American Jewry at Risk: “A Time to Act” and the Prioritization of Jewish Education

May. 28, 2016

Source: Contemporary Jewry (2016)


Twenty-five years after the publication of A Time to Act, by the Commission on Jewish Education of North America (CJENA), we are in a position to evaluate this initiative with historical hindsight. At the time, the commission was heralded as an unprecedented communal undertaking and a signal that after years of perfunctory treatment and neglect by the organized Jewish community, Jewish education was gaining recognition as a vital concern. While accurate, this assessment benefits from contextualization both in the American and the American-Jewish situation of the 1980s and early-1990s. The CJENA and its report mirrored American anxiety during that same period about the state of K-12 education, while initiatives to address systemic weaknesses in Jewish education were concurrent with the spate of reform efforts spawned to address the perceived decline in public education. At the same time, A Time to Act exemplified a more general malaise within the Jewish community about the effects of rapid integration on Jewish ethnic and religious survival.

Communal leaders became convinced that Jewish education could stem the assimilationist tide. The CJENA, which was funded by the Mandel Associated Foundations, also presaged a sea change in the funding of Jewish education, particularly the growing impact of mega-donors on the Jewish educational landscape. Among the commissioners were a number of the funders and foundation executives who emerged in the 1990s as formidable players in such areas as summer camping, adult education, leadership training, day schools and heritage tourism. Indeed, the greatest legacy of the Commission may be that it paved the way for the initiatives that followed. If A Time to Act was not a veritable voice crying out in the wilderness, its cri de coeur shaped the leading edge of a broad-based effort of reform and revitalization facilitated by an influx of family foundation funding. And while it is an exaggeration to claim that the commission generated the celebrated and fruitful mega-donor collaborations of the late-1990s and early 2000s, including the funding of Taglit-Birthright Israel and the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, it undeniably contributed to an environment that placed a premium on such partnerships.

A blue-ribbon commission on Jewish education was unprecedented when the CJENA was convened in 1988. No doubt, this was part of the attraction to its funder. The American Jewish demographic trend lines of assimilation and intermarriage shook him up, providing a sense of urgency that allowed him to check his skepticism and act boldly. Convinced that Jewish education was the key to the continuity of the non-Orthodox Jewish community in North America, he zealously committed himself to its advancement and reformation, comparing this endeavor to the quest to cure cancer. Like the fight against cancer, the pursuit of a more inspiring and effectual Jewish education system would be protracted, conducted by myriad teams of researchers and practitioners, with small victories adding up to significant advancements, as well as occasional disappointments.

It was this animating vision that fueled the CJENA, and the spectacle of 44 prominent philanthropists, community leaders, and educators lending their time, energy, and good names to the endeavor created a sense of hope and a belief in the possibility of transformation and renewal. A Time to Act provided a counterpoint to the gloom and doom predictions of the demographers, a way forward in light of the 1990 NJPS. It offered a model for future dialogue and cooperation between funders, even if most of the donors on the commission ultimately had little interest or understanding in the CIJE and the lead communities.

If Mandel contributed the sense of urgency; a capacity for bold action; a constellation of beliefs about the key role of leadership, and of evidence-based strategic thinking as a basis for policy; and, the requisite funds to actualize the commission, it was Seymour Fox, aided by Annette Hochstein, who provided the vision and coordination. Despite deciding not to officially own the title of director—perhaps because he was ensconced in Jerusalem rather than Cleveland—it was Fox who called the shots. As Barry Holtz observed, the twin foci of the commission, personnel and community support, were plucked out of Fox’s time-honored playbook. Influenced by the work of Joseph Schwab, Fox believed that the keys to Jewish educational transformation were human infrastructure and educator-lay leader partnerships. Indeed, one could argue that the entire commission was an exercise in donor and communal leader education of the type that Fox excelled in since his cultivation of philanthropist Sam Melton in the 1960s. Not incidentally, his priorities also corresponded with Mandel’s own thinking, his belief that, ‘‘It’s all about who.’’

The CJENA was a commencement in the sense that it was both a culmination and an inauguration. It symbolized the shift in emphasis on the communal level from noblesse oblige to self-help. Made possible by a gradual shift in communal priorities, steadily building momentum from the late-1960s, it heralded a decade-and-a-half of innovation, experimentation, and growth, grounded in new philan- thropic models and more tactical and synergistic approaches. A measure of the commission’s long-term impact was Wertheimer’s portrait in his 1999 American Jewish Year Book survey of Jewish education of a landscape nourished by ‘‘new partnerships between the field of Jewish education and other sectors of the larger Jewish community,’’ and ‘‘a new kind of thinking [that] seeks to minimize the diffusion and replace it with something approaching a strategic plan’’. When Mandel was asked about his goals for the CJENA, in 1988, he exclaimed, ‘‘I want to turn the [Jewish education] process on. I want all those water faucets wide open, lots of them, streaming. That’s all I want—that’s the outcome I want.’’ In this, he was successful. The CJENA was instrumental in the transformation of Jewish education philanthropy.

Updated: May. 26, 2016