Living in a world where UNESCO threatens our Jewish heritage and an election south of the boarder brings up shades of anti-Semitism, I have spent a lot of time thinking about the state of Jewish education in Ottawa.
We are experiencing a resurgence of institutions across the spectrum of Jewish education. In recent years, we have seen new leadership and enhanced programs at many of the supplementary schools, and great successes in Barrhaven and beyond in attracting new families that previously were not accessing any sort of Jewish education for their children. Additionally, Torah High continues to attract Jewish teens to connect and continue to build a Jewish identity.
In our day schools, the Torah Day School of Ottawa, an integration of two schools that were passionate about Orthodox education, demonstrates the power of working together within a community while the Ottawa Jewish Community School continues to educate our future community leaders with our students achieving spectacular results, scoring in the top 25th percentile nationally in subjects such as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Across all of these institutions, students are being offered learning environments with other Jewish children and are beginning their own personal journeys of developing a love of Judaism and a connection with Israel within a vibrant Ottawa Jewish community. Educating our children Jewishly is the only way to ensure they are equipped to address challenges to Judaism in our community and beyond.
The challenge we continue to face is that not enough children in our community are accessing Jewish education, either from supplementary or day schools.
It is no secret that there has been a decline in day school participation across North America, including in Ottawa. We have seen a decline in overall day school enrolment in Ottawa from more than 600 children in 2005 to about 335 students in 2016.
The bigger challenge is that, over that time, we have seen, at best, flat line participation in supplementary schools in Ottawa, with about 300 participating annually. With a relatively static population of approximately 14,000 Jewish people in Ottawa, we can estimate there are about 2,300 school-aged children that could be accessing Jewish educational programs in the city. This means that about 70 per cent of the children in our community are not receiving either a supplemental or day school Jewish education. This is where we need to come together as a community. We can do better. We must do better.
To do so, in my opinion, requires two key elements.
First, we must make Jewish education for our children a key priority. We must make it a priority as parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, and community members to promote the importance of Jewish education for our children.
Education of our children is of upmost importance. A Torah commentary states “the future of the Jewish people depends on the education of its children, and Halachah provides that even before building itself a synagogue, a community must provide for the Torah education of its young.” While we do not all come back to shul after the High Holidays each year, we should all commit to increasing the number of children in our community that attend some form of Jewish educational institution in Ottawa.
Second, we must all have a sense of love for participating in our community’s Jewish educational institutions. In “Parashat Ki Tavo,” we heard that we are expected to approach Judaism with joyfulness and not out of a sense of obligation. This is an empowering thought. Becoming involved and participating in our schools from a sense of love of community and love of our children will propel us further than participating from a sense of obligation. We must show our children the same love that generations before us have shown for the future of our communities as evidenced by the sacrifices made, and the challenges overcome, by the Jewish people around the world.
As a community, we should strive for 100 per cent participation of children in our community in some type of formal Jewish education. I urge all families in our community to have their children educated Jewishly, to give our children the knowledge and confidence to be Jewish in a challenging world.
I encourage more volunteers to step up and commit themselves to one of our amazing educational institutions and to make a difference in the life of a Jewish child in our community.
I hope that more community leaders will decide to make Jewish education the number one priority for their influence and support. Education of our community is the key to community continuity and to the future of Jewish life in Ottawa. We need to provide our children with the knowledge to be able to understand the importance of maintaining Jewish continuity and to effectively practise Jewish customs and rituals. The climate in the world right now towards Jewish heritage and Judaism is a wake-up call. Let us all make Jewish education our number one priority this year.