Galilee Diary: The Identity Marketplace

January 1, 2014Rabbi Marc J. Rosenstein
Rabbi Judah says that a shopkeeper may not distribute treats to children to attract them [to his shop]; but the majority opinion is to permit this.
    – Mishnah Baba Metziah 4:12

Last year our education center at Shorashim was asked by a high school in Haifa to help the staff there produce a day-long seminar for the 400 eleventh graders on Jewish pluralism and on what is shared – and what are the conflicts – among the various "streams" of Judaism. This was a big project, involving a large staff, and preparatory sessions for students and teachers, which in the end was judged very successful by all involved. The day was rich and challenging, and the kids were involved and interested. Our center served as a contractor, paid by the school to provide expertise, materials, training, and facilitation. Such projects are fairly common in Israel – various for-profit and non-profit entities offer schools enrichment programming in everything from math to art – and especially in value education (alcohol, road safety, Jewish identity, etc.) and the schools often find outsourcing preferable to trying to cajole and train their teachers to stretch beyond their already difficult burden of scheduled formal instruction. Probably unfortunate, but certainly understandable.

Recently, our own educators returned in shock from a preliminary planning meeting for this year's seminar; they were informed that an Orthodox organization had offered the school a three day-seminar including accommodation; the content would comprise activities on Jewish identity and the Land of Israel. Free. The school staff was sorely tempted. We suggested that they think carefully about their educational goals. We are awaiting their answer.

Last year I attended a conference of organizations providing enrichment programming to schools in the area of Jewish identity education (as above). All the participating organizations were dedicated to a pluralistic approach, whether coming from a liberal religious perspective, or a cultural-Zionist base. What was common to all was a sense of frustration at the impossibility of competing with Orthodox providers of such programming (which is not generally pluralistic in approach, to put it mildly) – because all of us have to charge for our services, while the Orthodox providers come with funding (from abroad) and so can make offers to schools that they can't easily refuse in the constant reality of scarce resources.

Of course, one can argue that this whole industry of using outside contractors to provide value education is problematic, and symptomatic of the schools' abrogation of their responsibility to teach values as an ongoing and inherent part of what they do. This is a large scale historical problem not unique to Israel. However, it is the reality in which we live.

We liberal Jews complain (rightly) about the distorted and unfair distribution of public educational resources that, for historical and political reasons, always favors the Orthodox approach. This is changing, slowly (too slowly). But the phenomenon described above is something else: It is a case of Jews who care deeply about a particular vision of the Jewish state making large philanthropic investments in advancing that vision in Israel. We liberals and pluralists can only watch in frustration as the train speeds by us, on the wrong track.

It seems you get what you pay for.

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