Federations and Jewish Education: Learning from History So We Don’t Repeat It

Rabbi Scott Aaron

We often do not know we are at important points in history until that point has passed. And, as often as not, we tend to sigh and say “if we only knew then what we know now.”

The U.S. Jewish community is in the midst of just such a moment and, unlike so many other moments, we have the benefit of hindsight to inform how we capitalize on the opportunity. Namely, the Jewish education field and the federation system have an opportunity to once again truly partner in modernizing and innovating educational services for the community at large.

Over the last 80 or so years, the relationship between Federations and Jewish Education often has been perceived as a tug-of-war; polar opposites struggling over control of a communal lifeline. However, this relationship has not always been so strenuous. Indeed, the ubiquitous 20th century model of a communal bureau for Jewish education was developed in 1910 through the New York Kehillah, precursor to the current UJA-Federation of New York. By 1929, at least a dozen such centralized education agencies provided critical support to local Jewish education efforts in major cities across America, in large part due to the efforts of local federations.

When the lifeline started to fray, however, the tussle began. The Great Depression put federations under intense pressure to prioritize social services over Jewish education, often leaving Jewish educational institutions to fend for themselves. This resulted in a rift between Jewish educators and federations that, by the late 1930s, was quite stark. Indeed, as Dr. Jonathan Krasner has noted, there was a real gap in communities about who could be entrusted to ensure the delivery of vibrant Jewish education.

“The willingness and resolve of many Federations to jettison or disproportionately slash funding for educational and cultural programming during the early 1930s had been instructive. There was a serious chasm between educators and community leaders. Each side was highly suspicious of the others’ motives and viewed the other as an impediment to realizing a suitable Jewish educational program.[1]

That trust gap narrowed and widened a number of times since the 1930s, but not solely due to internal communal struggles. Usually they came in response to periodic economic and social changes in the larger American social order that impacted the American Jewish community and its institutions as well. The latest examples include the recent recession, the changing definition of what constitutes a family, the embedding of personal technology in our daily lives, and the receding memory of our own communal immigrant experience.

Since American Jews are, by and large, integrated politically, socially and economically into American society, our Jewish communal problems often mirror its larger problems. So if one looks at American issues around education, such as what constitutes a core curriculum, who should pay for education, and who decides how education funding should be allocated, one can perceive tremors of those issues in our own internal push/pull between communal and educational leadership.

However, as a people who value the lessons of history, it is important to remember there have been moments amid the tugging over the last eight decades when Federations and Jewish Education applied their combined strength to innovate successful models in response to communal needs. In just the last 25 years, effective partnerships have brought strong communal solutions to difficult educational challenges, including Israel travel programs such as Birthright, Jewish camping, day schools, and widespread teen programming.

It is my belief that we once again are living in a moment when Jewish educational institutions and Jewish federations can come together to innovate new solutions to current challenges.

The convergence of two historic factors support my viewpoint: We are just past the largest economic downturn since the Great Depression, and we are welcoming a rising generation of adults who are challenging our long-held assumptions about what constitutes Jewish community, institutional purpose, Zionism and Jewish identity.

As Dr. Jonathan Woocher has pointed out, this generation “asks not how to stay Jewish, but how to be Jewish, how to make our Jewishness something of value, something that Jews will not only acknowledge (which the vast majority do), but actively embrace as one among their many salient identities, perhaps even as the core ‘operating system’ for their lives as they proceed to open the multiple ‘windows’ that fill the screen of their daily living.”[2] While we have asked these questions before in Jewish history, American Jewry is asking them in unprecedented ways, and we have the fortunate capability to answer them positively, as well.

To take advantage of this historic moment, Federations and Jewish Education need to pull together rather than apart. Many challenges to Jewish education are opportunities for cooperative decision-making and innovation.

  1. The recent recession led to the closing of a number of 20th century-era central education agencies. What new models serve as the support mechanism for community education?
  2. The denominations have closed or shrunk educational support services for congregational education. What is the local communal role in picking up the slack?
  3. Critical sources of support for Jewish educational institutions dried up in the recession. Now that they are just able to be replaced, what is the best use of those funds?
  4. Both federations and Jewish education institutions are benefitting from recent efforts to produce more highly educated, better trained professionals. How do we jointly harness that energy?
  5. Federation lay leaders and private funders at every level have opinions about what is wrong with Jewish education. How do we engage them to focus on what is right?

The list goes on and, as the saying goes; the dybbuk is in the details. A culture change in both federations and Jewish education will be needed to truly join forces to tackle our shared challenges, including

  • mutual trust-building among leadership, to overcome decades of distrust;
  • a recognition that both fields bring distinct resources that alone cannot solve the bigger problems;
  • acknowledgment that traditional non-federation support mechanisms for Jewish education, such as synagogues and their funders, no longer are able to be self-reliant in supporting their educational efforts;
  • recognition that federations have the communal gravitas to break down the silos that keep Jewish educational institutions from true cooperation and innovation, and to bring needed funders together at the local level to work strategically to fund those efforts.

This is not a short-term process, but neither are these short-term problems. Times once again have changed, and we have a historic opportunity to prevent another century of the protectionist turfism and mistrust that led to so much wasted time, treasure and tachlis. If we do that, the strength of American Jewry’s lifeline will be ensured for the next 100 years, if not longer.

Rabbi Scott Aaron, Ph.D., is Executive Director of the Community Foundation for Jewish Education of the Jewish United Fund of Metropolitan Chicago.