Just Say No to U.S. State Funding of Jewish Schools

There are plenty of avenues for Jewish children to explore their religious identity – the classroom does not have to be one of them. Certainly not at the state’s expense.

It’s back to school time again in the United States. Local office supply stores are filled to the brim with parents poring over school supply lists, trying to choose both the trendiest and most economical backpack for their children; college students are flooding retail stores, looking for the perfect bean bag chair or television for their dorm room. But it's also an election year, which means there's renewed debate on hot topics, including government funding of private schools, including Jewish ones. According to a recent op-ed in JTA, several Jewish organizations have now begun to seriously consider lobbying the government for funding of Jewish schools.

We cannot let this happen. Doing so, as the ADL points out, would set a dangerous precedent, and blur the separation of church and state in the United States. Although in recent years the government has allowed for some scholarship funds and tax breaks for Jewish schools, allowing public funding would pave the way toward unsavory ends.

If the U.S. government provided aid to Jewish schools, it would need to support other religious schools as well, to avoid favoritism of one religion. Very easily, the entire effort could snowball into the support of schools which espouse radical ideologies, whether they are Jewish, Christian, Muslim, or other. A New York Times report in May 2012 discussed how private school vouchers in Georgia often support fundamentalist Christian schools that teach creationism and biblical teachings as fact. Regardless of your opinion as to whether these teachings are true or not, there is no place for U.S. government funding for these kinds of initiatives, as they clearly promote one religion over others. They can hurt public schools, which may suffer due to lack of funding or due to a deluge of students leaving their programs.

The motivation behind the support for public funding is understandable. Jewish day schools, like Jewish summer camps, are expensive. According to the ADL, the Jewish day schools average $14,000 a year per child. If you send your child to 12 years of schooling, that’s about $168,000, or the price of a home in some areas, for your child’s education. Organizations like the ADL are committed to trying to find investors for Jewish education, and I support their goal of using private individuals and donations to help struggling parents pay for Jewish education.

While I understand the importance, for some parents, of sending their children to private Jewish school, I did not attend one myself. There was no logistical, educational, or ideological reason for me to attend Jewish school: my family didn’t keep kosher, the public schools in our area were excellent, and my parents, while caring about cultural tradition, were secular Israelis who didn’t find religious education necessary in our schooling.

I was the only Jewish student in my elementary school. Even when my family moved to an area that was populated with more Jewish people, when I was in the third grade, I still received more invitations to attend church than I could count, and encountered Christmas trees in classrooms and religiously-minded teachers who warned us that “evolution was only a theory.” And, you know what? I am a better person for it. I have understood first-hand what it means to be a minority, and strengthened my own identity by comprehending the differences and diversity that exist in the United States.

We need to stop thinking of Jewish day school as the ultimate provider of a Jewish education, as it will only divide our community further, between those who can afford it and those who can’t. It’s time to view alternatives as being the mainstream. For example, for parents who don’t qualify for subsidies, have excellent public education in their neighborhoods, or for any other reason don’t want to shell out their mortgage for Jewish education, there are plenty of other options: summer camp and any other communal experiences with other Jewish people are not only useful, but essential; and youth group programs are often free or less expensive than Jewish day school, and allow parents to pay for one event or conference for their children, which are also often subsidized by synagogues, rabbis, organizations or local families. It’s far easier to pay $25 a few times a year for youth group seders or sukkot dinners, or pay $300 for a regional conference once a year, than to pay for Jewish day school.

For many, Jewish education has been tremendous in developing strong, Jewish adults and has fostered a sense of community in areas with larger Jewish populations. But while we should still support initiatives that bring investment into Jewish education, that education does not necessarily have to occur in the classroom, and definitely not at the state’s expense.

Yael Miller is a graduate student at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies.