This month marks the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Akiba Hebrew Academy, the unique Jewish community day school in Philadelphia that arried two great distinctions – one of the the first schools ever financed in its entirety by the local federation of Jewish agencies and an educational institution which never turned away any student for financial considerations, even though the school was indeed private and charged tuition.
Most recently, when two hundred Israel resident Akiba graduates gathered for their own Jerusalem-based reunion, I found that the vast majority of Akiba alumni who now live in Israel were scholarship students at Akiba who otherwise could not have enjoyed a Jewish education.
I was also a scholarship student at Akiba. As was my sister.
Ever since my late father left Hebrew School during the depression in order to work in the afternoons to help his family’s income, it had been my father’s hope that his children should benefit from the Jewish education that his parents could not afford for him.
It was therefore a great day in his life when he came home from work with the word that a Joseph Cohn, then the head of the scholarship commitee at Akiba had called him during his lunch hour to inform him that I had been accepted as a full scholarship student at Akiba.
My father offered to do his part to fund raise for the school, and volunteered our garage to stock wine for Akiba wine sales each Passover. And when a few wine bottles broke, the taste of Akiba wine accompanied our family car for many years to come.
Yet if I were living in Philadelphia today and if I lived on a salaried income like my father a generation ago, I would not be able to afford day school Jewish education for my children. Scholarships have all but disappeared. Jewish education now remains the province of the rich.
Indeed, many of my friends who work in Jewish Communal Service throughout the US affirm that they cannot afford Jewish education for their children. When I ask my colleagues in the Jewish Federation world as to the reason for the high cost of Jewish education and the lack of community resources to back it up, their explanation remains brutal and realistic: Jewish education is not a sexy item on the fundraising agenda. Jewish educations is not attractive like causes in Israel. Indeed, fundraising for projects in Israel from the US alone now reaches more than $1.5 billion dollars, half of which comes from private Israeli rganizations that raise funds outside of the framework of Israel Bonds or the UJA.
With so much diaspora Jewish resources coming into Israel, and with the Israeli stock market on a continuing high and the per capita Israeli income now approaching the per capita American income, perhaps we in Israel should extend direct assistance for scholarship funds so that Jewish students abroad can learn in day schools of their choice, even if their parents cannot afford it.
What Israel would request in return is that every Israel scholarship graduate spend a commensurate time in Israel, giving service to Israel, whether in schools, hospitals, social services or even in the IDF.
The time has come for Israel to extend itself to preserve the Judaism of the next generation of diaspora youth. That is not only accomplished by sending teachers as “shlichim” or by bringing young Jews to Israel for the summer.
What we are talking about is letting Jewish young people having the right to right to learn the basics about who they are. And Israel can facilitate that right.
We in Israel now have the resources to make sure than Jewish education is not the exclusive province of the “well to do” abroad.
The time has come to ask not what disapora Jews can do for Israel, but what Israel can do for Diaspora Jewry. “Let my people learn” could be the slogan of Israel’s fiftieth anniversary.