. Shlomo Fischer, Dr. John Ruskay
We then inquired further about the kind of involvement and support the Israeli government should provide Jewish education in the Diaspora. Specifically, we asked about both developing curricula and providing funding to reduce financial barriers for those who wish to attend Jewish schools, camps, and other educational programs. Slightly more than half (53.7%) supported the idea that the Israeli government should offer funding, either together with involvement in curricula and other forms of content design, or that it should just provide funding without any involvement in programming.
Some of those who supported the idea of Israeli funding suggested that it be directed toward specific programs, such as Jewish summer camps (which they felt were especially effective in promoting Jewish identity) or experiential programs in Israel. Others felt that the support should be wider; as one participant from New York put it: “Lots of folks liked reducing financial barriers for enrolling in Jewish schools, camps, and educational programs.”
At the same time, some participants expressed reservations. These related again, first and foremost, to concerns about the strings the Israeli government might attach to such funding. As one participant in Cleveland remarked: “Financial support is nice and if it’s forthcoming it is great – but maybe strings are not good.” Another Cleveland participant expressed himself more sharply: “[Such support] worries me. It could become propaganda of government in order to get its message to the Diaspora.” Another participant worried out loud that he would welcome “reducing financial barriers in education, camps etc. But are there strings attached?” Perhaps the clearest expression of such reservations appeared in one response to an open-ended survey question: “I am uncomfortable with partisan political Israeli governments shaping Jewish education in the USA; I would rather see the government either investing in affordable tourism or promoting education for Israelis about Jewish life in the USA.”
Other participants expressed their reservations differently. Some, as indicated above, thought that such involvement was paternalistic and thought that Israel should invest the money in its own educational system, especially in regard to the Diaspora. Thus, another participant in Cleveland stated that the Israeli government should “invest in Israelis learning about the Diaspora.” This is a theme that repeatedly cropped up in the Dialogue sessions in response to several questions we posed. A participant in New York expressed the sentiment that “Israel should worry about their own education on Judaism before they start coming in strengthening Jewish education in the Diaspora.” This assertion was echoed in many groups.
A larger majority (63.6%) endorsed the idea that Israel should work to strengthen Jewish education curricula and content. Here too, this endorsement was nuanced. As one woman from Northern New Jersey emphasized: “The real need is not with Orthodox or Conservative Jews. The State of Israel should concentrate on non-affiliated or marginally affiliated Jews… Israel should stay out of subsidizing Yeshivas; they don’t need it.” Some participants argued that while Israel can help with Israel education and especially the teaching of Hebrew, its contribution to Jewish education in America was limited because Israelis do not sufficiently understand the American Jewish community. As one educator from Chicago stated, “there’s too big of a disconnect between American and Israeli Jewish life so [Israeli governmental involvement] is not helpful in many areas, but we need huge help in Hebrew education.”
A number of Israeli students also thought that the Israeli government should not intervene in Jewish education in the Diaspora, arguing that that it should be left to the Diaspora communities themselves to convey their own understanding of Judaism and Jewish life.