How Can Israel Assist Diaspora Jews?

By Seymour Epstein   

On July 5th the Knesset ratified an outline drafted by the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs on how to assure the future of Diaspora Jewry. The plan is to create from existing programs and fresh innovative ideas a strategy whereby the government of Israel works with Jewish communities around the world to strengthen Jewish life and the connection to Medinat Yisrael. As a Jewish educator with decades of experience in a variety of communities around the world and as a concerned Jew with both Israeli and Canadian citizenship, I am excited about this development in the government of Israel and wish to offer my humble suggestions in the domain of Jewish education; the veritable strategic plan of the Jewish People. 

This plan is not a first, nor is it unique to us Jews. I remember a conversation I had in the seventies with the Israeli Ministry of Education, which actually had a staff member responsible for Diaspora relations. As director of a Jewish teacher training program at McGill University which sent its students to Israel for a year of study, I requested some form of Ministry diploma for my graduates; only those who completed the Israeli component. I was told that Israel was a sovereign nation that had no interest in other communities’ training programs. Pointing out Germany’s Goethe Institute and France’s Alliance Française made no impression. Since then, however, there have been attempts by both the government and more so by the Jewish Agency to offer real assistance, primarily in the various domains of Jewish education, formal and informal – some of it successful, much of it less so.    

The government outline speaks of a sincere and honest partnership with Jewish communities and attests to the fact that communities around the world differ from each other and that within each community there are vast differences as well. That is already a great step in the right direction, quite distinct from previous attempts which did not properly appreciate the diversity of the Jewish Diaspora. Given the similar diversity of the Jewish population of Israel (political, ethnic, and ideological), it is critically important for the program to be respectful of diversity and apolitical. One wonders if any government program can operate in that mode. I have often thought that such outreach and assistance to the Diaspora should come from the office of the President rather than the Knesset.  

The outline lists six areas of operation: formal education, informal education, activity within Israel regarding knowledge of world Jewry, Tikkun Olam, innovation and technology, and assessment and measuring. One assumes overlap in these six domains as the strategy is built and the program becomes operational. I am primarily interested in all the various elements of education (formal, informal, children, young adults, adults, family, academic Jewish studies, etc.), and assume that innovation, technology, and ongoing assessment will apply to all of the various parts of the program.  

A day after the Knesset decision, Caroline Glick wrote an article in Israel Hayom with her recommendations to Omer Yankelevitch, the new Minister of Diaspora Affairs. Interestingly, in her article, she chose to criticize the mention of Tikkun Olam. I’d like to use her criticism to make a point about how the program should operate. Glick is concerned that Tikkun Olam is used in liberal Jewish denominations “on behalf of the ideological – and increasingly revolutionary – Left.” While it is true that the liberal use of Tikkun Olam as a spiritual meme is less “perfection of the world under the Kingship of God” as in the Aleinu prayer, and more based on Exodus 22:20-26: (“You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. You shall not mistreat any widow or orphan…” etc.), their reading is based on God’s militant concern for the vulnerable in society, and it is absolutely false for anyone to sum up the work done under that slogan as Leftist ideology. If you start educational assistance by denigrating your target audience you are doomed to failure.  

Ms Glick had some other suggestions which also point to errors that the Ministry could make as they strategize their program. She talked of using Israeli teachers as shlichim (emissaries) in Diaspora Jewish schools, paying them less, and thereby reducing tuition costs for low and middle income families. Ask the schools about that. First, a few lower salaries will not significantly lower tuition, and I’d like to meet the Israeli teachers who are willing to work for less compensation than their colleagues. We’ve had shlichim in the past; some successful, many not. There’s nothing better than a native teacher as a role model who loves the same sports, music, and food as the kids he or she teaches. But that’s not the major flaw in Glick’s suggestion. While there are some middle income families that would opt for day school education if it were significantly cheaper, the vast majority of North American Jews have no interest in day school education. Either they are indifferent (or worse, disaffected) to Jewish anything or they are believers in public education. Among them are some Jews who belong to a synagogue, are members of a JCC, and support UJA. But also among them are the growing numbers of Pew-discovered “just Jews” who have absolutely no connection to any forms of Jewish life. They have no portal into the texts, values, and history that are their inheritance as members of our nation. In partnership with communities, Israel might have something to contribute here.  See below. 

Glick also recommends that Israel create texts for Diaspora Jewish schools. In my educational work around the world I saw many closets filled with Jewish Agency textbooks that were never used. And by the way, which section of the Israeli Ministry of Education should provide these aids, mamlachti dati (religious) or mamlachti (secular)?  What works in Israel does not fit systems and contexts that are radically different and the Ulpan is the best example. That pedagogic instrument for teaching Hebrew to new immigrants in Israel is a major success using the direct method developed in mid-20th century. When attempted in Diaspora settings it mostly failed to produce Hebrew speakers due to the lack of Hebrew radio and TV in Toronto and New York, the English, Spanish, or French in the streets of the Diaspora, and most importantly, the lack of motivation. Second – language acquisition is desperately in need of high motivation, the kind an oleh has and a kid in ninth grade in Paris doesn’t have. However, working with Hebrew educators in the Diaspora, Israeli second-language expertise could be useful in creating new models for Hebrew language acquisition. “Hebrew School” could take on a whole new meaning!

Another of her suggestions is that Israel train rabbis for Diaspora synagogues. As the director of education for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee in the nineties, I once or twice placed an Israeli rabbi in a tiny community that was in need of one. Mostly ok. But to think that congregations in North America or other large communities would be well-served by foreign rabbis is folly. The Orthodox and Haredi synagogues are managing well with their own rabbis. The liberal denominations have their own rabbinic training programs which will continue to serve the needs of their congregants. The serious need is elsewhere as mentioned above. Israel could be very helpful in assisting organized communities to recognize the large numbers of Jews in their midst who are unconnected and see no need for a rabbi. It’s so easy for involved Jews at the centre to ignore the periphery. Over the last few decades secular Israeli Jews have found ways to respect and study Jewish sources without identifying as formally religious. Elul, Almah, Oranim, Ono, Mechon Hartman, Shalem, and 929 are replicable examples of Israeli innovation which could bring secular Diaspora Jews closer to both their Judaism and the State of Israel, if and only if, they are adapted respectfully to different contexts.   

There are many other ways in which this new development in the Ministry of Diaspora Affairs can be of significant long-term effect on Jewish communities world-wide, but it all begins with deep respect for the target audience and an apolitical approach. It was Marshall McLuhan who advised us to view the world mostly through the windshield and less through the rear-view mirror. There are new problems which can be mitigated, if not totally solved, by the most adaptable nation I know; a sincere and true partnership between the Jews of Israel and their sisters and brothers around the world. That partnership (Let’s call it Shutafut Yehudit!) can contribute to identity, literacy, and engagement which ultimately produces pride and courage: pride in the past history, values, literature, culture, and enormous achievements of our tiny people, and courage to create a better future for Judaism, Israel, and the wider world by continuing our track record of creative accomplishments.  

Dr. Seymour Epstein (Epi) worked at United Synagogue Day School in Toronto and helped to found an experimental high school there in 1971. From 1973 to 1978 he was an assistant professor at McGill University where he directed the Jewish Teacher Training Program of Montreal.

From 1999 to 2009 Epi was the director of Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education.