The Conference on the Future of the Jewish People, which took place in Jerusalem last week, was an important event which deserved to have been held long ago. Our perennial preoccupation with immediate crises leaves us too little time for addressing the strategic questions of Jewish continuity: the military and demographic threats that jeopardize the future of the Jewish state, and the acceptance of Jews into the societies where they live - a welcome process in itself, but one that poses a challenge to maintaining Jewish identity.
In light of all this, the need for long-term policy planning is pressing. The Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, therefore, deserves praise for organizing the conference - and especially for resolving to create a follow-up task force to push for implementation of the ideas and initiatives that won the support of the conferees.
However, policymakers should be warned of a danger they face: Ironically, due to the unique challenges of our time, they may be tempted to go for "unique" and original solutions that sound interesting but do not necessarily provide fundamental solutions to the problem. For example, over-reliance on short visits to Israel like the Taglit-birthright and MASA programs. These have proved their value in cultivating an immediate connection to Israel and Judaism in young people. But their long-term durability has not yet been demonstrated. Likewise, massively increased programming for Jewish college students - an absolute must in itself - is in the nature of a rescue mission: most of them arrive on campus with Jewish knowledge and identity that are weak to nonexistent.
In contrast, history teaches that the most salient factor in preserving Jewish identity is an old, unfashionable method: intensive (not necessarily Orthodox) Jewish education, specifically elementary and high-school education. Figures from last year show that in the United States, where only 25 percent of Jewish children are enrolled in Jewish day schools, the proportion of mixed marriages among young couples stands at 54 percent. In Mexico, by contrast, 85 percent of Jewish children study in a Jewish educational framework, and the intermarriage rate among young people is 10 percent.
If Jewish community leaders in the United States are genuine in their desire to slow the processes weakening their community, they would do well to reexamine their entrenched opposition to state or federal support for religious education, including Jewish education. They fear that such support, even in the form of tax rebates, would violate the absolute separation of church and state, which could in the long term harm the Jews above all. But it would appear that the proven danger of assimilation must take precedence over fears of potential dangers, particularly after the experience of other Jewish communities that receive funding from the countries they live in without being hurt as a result. At the same time, the vast philanthropic wealth of U.S. Jewry should be translated not only into support for "unique" Jewish projects, but also, and indeed above all, into building and running Jewish day-schools.
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