On my flight from Israel to Canada at the beginning of the month, I observed hundreds of Birthright students who were returning home after their 10-day adventure in Israel. For many, it was their first time in Israel. Suffice it to say that, without the dozens of Birthright groups in Israel during winter break, there would have been few tourists.
No one can doubt the exuberance of the Birthright participants much as one cannot deny that the epicentre of Jewish life, Jerusalem, is vibrant, growing and the exemplification of a renewed spirit of Jewish learning, life and pride in Judaism, and, by extension, the State of Israel.
On the other hand, on our return to Ottawa, we see a dampening of that religious spirit that pervades Jerusalem and Israel. Synagogue memberships are down, student populations in the city’s day and afternoon schools are declining, and there is a waning of commitment on the part of young Jews to their faith and community. What will the picture of the Ottawa Jewish community look like in five or 10 years?
Issues of affordability and sustainability in Jewish educational institutions such as day schools remain as potent as ever in determining whether there is a future for Jewish education in Ottawa. Of course, Ottawa is not unique in this regard. Jewish communities elsewhere are facing the same issues. Rising tuition costs cannot meet the rising costs of educating a child in the Jewish day school network. Fundraising efforts are insufficient in erasing debts incurred by schools. Federations must deal with the ugly reality that they must constantly play catch-up to enable schools to remain above financial waters.
Schools must think of new ideas, new alternatives, in order to survive. Their survival is an indication of the survivability of the larger community. Hard and unpopular decisions must be taken to preserve our educational institutions in Ottawa. We who live in Ontario are not as privileged as our neighbours to the south [as well as some other provinces] who are recipients of government aid for parochial day schools despite the claim of separation of church and state. Recently, the Orthodox Union in the United States declared its campaign to petition the American government to provide even more money to Jewish day schools. In Ontario, the provincial government will not provide money to a faith-based school to purchase a three cent pencil unless said school is Catholic.
Interestingly, at a conference of Orthodox rabbis in Israel, which I attended, it was announced that the Israeli government will be providing billions of dollars in financial aid to Diaspora schools. The Israeli government recognizes that formalized Jewish education, in addition to the family, are the guarantors of Jewish continuity.
We remind ourselves constantly in our prayers when we take the Torah out of the Aron Kodesh that Torah shall come forth out of Zion or Jerusalem. Perhaps some of that Israeli largesse will come to aid our schools in Ottawa. The closure of any Jewish educational institution because of a lack of funds and student is disastrous, and a bad omen for the future of its host community. Without Jewish schools, there is no Jewish community. There is no future.