While providing Jewish education and ensuring the health and viability of Jewish schools is a challenge in contemporary North American contexts, it is a challenge the Jewish community has faced for generations, according to Daniel Held, one of Canada’s leading experts on Jewish education.
Held, executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education, the educational arm of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, spent two days in Ottawa last month meeting with the Jewish Federation of Ottawa and with boards and staff of several Jewish schools and synagogues.
The Koschitzky Centre works with more than 70 day and supplementary schools in the Greater Toronto area, serving about 16,000 students – one of the largest populations of Jewish students in North America.
In an interview, the day after speaking at the public Federation members’ meeting, November 18, Held discussed several of the challenges currently facing the Jewish educational system, noting Jewish education “always needs to be at the top of our agenda.”
Day schools, Held said, “are the gold standard of Jewish education,” but day schools across North America face issues of affordability and financial sustainability in an era where tuition costs – of necessity – have risen at a much higher rate than family income.
In order to address the financial viability of day schools in Ontario – which, unlike other provinces with Jewish day schools, provides no funding to non-Catholic faith-based schools – Held said the Jewish federations in the province have teamed with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), the federations’ advocacy agent, to launch a task force “dedicated to determining how we can better leverage government funding to day schools.”
All types of models will be studied, Held said, ranging from per student subsidies used in jurisdictions like Quebec to program funding in use in parts of the United States where governments provide funding for such things as school nutrition programs, security, busing, textbooks and government-mandated services that schools provide.
The task force, Held said, will explore and determine which funding models “might be most tenable to pursue in Ontario.”
Of supplementary schools, Held said innovation is important and pointed to the Koschitzky Centre’s WOW! Fund, which has provided funding for eight innovative supplementary school programs that have met with great success.
He also stressed the importance of Jewish summer camps and suggested that the immersive experience of Jewish camps could be applied to before- and after-school care for public school students.
“There are many dual income families who send their kids to public school, which, depending on the school, may run from 9 am to 3:30 pm, and they need to drop their kids off early and pick them up later. So they pay for before- and after-school care.
“What if we were to offer Jewish before- and after-school care at a JCC or synagogue which integrates child care and rich Jewish educational experiences?
“We need to start thinking outside the box in looking for other kinds of robust and rich Jewish education,” he said.