Diaspora Affairs Minister Wants Israeli Taxpayers to Pay for Jewish Day Schools and Camps Abroad

A plan presented to the cabinet would have Israel allocate 1 percent of its annual budget to sustaining Jewish life around the world

A pupil writes on a blackboard at a Jewish primary school in Paris, France.
Robert Harding Heritage / Godong

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett is advancing a plan that would massively increase Israeli government funding of Jewish communal life abroad. Under these efforts, Israeli taxpayers would help subsidize the high costs of private Jewish day schools and overnight camps for parents who cannot afford them.

According to the plan, which Bennett presented at a cabinet meeting several weeks ago, Israel would allocate 1 percent of the state budget each year – about $1 billion, based on planned spending for 2018 – to projects and institutions that promote what he describes as “the future of the Jewish people.” That would be a seven-fold increase from what Israel currently invests in promoting Jewish life abroad.

Jewish parents abroad often complain about the exorbitant costs of Jewish day schools and overnight camps.

Speaking this week at a conference in Jerusalem, Dvir Kahana, the director general of the Diaspora Affairs Ministry, said that when the plan was presented to the cabinet “not one government minister challenged the principle.” Several expressed strong support for it, he said.

Kahana said he doubted that the plan would be approved as early as next year. “But we see three years from now as a significant target,” he told participants at a conference sponsored by the Israel Democracy Institute on Israel’s relations with Diaspora Jewry.

The major Jewish-world projects that the Israel government currently subsidizes are Birthright and Masa. Birthright brings young Jewish adults on free 10-day trips to Israel, while Masa sponsors hundreds of subsidized educational, volunteer and internship programs in the country.

A few years ago, the Diaspora Affairs Ministry set up the company Mosaic United, through which it directs funding to institutions and projects abroad. To date, Mosaic United has launched one major project: a $66 million initiative aimed as strengthening Jewish identity on U.S. college campuses.

To this end, it has teamed up with three organizations: Chabad, Olami (which is affiliated with the Orthodox outreach movement Aish Hatorah) and Hillel International. The company came under fire for partnering mainly with Orthodox organizations, even though most Jewish students on U.S. college campuses are nonobservant.

Bennett, who is also education minister, heads Habayit Hayehudi, an Orthodox party aligned with the settler movement. The top officials at the Diaspora Affairs Ministry share his political and religious orientation.

Under Bennett, the ministry has also invested heavily in the program the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, whose founders often bill it “Birthright for Moms.” The program also receives support from Aish Hatorah and Chabad.

Like these other projects, the new initiative would be based on a matching-grant model, Kahana said at the Jerusalem conference. “We obviously plan to do this together with investors and philanthropists from around the Jewish world,” he added.

Kahana estimated that 85 percent of the 8 million Jews currently living outside Israel felt no connection to their Judaism or to the Jewish state. “What we need now is less dialogue and discourse, and more action,” he said, adding that Jews in Israel should take the lead in engaging Jews outside Israel.

Kahana said that “regretfully” key organizations and institutions in the Jewish world had lost relevance and were disappearing.