Recently I was sitting at a communal dinner. As usual, the topic of conversation turned to Jewish Day Schools and the relative importance of a Jewish education. Today, this is more hotly discussed than I can ever remember in my thirty years of involvement with Jewish education in Sydney.
The big difference is that now I’m not just hearing it from parents, I’m also hearing it from grandparents and teachers past and present.
Though it appears that the numbers of children attending Jewish Day Schools at around 3400 is steady, the increased birthrate from 400 kids per year of late in the 20th Century has risen to 500. This has cloaked the lower penetration. We all know the story of large numbers of Jewish kids going to government primary schools in Bellevue Hill, Rose Bay and St Ives. Parents take the stance that they will send their kids to government primary and then private (Jewish) high.
But is that the best for our kids? The maxim “Give me the child for seven years and I will give you the man” is not limited to the Jesuits. $12,000 to $20,000 of after tax dollars per child for school fees puts pressure on every family even the affluent ones. In many case it’s a matter of priorities. The family trip overseas versus a child’s future. It’s a difficult choice. If we don’t do enough for their Jewish education from early on, will we already have lost our children?
Another factor is that our Jewish high schools are equipped to accommodate the current number of kids in Jewish primary schools plus a small number who may switch from government schools. We don’t have the capacity to accommodate the 2500 kids now attending government primary schools. Every year 200 of those kids will graduate from primary to high. Many parents talk about switching them at that point to a Jewish school. Today, we can’t house even a quarter of that number.
But back to that dinner. The woman alongside me, a grandmother, said that she had sent her kids to a Jewish Day School because ensuring that her kids marry Jewish was the most important thing she could do for their happiness and for Jewish continuity. She bemoaned the fact that many of today’s children are now so removed from the intense Jewish feeling of the 1940s through 1970s that without a strong Jewish education they would feel little connection to the Jewish world.
Now, look back at the title of this piece. “The best job in the world”. This is what she said to me. “You have the best job in the world because you are in a position to make a difference.”
That resonated with me. As president of JCA, I am often asked what keeps you up at night. Fortunately the JCA is an extremely well run operation and I must admit I rarely lose sleep over it; however when I do it comes in two areas. One is the above mentioned topic of what will Jewish education in NSW look like in 20 years. The other is that more of the next generation are not playing their part in contributing to our community.
The world is changing. Many Gen X and Gen Y, even the products of our day schools, no longer feel an innate need to support the community here andIsrael. At JCA, $3.3m of the $12-13m raised annually goes to fee assistance and special needs in our day schools. It’s less than 5% of their running cost. Even with a recent $4m endowment, it’s not enough to make a significant difference.
But I’m not the only one with the best job in the world. You too have a job. It’s what you do for the next generation. Your kids or somebody else’s kids. Giving or volunteering. It becomes the best job when we can see kids developing a deep love for the traditions and practices that have kept the flame burning for three thousand years and see them wanting to be part of the heritage.
I wish you Chag Sameach and well over the fast.