Australian Jews Can Teach American Jews About Jewish Education and Continuity

Too many wealthy American Jews would rather fund Holocaust museums to memorialize the Jewish past than schools to safeguard the Jewish future. Australia’s Jews know how to do it better.

Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart
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A Jewish day school in Washington D.C.
A Jewish day school in Washington D.C.Credit: Natasha Mozgovaya
Peter Beinart
Peter Beinart

I’m sometimes called a self-hating Jew. But that’s not quite right. What I am, some of the time, is a self-hating American Jew.

I hate the fact that the largest, richest Diaspora community in the world has overwhelmingly failed to instill in its children knowledge of, commitment to, and fascination with Judaism. I hate the fact that American Jewish parents are forced to choose between once or twice a week Hebrew schools where many kids learn barely anything and full-time Jewish day schools that are often academically mediocre and cripplingly expensive. I hate the fact that, so often, American Christians know the Hebrew Bible far better than we do. (With the result that when a politician like George W. Bush makes allusions to the Hebrew Bible many American Jews consider it some kind of evangelical secret code).

I don’t hate intermarriage: people should grab love where they can. But I hate the fact that so many young American Jews can’t even make informed decisions about whether to form Jewish families because their parents and community have not given them an elementary understanding of the tradition they’re casting aside. (Some intermarried families do perpetuate Jewish tradition, but the overall statistics are bleak). And I hate the fact that American Jews know so little about Jewish life in other Diaspora communities. Because if we knew more, we might see that other communities are meeting the challenge of assimilation better than us.

I’m writing this column from Melbourne, Australia, where last Tuesday I watched hundreds of teenagers from various Jewish youth movements—most of them not strictly observant--stay up deep into the night on Shavuot learning and arguing. They had named the rooms in which they held their study sessions after Jewish thinkers: Rosenzweig, Buber, Spinoza. Watching it all, I kept thinking: How many American Jewish eighteen year olds could identify those names, or, for that matter, identify Shavuot? What is Australia doing right that we’re doing wrong?

Some of it is historical circumstance. Most American Jews arrived between 1880 and 1920. Most Australian Jews, by contrast, arrived after World War II. (Jewish Melbourne is a city of Holocaust survivors and their descendants). Almost all the teenagers I spoke to on Shavuot had grandparents born in Europe; in the U.S. few would. In Australia, in other words, assimilation has had less time to set in.

But it’s not only that. Students who attend full-time Jewish schools are far more likely to live meaningfully Jewish adult lives than those who don’t. (Jewish schools also usher kids into Jewish youth movements, which are far stronger in Australia than in the U.S.) Roughly two-thirds of Australian Jewish students attend Jewish schools. In the United States, it’s about one in four, and among the non-Orthodox, roughly one in ten. That difference can’t be explained by the fact that Jews have been in America longer because American Jews have never sent their children to Jewish schools at anything like the rate in Australia.

That’s partly because of a noble American Jewish belief in public school as the best way to integrate people of different races, ethnicities and classes. But most American Jewish parents aren’t sending their kids to public school because they believe in it ideologically. They’re doing so because they have access to affordable, academically respectable public schools in the wealthy suburbs where Jews disproportionately live. Or they’re sending their kids to expensive but academically excellent secular private schools. What they’re doing, in other words, is weighing cost and educational quality, and deciding that Jewish schools are simply not good enough to justify the amount they charge.

Think about that for a moment. In theory, the organized American Jewish community cares passionately about helping American Jewish parents raise Jewishly-committed kids. But, in practice, they make Jewish parents choose between giving their children the best possible Jewish education, giving them the best possible secular education and paying their mortgage.

It’s different in Australia. Jewish schools are still expensive, but the cost is more bearable because university is cheap. And academically, Jewish schools are consistently among the best in the country.

There’s no reason, given that one hundred of the four hundred wealthiest Americans are Jews, that we can’t do as well. The money’s there. Unfortunately, too many wealthy American Jews would rather fund Holocaust museums to memorialize the Jewish past than schools to safeguard the Jewish future. Too many would rather give money to universities with billion dollar endowments than to Jewish schools that lack gymnasiums and science labs. Holocaust memorials are considered morally important; universities buildings are considered culturally prestigious; Israel advocacy is deemed politically important. Teaching American Jewish six-year-olds to read Hebrew and know Torah so that a Jewish tradition that has survived thousands of years of exile and persecution isn’t destroyed by affluent, easy-going ignorance? That’s considered small-time.

At least we’ll have Australia.

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