Thursday, July 24, 2014 Tammuz 26, 5774

Education's Our Only 'Next Big Idea'

November 8, 2007
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The Andrea and Charles Bronfman Foundation recently caused a stir by announcing that it would award a teaching job at Brandeis University -- as well as a generous salary -- for the person who comes up with the next "big idea" to transform the way the Jewish community thinks about itself.

Given the popularity and success of some other recent "big ideas" (namely, the Birthright Israel program, which brings young adults to the Jewish state for a free, 10-day trip), the notion of such a national brainstorming session seems like smart thinking. Creating an incentive to conceive another successful project could be just the ticket for a community that could certainly use a little inspiration.

But as some critics of the contest have noted, Judaism has always been chock-full of big ideas -- ideas that have created a rich religious and cultural history. They have been inspiring Jews for thousands of years, without any need for grants or marketing plans.

As much as we respect the desire to prompt creative solutions to contemporary problems, there's an element to this that is worrisome. That's because this cheerleading for innovation is actually sort of a misdirection play. What we are trying to do is to trick a population bored with the organized Jewish world into buying an old Jewish agenda of communal philanthropy that the existing structures were created to support. But no matter how original our "big ideas" wind up being, they eventually fail if those we're seeking to attract have little interest in parochial Jewish concerns.

No matter how many bells and whistles -- and trendy marketing concepts -- are utilized to attract younger Jews, we're still faced with the fact that people who haven't been raised to believe they are part of a community of faith -- or even of the Jewish people itself -- aren't going to fall for Jewish ideas of any kind, big or small.

Hence, the whole "big idea" business so many organizations now herald tends to be something of a way to ignoring the real topic: how to create new generations with an authentic connection to Jewish identity. Try as we might to avoid it, there is only one way to do that, and that is through education. As it so happens, there's no reason for our greatest minds to ponder how to do that; we just have to give them the existing tools.

How do we do that? Again, there is no mystery surrounding the solution. A quality network of Jewish day schools and supplementary schools already exists in a variety of formats suited to parents and children from different religious streams.

What is lacking are the funds to make day schools affordable for the entire community. The prohibitive cost of tuition at these institutions makes them inaccessible for the majority of middle-class families. Also needed is a national marketing plan to sell parents on the imperative to give their kids a comprehensive Jewish education.

Synagogue religious schools suffer from the same problem -- a lack of funding that could improve the quality of the programs and the caliber of the teachers. We should expect no less of them than we would of any other type of educational environment -- good, solid, trained professionals.

Getting adequate financial support for education should be the community's No. 1 priority; the fact that the money's not there certainly isn't news. But it remains a genuinely "big idea" that has somehow failed to inspire philanthropists; it also has escaped the eyes of communal organizations looking frantically for answers to the Jewish existential question.

If those looking to cash in on the Bronfmans' generous offer have some ideas about this conundrum, they will indeed be welcome. But the truth is, we don't need a contest to understand what must be done. What we lack is the will to do it. And until we find it, all the well-meaning competitions in the world will just be a waste of time. u

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