School bus outside of a Jewish school in New York
School bus outside of a Jewish school in New Yorkצילום: Shutterstock

The burning question for both Israel and the Jewish world is whether we are all responsible for each other. The new Minister for the Diaspora, Amichai Chikri is now interacting with the Jews of the United States. The hard facts are that within another generation or two millions will no longer be Jewish, will not aspire to living in Israel and will be lost to our people. That is assimilation.

The Minister for the Diaspora is considering a game-changing proposition: that the State of Israel in conjunction with wealthy Jews worldwide assist with finance for Jewish schools in the Diaspora. It should be recognised that many Jewish children are not receiving a Jewish education for financial reasons. These children come from families who simply cannot afford the cost of these private schools or have priorities that include decent housing and an annual holiday. To believe that all Diaspora Jews are wealthy is a fallacy. Many are simply not, with the result that their children are missing out on their heritage and growing up without the ability to pass it on to the next generation.

Allocating blame to individuals or communities will not change facts on the ground. On the one hand the million Israelis, called yordim, who left the Jewish state were in many cases the financial supporters of their families in Israel. Many of them came from impoverished backgrounds, intended to return but found the lifestyle to their liking and had little connection to Zionist ideology. Most of them found it difficult to re-establish themselves and did not enrol their children in fee-paying schools. Their remedy to remain Jewish usually is confined to speaking Hebrew at home. Full stop. On the otherhand, Diaspora Jews are divided into the haves and the have nots. The wealthy can pay. The rest mostly do not.

Considering their lifestyles, American Jews have found more in common with their local peers. Not having a strong Jewish education has been a recipe for integration which includes marrying into the dominant group. Data published by the Pew Research Centre gives a figure of 62% of those married since 2010 to have intermarried (USA)¹. It also shows clearly that the level of affiliation to a religious group or its absence clearly determines the intermarriage rate. Published figures of intermarriage may not be even the end of the story because living together is often the norm today and not counted in the government or other statistics. The number of Jews in the United States, France, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries who are bringing up a Jewish family is dropping down by the minute.

So should Israel be responsible for those living elsewhere? Should Israelis living in a small apartment working hard to make a living after having given years to the army, noticing poverty in their own country be asked to pay for the Diaspora? Should we pay for the American children of those who use their wages to live in big houses, holiday in the Bahamas but cannot stretch their finances further to send their children to Jewish schools? The answer is that Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh – All Israel is responsible for each other.

There are plenty of parents who live modestly, do not holiday and who sacrifice everything to pay for Jewish schooling. The rising costs of this education is impacting upon the health of these parents, usually wage earners who are stretched to the limit, often removing their children from the school system. The time has come to use such a project to bring the costs down to an affordable level to keep and admit more children.

This is not the 1950’s when Israel was flooded with immigrants living in tents during the time when bread had to be subsidized so that there would be enough to eat. This is today, when Israel is a strong economically viable nation with huge technology and military exports and investments, even though admittedly there are pockets of poverty. The roads are packed with cars, the airports full of Israelis travelling overseas. The standard of living is high.

Tweaks can be made to the taxation of the huge multi-national corporations operating in Israel and those on the NYSE and NASDAQ to finance the Diaspora schools projects together with wealthy donors who need to be part of this enterprise, who should be honoured to be associated with it. It is only a matter of will.

There is one other reason that we must not lose these generations of children who live in the Diaspora and who cannot yet make decisions for themselves: There has never been a country where Jews have been able to stay forever: from Spain to Iraq, from Germany to South Africa. France is on the upcoming list, with Russia not far behind. A few years ago Jews in Ukraine did not expect to have to come to Israel, and here they are.

Could the gates of other countries be closed in future? It is in the interests of Israel to ensure that children in the Diaspora are in sync with Israeli Jews education-wise. Short trips to Israel are a great help, but do not remedy the assimilation issue. Once children have a complete Jewish education, once they learn Hebrew, the chances are good of them joining their brothers and sisters in Israel where their future families will remain Jewish. The realistic option today is that when things go bad in their country they will join their brethren in the US or Canada where many will assimilate.

Finance from Middle Eastern countries to many overseas Muslim schools and madrassas is a given. Affordable school fees are the result. Their parents have no reason to choose free government options for their children and ensure that their full heritage will be transmitted to them. We should learn from them.

We must be responsible for all children whether they live in Israel or elsewhere. They are our future.

Leonie Ben-Simon is a freelance journalist with an MBA from Monash University, Victoria Australia.