Where Is Our Jewish Leadership Hiding?

By George D. Hanus

Originally published in the June 2008 issue of World Jewish Digest

Released in 1987, Where’s Waldo? was the first of illustrator Martin Handford’s Waldo series of books to become a sensation. Where’s Waldo? introduces readers to the eponymous hero, a distinctively dressed young man who sets off on a worldwide journey. Waldo travels to everyday places, like the beach, ski slopes and the zoo, each of which is detailed by two–page illustrated spreads filled with people and activities. Somewhere amidst the intricately crowded scene is the camouflaged Waldo, and readers are asked to scour the detailed illustration to locate the lost traveler. A postcard from Waldo accompanies each scene, wherein Waldo comments on his travels.

The phrase Where’s Waldo? has become a shorthand idiom for finding distinctive characters hiding in a crowded maze. Our contemporary Jewish world has become such a maze, and a search for the hiding Waldo in Jewish leadership is in order. Where’s our Waldo Jewish leadership?

The month of June is a special month, filled with important life cycle events. More marriages take place during this month than in any other: approximately 264,000 couples will marry in the United States in June. That is the good news. The bad news is that among Jews, twice as many of those marriages will be intermarriage unions as compared to exclusively Jewish marriages.

June is also a month of graduations from educational institutions. These graduations celebrate the culmination of long and arduous educational journeys. The Jewish community in America is among the leading constituencies to earn college and postcollege degrees. Fifty–five percent of Jewish young people obtain college degrees compared to 28 percent of all other Americans. As well, 24 percent of American Jews obtain graduate degrees compared to 5 percent of all other Americans. We Jews value education: that’s the good news. The bad news is that while many Jews are secularly well educated, Jewish illiteracy is rampant. A spiritual relationship with God is at an all–time low and young Jewish children are abandoning 4,000 years of linkage to the People of the Book. Children today don’t even know that book’s name.

A key benchmark of our current state of illiteracy is that on June 8th this year, we Jews will celebrate what could be called the “stealth” holiday of Shavuot. Like stealth aircraft, Shavuot flies unnoticed under the radar of most American Jews. Most Jews don’t know that Shavuot is the holiday that commemorates the formation of the Jewish people. Shavuot is the culmination of the 49–day countdown between Passover’s liberation and the moment at Mount Sinai when the Jewish people accepted the Torah and became a light unto other nations. The holiday of Shavuot is the commemoration of that awesome moment.

If the current Jewish community will be known as the “Generation That Abandoned Jewish Children,” then what should we label the current hiding leadership?

Jewish leadership is an oxymoronic moniker because we Jews don’t like to be led by anyone. Everyone knows the old saying: two Jews, three opinions. But for purposes of this discussion, leadership will be defined as the pulpit rabbis, the policy wonks, the self–anointed lay chairmen and paid staff people at our Jewish communal organizations, who claim to set the agenda for Jewish philanthropy; the controllers of the local communal budgets and those wealthy Jews in the community who choose which philanthropies, if any, they want to support.

The only glue that has connected four millennia of Jewish continuity has been intergenerational Jewish education. Without young children in every generation learning their heritage, we have no Jewish people. Throughout history, Jewish communities have somehow figured out vehicles to educate their children. The enormity of the crisis of funding Jewish education and our inability to provide an opportunity for every young Jewish family to Jewishly educate their children is a shameful omission from the Jewish philanthropic agenda. The Jewish community should scream out, “Where’s the Waldo Jewish leadership?”

Where are the pulpit rabbis? They command prestigious sanctuaries and sermonize from their raised pulpits about every imaginable social topic except providing free high–quality Jewish day school education for all children who seek it regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish Federations? They are allegedly the central community charity chests in every local community. There is not one Jewish Federation in the United Sates that has stated in their written policy, and backed it up with an enormous financial commitment, that every local constituent community will ensure that every Jewish child can attend a Jewish day school at no charge regardless of their religious affiliation or family financial condition. Why?

Where are the Jewish mega donors? Every individual can choose whether he wants to give charity or not. If he chooses to donate, he obviously may give his money to whomever he wishes. However, that does not prevent the rest of the Jewish community from asking which charity is the beneficiary of the donor’s beneficence. According to recent surveys, less than 7 percent of major Jewish philanthropists’ gifts went to Jewish institutions. The community can also ask whether those rich individuals are giving their fair share of tithing. This inquiry could easily be dismissed on the grounds that it is no one’s business. But Jewish tradition has always been proud of tzedakah, which sets obligatory standards on all Jews to give a minimum of 10 percent of their income to charitable causes. How many Jews do you know who are tithing?

Where are the presidents of the major Jewish organizations? Why is funding Jewish education not the number–one agenda item on any Jewish organization’s annual meeting? Why is funding Jewish education not even a significant topic at any Jewish organizational annual meeting?

There is a terrible piece of black humor circulating among many young Jewish families—families that are committed to sending their children to Jewish day schools but are struggling to pay the $15,000 tuition per child. The joke is that tuition is the best form of birth control. In fact, many families are limiting the number of children they have because they just can’t fathom paying an additional $15,000 per year per child.

Do we not comprehend the current tragic state of affairs facing us, the wealthiest Jewish community in the history of the world? Jewish education has become a philanthropic stepchild relegated only to the wealthy and those families willing to assume mammoth financial sacrifices, while more children are not being born because tuition for Torah education is cost–prohibitive.

We should not be surprised if a new book is soon published that closely resembles the Where’s Waldo? series. Instead, the new landscape would be the contemporary Jewish organizational maze. Hidden within that picture, the readers’ task would be to answer, ‘Where’s the Waldo Jewish Leadership?” that presided over the Generation That Abandoned Jewish Children.

George D. Hanus is the chairman of the Superfund for Jewish Education and Continuity and the publisher of World Jewish Digest.

© 2008 World Jewish Digest

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