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OP-EDS

Thank Jewish education for great leaders

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It goes without saying that the primary outcomes of a Jewish education are Jewish knowledge, Jewish identity and connection to the Jewish community.

Parents who make the decision to afford this opportunity to their children generally do so with a long-term goal in mind – to give their children the tools and experience that imbue them with a deep sense of who they are, where they come from and a sense of belonging for the future.

I’m a product of a Jewish education and, driven by the same goals described above, my wife and I made the decision to ensure that our children are too. I was surprised to read an article on ejewishphilanthropy.com recently which revealed an intuitive but, at least to my mind, unarticulated benefit of a Jewish education.

In a five-month span in 2021, 2 079 respondents representing American Jewish communal leaders, both lay and professional, were surveyed online by Research Success Technologies. These communal leaders hold positions across the full spectrum of Jewish life – schools, shuls, federations, welfare, youth camps and more.

The survey had several interesting findings.

First, the younger generation of Jewish leaders had a deeper and more substantial Jewish education than older leaders. This education takes the form of Jewish day school attendance, summer camps and trips to Israel. Twenty five percent of the leaders aged between 55 to 64 attended a Jewish day school, whereas this number in leaders 20 years their junior jumps to 44%. This indicates either that more Jewish children attend Jewish day schools and have Jewish experiences than in the past, or that taking a leadership role in the Jewish community today is more dependent on having a Jewish education than in the past.

Second, Jewish leadership is far more exposed to Jewish educational experiences than the Jewish American public at large. As many as 33% went to Jewish primary schools and two-thirds of those went to Jewish high Schools. Fifty nine percent went to overnight Jewish summer camps.

Third, among the leaders with children of high-school age, there is a significant intergenerational increase in participation in Jewish education. Though only 33% of all these adults attended Jewish day schools, 62% of their children attend Jewish schools. In every leadership sector, the children’s rate of enrolment in Jewish schools exceeds that of their parents.

I would assume that a similar statistical study of South African Jewish leadership would yield even higher percentages.

It makes complete sense that it’s more likely for leaders in Jewish organisations to have had a Jewish education. This is intuitive. The revelation for me was the underlying message of this piece of research. Most of us living in our fantastic South African Jewish community treasure the richness of the Jewish life we have. Our Jewish needs – educational, security, welfare, medical, political and spiritual – are taken care of by the plethora of superb organisations that have been built to serve us. We have a Jewish infrastructure that surpasses many larger and more established Jewish communities. Our community is a unique one on the global Jewish stage. We’re blessed.

Until reading this article, I hadn’t given any thought to who runs these organisations. Where did they come from? What schools did they attend? What role has Jewish education played in the lives of the people who run these superb organisations? So, I thought about it further.

Most of the leaders of the Chevrah Kadisha, Community Security Organisation, South African Jewish Board of Deputies, South African Zionist Federation, Jewish schools, the SA Jewish Report, Hatzolah, Beth Din and the rabbis and rebbetzins of our shuls are all products of a Jewish education (primarily a South African Jewish education). I’m sure I’ve left several illustrious organisations off this list, for which I apologise, but I have no doubt that the findings would be the same. There are, undoubtedly, many committed leaders in our community who didn’t attend Jewish schools. This article in no way detracts from them or the possibility of future leaders coming from non-Jewish schools. It’s just far less likely.

I’m confident that the alumni of South African Jewish schools and educational institutions have also assumed leadership positions in many global communities in Australia, America, England and Israel – but that’s an article for another time.

Jewish education is more than Jewish knowledge, identity and belonging. Jewish education is longevity. Jewish education is the root of Jewish communal success. Jewish education is the essential ingredient for a vibrant Jewish communal life.

Through a Jewish education, our children develop a deep sense of communal awareness and responsibility, which becomes part of their psyche. They feel like they belong and they feel like they want to give back.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “The world our children inherit tomorrow is born in the schools we build today.” We are indeed blessed to have a community that’s so steeped in Jewish education, not just because our children will be raised proudly Jewish, but because with this foundation, our community and those the world over will be the beneficiary of a bright future.

Rabbi Ricky Seeff is the general director of the South African Board of Jewish Education and King David Schools.

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