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Symbolic Israeli stake in US Jewish education could be growth catalyst

Amichai Chikli, the Israeli diaspora affairs minister, thinks there’s a need for schooling to focus more on deepening Jewish identities.

Likud MK Amichai Chikli, now minister of Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Likud MK Amichai Chikli, now minister of Diaspora affairs, speaks at the Federation of Local Authorities conference in Tel Aviv, Dec. 7, 2022. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.

U.S. nonprofits and individuals support Jewish education in North America extensively. So it may come as a surprise that Amichai Chikli, the Israeli minister of Diaspora affairs and combating antisemitism, has proposed that Israel donate about $40 million to train U.S. and Canadian Jewish day-school educators.

Not only is that amount a drop in the bucket in a field where tuition can cost $30,000 or more per pupil at Jewish day schools, but the natural question is why, if there is such a need, U.S. Jewish charities wouldn’t focus on their own educational backyards first. They could spend an extra $40 million at home and let Israel spend its $40 million domestically. The math could add up the same, and Jewish philanthropists in both countries could focus on what they know best in their own neighborhoods.

JNS got to pose that question directly to Chikli last month during an on-stage interview at the Jerusalem Conference in New York City.

Chikli had announced the Aleph Bet plan, which allocates about $40 million to train North American Jewish-school educators, in May. He said at the conference that he thinks his plan to support Jewish schools can succeed where U.S. and Canadian Jewish foundations have come up short.

“We need to understand that there is a relationship between Jewish education and antisemitism,” he said. “Most of the people that meet antisemitism on a daily basis are students here in the U.S. or in Canada or in Europe. They are the ones we need to confront antisemitism.”

Chikli suggested that American and Canadian philanthropic efforts have largely centered on boosting enrollment and developing programs, but he thinks that there needs to be more of a focus on the educators themselves.

Israelis generally deal with antisemitism only in the context of international forums, like the United Nations, and the diplomatic realm, he said.

“Young Jewish people—sometimes, even in high school—are the ones who need to confront it now. If you don’t have Jewish and Zionist education, it is very hard to stand strong and fight for the truth if you don’t know the history, if you’re not well-educated about your Jewish identity,” he said. “I think that answer to antisemitism, and especially new antisemitism, is Jewish education.”

Amichai Chikli, minister of Diaspora affairs and minister for social equality, arrives for a Cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, May 14, 2023. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

‘A Jewish peoplehood play’

David Bryfman, CEO of the Jewish Education Project, told JNS that while the $40 million Chikli’s ministry plans to send is largely symbolic, it can be a catalyst for growth.

“Having the Israeli government investing in North American schools in trying to improve the quality of Jewish education is really important in showing that the Israeli government cares about Jews all around the world,” Bryfman said. 

“It’s a Jewish peoplehood play as much as anything else,” he added.

Only about a fifth of Jewish children study at Jewish day schools in the United States, according to Chikli. And just 5% of Jewish day-school students are non-Orthodox.

“It means that an entire generation of young Jews don’t get a Jewish education. There are amazing programs that you can do later on, and you can go to Masa and you can go to Taglit (Birthright), but if you don’t have the foundation, then it’s irrelevant,” he said.

Chikli hopes that North American private and nonprofit sectors will match the Israeli government’s investment. His ministry intends to work with the Jewish Federations of North America “to create a model that will enable us to significantly empower Jewish education,” he said.

Chikli said that major investment in Jewish education in Toronto—one of his stops before his arrival in New York City—has paid significant dividends in enrollment.

“This is not going to solve the day-school affordability crisis. Will it improve the quality of Jewish educators in North America? One hundred percent,” Bryfman said. “Can it make Jewish schools better? One hundred percent. But it’s not designed to ensure that every single kid can now afford to go to Jewish day schools.”

Bryfman told JNS that when Chikli speaks publicly about Jewish education, he often refers to Jewish day schools as a catch-all. But “when he slows down, he’s talking about Jewish education and Jewish day schools,” Bryfman said. “He’s talking about Jewish education in supplementary schools and in part-time Jewish education.”

Yamina Knesset member Amichai Chikli attends a Knesset House Committee discussion following a request by from the party for his ouster, April 25, 2022. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90.

Chikli also invests heavily in campus programs and in RootOne, which sends teenagers to Israel. “So he’s talking about the whole field, and not just Jewish day schools,” Bryfman said.

Reform movement tension

Chikli’s plan would almost certainly require cooperation with the Reform movement, which he has criticized harshly, especially in its Israeli form.

When told of a conference the previous week in New York in which Reform leaders called on the movement to, in part, strengthen its ties and shared identity with the state of Israel, Chikli did not appear to budge from his past criticisms.

“I had meetings with Rick Jacobs,” he said, of the rabbi and Union for Reform Judaism president. “He said that he sees himself and the movement as Zionist. There are so many other rabbis from the Reform movement who do see themselves as Zionist and some will not, but that’s not always the case.”

Chikli said he wasn’t suggesting that the entire Reform movement is anti-Zionist, “but you can see that some segments of it do go back to the origins of the movement as a counter-nationalist movement.”

The movement from the start was about being “Germans in the religion of Moses,” he said.

In Bryfman’s understanding, Chikli’s plan will fund a range of schools across the Jewish spectrum.

“The money that’s going into the diaspora is not going to one politically ideological segment,” he said. “It’s not going to one religious denomination. He really is looking across communal organizations.”

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