By Nina Price
In the Jerusalem Talmud (Berakhot 65:1), Rabbi Yehudah bar Yechezkel recounts that his father would bless each drop of rain with the words of the Mourner’s Kaddish because God kept the drops apart and prevented them from unifying. If Kaddish can be said for each drop of rain, it is certainly an appropriate response to the dismantling of cross-communal Jewish education in Indianapolis, which came about due to the decision by the Jewish Federation of Greater Indianapolis (JFGI) to dramatically reduce its education allocation. The unraveling of Jewish education in Indianapolis is regrettably reflective of what has happened and may occur in other Jewish communities if leadership continues to regard education as an easy line item to cut.
When I was invited to join the staff of JFGI in fall of 2017 to facilitate the transition of Jewish educational visioning and programming from the once independent Bureau of Jewish Education (BJE) to JFGI, I thought the motivation for the reorganization was to better align the role of our local Federation with the national model of an expanded central agency that addresses both funding and programmatic needs. I started my newly created position as the inaugural (and apparently final) Director of Jewish Educational Initiatives naively believing that JFGI would be amenable to sustaining an education department whose allocation was 40% less than the prior annual investment in the BJE. I was encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed by JFGI’s leadership as I applied for grants and was fortunate to receive significant funding that led to the hiring of a Director of Youth Education and Philanthropy, a part-time Holocaust Education and Program Director, and a quarter-time Library Coordinator.
With a team in place, we worked to build a robust network of local Jewish education through a strategy focused on capacity building, community building, and bridge building. Capacity building initiatives aimed to raise the quality of Jewish education through professional development, the creation of professional learning communities, and innovation ignition grants. We created a council for local Jewish educational leaders and instituted an annual educators conference that reached teachers in synagogues, the local day school, youth groups, and the JCC. For community building we promoted cross-communal Jewish education programs such as adult education, interfaith programming, a communal Tikkun Leil Shavuot, and a Tu B’Shevat scholar-in-residence.
While the programs developed by the JFGI Education Department were successful and well-received, JFGI leadership made the fateful decision that they needed to “right size” the education budget by cutting its allocation in half for 2020, eliminating all funding for capacity building and community building initiatives. Multiple reasons were given for the funding decision including that the Education Department did “too much too soon,” institutions should provide their own professional development, and learning experiences aimed at bringing the entire community together were “outside of Federation’s lane” since they were seen by some congregational leaders as competition for their own programming. Ultimately, JFGI leadership decided to prioritize development over programming and fell back into the traditional model of Federation as fundraiser and funder.
Fortunately, some aspects of the JFGI education budget were maintained – namely youth programming, Holocaust education, and the Jewish Community Library – all of which are related to building bridges with the broader community through education. These programs were spared budget cuts because they received matching funding from outside sources. While these programs were maintained for 2020, their future is tenuous as funding sources from the Jewish Teen Funders Network Incubator grant and the Holocaust education partnership with CANDLES Holocaust Museum and Education Center are scheduled to come to a close over the next year. Despite JFGI having made a commitment to funders that it would cultivate internal funding sources to sustain these programs, the recent impact of COVID-19 is rapidly changing funding priorities, and I doubt that endowments to sustain these educational programs will be established.
I have found comfort and guidance in Jewish rituals related to mourning and loss in the past months as I have watched Jewish education in my community unravel and have suffered the loss of my job. One central tradition associated with mourning is the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish. The Kaddish does not mention death but instead focuses on engaging the community in taking note of the present and coming together. Ultimately, one could say that the Kaddish focuses on the needs of the mourner, or learner, which was exactly what JFGI’s Education Department was aiming to do through its work.
The overarching focus of the Kaddish is to involve everyone in the community, regardless of status, through the repetition of the word “amen” at key points in the prayer. If we are to take a learner-centered approach that encourages meaningful participation, as the wisdom of the Kaddish indicates, our community should be asking itself how we can grow future generations of learners (as well as donors) without vibrant education that strengthens community and commitment to engagement. In Midrash Mishlei 14:2, another text that discusses the Mourner’s Kaddish, it is taught that the Kaddish involves people responsively saying “amen” because, “in the lack of people a ruler is ruined.” By prioritizing fundraising over learning, the Indianapolis Jewish community runs the risk of forfeiting its role as a leader because there will be insufficient people engaged in the community who value its role.
Another Jewish tradition related to mourning is to use the greeting “Baruch Dayan Ha-Emet” – “Blessed is the Judge of Truth” – when encountering a mourner. It is with these words in mind that I have chosen to write this article. It is important for the community to recognize that it was not just COVID-19 that led to the elimination of educational programs. The timing may lend itself to that narrative, but this process was set in motion well before stay-at-home orders were put into place and widespread economic downturns occurred. In fact, JFGI made efforts to obscure what happened by asking me to sign a non-disparagement agreement as a condition for receiving severance pay. The agreement included a stipulation that neither I nor any immediate family member could criticize JFGI “regardless of the truth of the matter communicated.” In the face of mourning, Jewish tradition compels us to look at the truth. I chose to forgo any severance pay in order to share the story of the demise of Jewish education in Indianapolis so that it can serve as a warning for other communities and potentially help my own community understand the impact of the fateful decisions made by its leadership.
The Kaddish ends with the words, “May the One who creates harmony on high, bring peace to us and to all Israel and to all the inhabitants of the earth.” The Jewish community, along with the rest of the world, is facing unprecedented times. In the face of such crises the closing of Kaddish provides guidance. We need to find ways to bring communities together and stop seeing one another as competitors for limited resources, whether they be dollars or participants. Instead, we need to work together to bring peace and wholeness to our community. As an educator, I believe shared learning is key to bringing about and sustaining shalom, which is something we all need in our world today.
Nina Price is a Jewish educator and Wexner Graduate Fellowship alum who is currently developing new tools for online Hebrew instruction for public high schools and designing curriculum for the Center for Interfaith Cooperation.