by Dr. Jonathan Mirvis
Over the past decade three major organizations have offered free quality educational programs targeting the non-Orthodox, i.e. Taglit (Birthright), PJ Library and Chabad. These initiatives have triggered a major debate regarding the pros and cons of free Jewish education. The proponents of these programs point to the dramatic rise in the market share while the opponents question the value attached to free programming as well as the challenges of long term sustainability.
In considering this question, I would like to suggest three important dimensions which I believe add considerable weight to the pro free education advocates.
Education is a platform and not a product
A major argument that has been advanced is the questionable value of free products. This argument, I believe, categorizes Jewish education as a product while it should be viewed as a platform.
Products are often offered for free or at a very low cost in order to entice customers to make a purchase in the hope that once the potential customers discover its value they will purchase the “premium” version of the product. This is the marketing strategy of AVG antivirus and multiple programs and apps which view the sale and use of the product as an end in itself.
As opposed to products, platforms are the gateways to other profit making opportunities like advertisements. As such the platform is offered free with the intention of capturing market share which is then translated into profits from advertising. In the high tech era two of the most financially successful corporations are Google and Facebook, both are platforms vying for market share.
It is crucial that we view Jewish education as a platform. Jewish education is the gateway to Jewish life; it enables the educated person to make Jewish choices. From this perspective market share is key and as Google and Facebook have demonstrated free access to the platform is crucial.
Free education is a basic civic right
In liberal democracies, free education is the right of all citizens. Society is obligated to provide free quality education for all children and teens to ensure they realize their life potential. Education is a right and not a privilege!
Regretfully with the separation of Church and State in the US, Jewish Day School education has become synonymous with private education. However this should only be viewed as a default situation. One of the largest Jewish Day Schools in the world is the London school, JFS, Jews’ Free School. This is a state supported school and parents are asked to merely pay a voluntary contribution annually, a contribution that may not be enforced.
Education is a social responsibility
In the liberal democracies all citizens, parents and non-parents alike, fund the free education that is provided through their payment of taxes. This payment is made because education is viewed as an investment in the future prosperity of the given society. Similarly, in our Jewish society education should be viewed as a social responsibility to be shouldered by all as it is an investment in our future, the future of the Jewish people.
Indeed while free day school education is the ultimate goal, meeting this cost seems to be unachievable. However it is crucial that we continue to build and support free high impact quality programs that will ensure that every Jewish child has access to a quality Jewish educational experience.
Dr. Jonathan Mirvis is a senior lecturer in Social Entrepreneurship at the Melton Center for Jewish Education at the Hebrew University and the outgoing International Director of the Florence Melton Adult Mini School.