An interesting opinion piece caught my eye last week. Dr. Yonaton Mirvis of Hebrew University argues that the recent debate over access to free Jewish resources should be tilted toward making Jewish education free. He points out that three organizations built around free access, Birthright, PJ Library and Chabad, are examples of broadly positive educational impact through free offerings of their programs. Dr. Mirvis makes three points in favor of free Jewish educational access in light of these programs:
1, Jewish education should be viewed as a platform, not a product. Viewing it like Google, free Jewish education helps us capture "market share" of the Jewish community. If we think of it as a product, free becomes the basic access as opposed to premium access that you would pay for e.g. supplementary schools versus day schools.
2. Jewish education should be seen as a basic right. In western democracies, education is free as a matter of right and Jewish education should be also.
3. Jewish education should be viewed as a communal respsonsibility. Like paying taxes to support public schools, everyone in the Jewish community should contribute to support free Jewish education as a civic duty rather than as an option.
Dr. Mirvis rightly notes that in the USA separation of church and state negates public funding of religious education which is how other democracies fund parochial education, but he says we should still be setting it as our goal and making incremental programs like the three he lists viable free communal priorities.
While I understand and respect his position, for me this is not a helpful argument for making Jewish education free. In a nutshell, the American Jewish community's grassroots, unlike its leadership, does not have the broad sense of communal responsibility towards Jewiish education that would allow for such a broad commitment. It isn't a tightly defined demographic here like it is in other countries - we debate who is Jewish all of the time - and we have emphasized social action as the benchmark of American Judaism rather than Jewish literacy. Let me be clear: social action is a good thing and defines in a positive way many American Jews, but it can be done voluntarily and in increments with little or no cost to the individual other than time. Tzedakkah giving equally can be done in small increments and still achieve personal fulfillment of the communal social action imperative. Committing to funding Jewish education on a regular basis among all of us has not been the emphasis of our culture, and the drawback of the wonderful work of the mega-donors that fund effective programs such as the ones Dr. Mirvis lists is that the unintended message has been sent that someone else will pay for Jewish life, including Jewish education.
Jewish education is not seen as a value in our American culture yet equvilent with other values such as secular education or even leisure activity. Consider the Melton Mini-School adult education program which Dr. Mirvis has so ably led until recently. I have taught for that program for years and it is a mainstay of adult education for our community and dozens of others around the world. But it is expensive to operate; students in our community haveto pay around $600 each year to participate unless underwriting can be found to reduce the cost. For many people, especially in this economy, when they hear that price they think "That's the cost of a vacation or my kid's university book budget this semester" and they balk at signing up for the program even though they know it is of quality and their peers have recommended it. For some, like retirees on fixed incomes, it can even be equated with car payments or rent in terms of cost. Similar reactions arise in other areas of Jewish education as well.
Dr. Mirivis is right on one level - Jewish education should be a right in our community. Unfortunately we are living in a culture of priviledge that has not retooled itself to understand and accept the value, and cost, for every member of the community in order to make it free and available to all members of the community. Making it free won't advance that cause either in my opinion, but I, and the Jewish community at large, am open for suggestions.