(BOSTON, Dec. 8, 2001)-In a blunt appraisal of Jewish education, the leader of America's Reform Movement today said synagogues must mobilize for a major overhaul of the after-school programs that educate the children of America's largest Jewish denomination.
"More money is spent on our religious schools than on any other synagogue program," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. "Why is it that something as critical to our future is so widely perceived to be such a failure?"
Yoffie also urged the almost 6,000 Reform Jews gathered for the Movement's Biennial Convention here to oppose school vouchers and to guard against the erosion of civil liberties in the wake of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
Reform Jews, who are generally known for their liberalism, have been caught up in the revival of patriotism, Yoffie said, as he praised President Bush for his moral leadership. "Make no mistake about the dangers we face," he said. "Islamic radicalism is the Nazism of our day. Like German Nazism, it rejects reason, worships death, and abhors freedom; it, too, has a blazing belief in violence and is consumed by hatred of Jews and Judaism."
"President Bush deserves our thanks and support," Yoffie said, but he warned, "No President-even in wartime-gets a blank check."
"Some of the emergency orders he has issued erode our rights without making us safer," he said. "So we say to the administration, "Let's not breach the Constitution in ways we will later regret. After all, civil liberties are our strength, not our weakness."
Yoffie was also critical of one of the President's pet projects: providing public funding for students in private schools. "The people who engineer voucher proposals are almost always those with no interest in maintaining the public schools and whose real aim to is secure funding for their own schools," Yoffie said.
"I tremble for our nation when I hear the constant drumbeat of attack on our public school system," he said. "The public schools take the poor and the handicapped, the abused and the foster children, the Christian and the Muslim, the Roman Catholic and the Jew. They do more of God's work in a day than most institutions do in a lifetime. If our public schools are broken, then let's fix them, but let's not destroy them in the name of a highfalutin principle that is often nothing more than naked self-interest dressed up as caring."
Yoffie was particularly critical of those Jewish groups that have compromised "the most fundamental values of the broader Jewish community" by endorsing government-financed vouchers to support their own day schools. "The public schools were the ladder we used to climb from poverty to affluence in American life, he said. "How dare we deny it to others."
While he strongly praised the work of Jewish day schools, including 18 in the Reform Movement, "day schools will never reach more than a small percentage of non-Orthodox children in North America," he said. More than 80 percent of these children now receive their Jewish education in the congregational schools of the non-Orthodox movements.
And he challenged those Jewish philanthropists who fund a multiplicity of educational initiatives, including day schools, but who frequently disparage the work of synagogues, to create a "Jewish Marshall Plan" for congregational religious schools, the largest Jewish educational program in North America, with a quarter of a million Jewish children."
"Instead of taking potshots at Hebrew schools, how about working with the synagogue movements to energize and revive them?" he asked.
"But my most important message is this," Yoffie told the assembled synagogue leaders. "We need to do this work ourselves. In the Reform Movement alone, we have 120,000 children in religious school. They need our attention now; we do not have the luxury of waiting for others."
Just as two years ago Yoffie called for a revolution in worship, this year he is looking for a sea change in the way Reform children are educated. He called for the implementation of standards because "even the youngest children should know that Reform Judaism makes demands on us; it does not mean doing whatever you please."
In that vein, Yoffie said parents of religious school children should be required to be in school studying with their children six times a year. The new comprehensive curriculum includes texts, lesson plans, and teaching materials for children, parents, and families in grades 2-7 on three topics: Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, as well as a new Hebrew curriculum, and it also calls for greater involvement by the volunteer leaders of the congregation.
"Our educators are wonderful and learned, but they cannot do this work alone," he said. "In virtually every congregation with an outstanding school the most talented lay leaders have devoted themselves to education. Change is most dramatic in those synagogues where temple Boards make the tough educational decisions and where Education Committees do policy and evaluation rather than classroom snacks and fundraising."
And he said that to fill the desperate shortage of good teachers-who he called "the motor force of our continuity, the shepherds of young Jewish souls"-congregations should create a culture in which "spending time in the classroom becomes an obligation of synagogue leadership."
To help train teachers, the UAHC is creating additional online training and will hold teacher-training events in every UAHC region.
"I am filled with optimism that we will succeed," Yoffie told the delegates. "Jewish education has not failed in North America; it has simply never been tried."
Rabbi Yoffie's Shabbat morning sermon is the highlight of the Biennial convention, as delegates have come to expect that he will introduce a major initiative for them to work on when their return to their congregations at the conclusion of the Biennial. In 1997, his first Biennial as president, he introduced a major initiative to raise the level of adult Jewish literacy in the Re form Movement. Two years ago, he called for a revolution in worship.
The UAHC is the congregational arm of the Reform Movement, uniting 914 congregations in the United States, Canada, Puerto Rico, and the Virgin Islands.