Rarely a day passes without hearing from one of my friends in the Jewish world about a new project in which they have become engaged or an organization for which they are fundraising. The conversation that ensues is often one about shared interests and common concerns. Sometimes the conversations result in my renewed optimism and other times they cause me to have sobering realizations; but never have they made me sick to my stomach.
Until last week.
An unexpected call from a former colleague who left Atlanta to move to Asheville, North Carolina started out with the usual pleasantries – work, family, memories of old times. But quickly the conversation turned to the matter that was obviously on my friend’s mind – the state of affairs of the nascent community Jewish Day School in Asheville where his children attend and of which he is president. His story started out inspiring enough, nineteen families had come together in 2006 to create a fully integrated core/Jewish curriculum day school for their twenty-one children, with plans to increase the school size by the incremental addition of students and grades. In the middle of North Carolina, where so much of the Jewish community had migrated away from to lager population centers like Charlotte and Atlanta, the small but resilient Jewish community of Asheville was not going to yield to demography. Grounded in a community with religious diversity and a small but strong JCC, the school would be an extension of the Jewish community’s efforts to create a rich Jewish experience for their children. At least that was the intention.
Now, like every school (and other community organization) in the country that is facing the hardships of the Great Recession, the Maccabi Academy of Asheville is in financial crisis. Its $40,0000 deficit is too big, its community is too small; it is literally on the edge of going from a school that could be much more to a school that might be nothing more than a memory. It made growth decisions that anticipated financial security and now must revisit those decisions with deep cost-cutting measures. It must ask more from each family, and has already received more than most families can afford. Looking beyond its small community it has reached out to friends throughout the Southeast that might have connections to Asheville or North Carolina in the hope they might find an angel or an unexpected benefactor from afar. But one decision my friend, his board, and his fellow parents are loathe to consider, but nonetheless must – without the needed funds, will it be possible to continue this Jewish day school experience for those nineteen families?
As a Jewish people we say that education is one of the most important elements of sustaining ourselves. As a North American community we insist that day school education is one of the most critical means to provide our children an immersive educational and communal experience (often at the expense of investing too little in congregational education). We encourage families to send their children to day schools; we cajole parents to give more of their resources to make those schools strong. We know that education is expensive and we say to one another that we face an affordability crisis that threatens our ability to provide the education we know is needed. Yet say every child matters, so we mustn’t fail in providing that education, no matter the cost. We say all of these things.
There are nineteen Jewish children in Asheville, North Carolina, far from the Jewish centers of life in New York, Los Angeles, Boston and Atlanta. These children are getting a daily dose of Jewish education, culture and language, and they are sharing experiences that will help cement their identities for years to come. They may go elsewhere in life, far from Asheville – perhaps even to our own communities. We know this.
So with all we know, let me ask this – will we, the Jewish people, let this school fail?
And if we do, what does it mean about what we say?
Seth A. Cohen, Esq. is an Atlanta-based attorney, activist and author on topics of Jewish communal life and innovation. Seth is an alumnus of the Wexner Heritage Program, Vice Chair and past Allocations Chair of the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, member of the board of Joshua Venture Group and First Vice President of Jewish Family & Career Services in Atlanta. Seth regularly shares his thoughts on where we are going as a Jewish community on his blog, Boundless Drama of Creation, and is a regular contributor to eJewish Philanthropy. Seth can be contacted directly at seth.cohen [at] agg.com.