A New Vision for American Jewry

by Ben Avraham

Rabbi Jonathan Saks is currently devoting his weekly divrei Torah on the issue of leadership. He speaks about Abraham’s quality, as an Ivri, literarily on the other side. While everyone was rushing to be in the center of Mesopotamia, the heart of civilization, Avraham was going in the opposite direction. Since the Pew Study was released, I have yet to see a leader advocate that we should go in the opposite direction, but that is what is need right now.

The Pew study confirms that we are in a post-denominational Judaism, most Jews have no religion, and even those non-Orthodox that identify with a denomination, aren’t Temple or Synagogue members. It is time for radical change. We need a bold proposal to move us forward that is counter-cultural and represents the Ivri of Abraham.

It is time to have only one non-Orthodox denomination. There should be one rabbinical school and one college, with campuses on both coasts. We need to close down most synagogues and Temples, and create mega synagogues and Temples with multiple services. A leadership team in each community, led by the local Federation, should evaluate the most lucrative properties to sell, and begin to strategically close down institutions within the next five years.

I believe that if we were to sell all the excess real estate of the rabbinical schools and synagogues and Temples around the country, we probably could net over a trillion dollars. I am proposing that those monies be put into endowments of local Federations to create a mega fund. A portion of the mega fund from larger communities will be put into a national pool to help smaller communities. The mega fund will have two purposes; one is to provide severance for all of the unemployed staff from these institutions, until they can find other employment. The primary use of the mega fund will be for the creation and maintenance of Jewish primary and secondary schools across North America.

In South America, and in all the commonwealth countries, including Canada, most Jews attend a Jewish day school. The schools provide the best secular education with a Jewish education. The models for these schools exist, and we can easily replicate them and establish schools throughout North America. We can adapt their curriculum for our students, and bring in experts from those countries to guide their establishment on our shores.

We need to create a cultural shift, closing down the religious schools that are now part of most congregations, and creating an affordable and excellent primary and secondary school for Jewish youth. The new cultural shift will make attendance in a Jewish primary and secondary school normative for every Jewish child.

I would propose that in communities, with Orthodox day schools of less than 150 students, that those schools close as well, and the students will be part of the new primary school with their own Judaic track. This model is currently working at the Hyman Brand Jewish Academy in Overland Park, Kansas. These efficiencies will net even more dollars for the mega fund.

These mega funds should provide ongoing, yearly funding to ensure a quality education with very low tuition for these schools. There should be excess funding to support existing Orthodox day schools with more than 150 students in each large community, reducing tuition dramatically. In smaller communities, I envision regional schools serving a few communities.

These new schools, as evidenced by the new Jewish high schools that have opened in the last 20 years throughout North America, will restore Jewish literacy to the American Jewish community. They can make our students proficient Hebrew speakers, allowing them to converse and interact with the Israeli community. Our schools can inculcate our youth with Judaism, as an ancient religion with modern sensibilities. Our schools can embrace everyone, whether they are born Jewish or choose to become a part of the Jewish community. Most importantly, with a focus on education, we can reverse the current downward trajectory of American Judaism.

Now where is the Avraham HaIvri of this generation, ready us to lead us in a new direction?

Ben Avraham is a Jewish Communal professional with over 25 years of experience. After rising through the ranks to a senior position at a Jewish Federation, he is now employed by a national Jewish organization.