In a major move to strengthen waning Israeli-diaspora relations, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans for the first time to include a separate line in next year’s budget to help foster Jewish education overseas.
Netanyahu revealed his intentions in a June 23 meeting with leaders of the Jewish Agency, Trade Minister Natan Sharansky and Charles Goodman, former president of the Council of Jewish Federations, according to his diaspora affairs adviser, Bobby Brown.
“The Israeli government has always had a verbal commitment to Jewish education, but that does not pay teachers’ salaries,” Brown quoted Netanyahu as saying. “Now the State of Israel will bear some responsibility for Jewish education worldwide.”
In an interview at the offices of The Jewish Week, Brown said he believed budget constraints would limit the amount of money Israel would commit the first year. But he said the prime minister referred to it as a “symbolic act” and envisioned the amount increasing in future years.
Netanyahu, according to Brown, said he wanted to see the money spent to promote the teaching of Hebrew — a longtime passion of his — and to support the Israel Experience program, in which high school students study in Israel for a summer or longer.
“Wherever the money goes, he wants to make sure that it will be for measurable goals,” said Brown. “If it is for the Israel Experience, it should support X number of kids.”
The executive director of the American Jewish Committee, David Harris, called the initiative a “welcome and long overdue, if modest step, in the right direction. We have long favored strengthening Israel-diaspora relations through mutual education about one another, and of course through expanded personal contact. This initiative certainly helps advance that goal, even if much more will be required to increase Hebrew literacy and Israel awareness in the diaspora.”
Asked if yeshivas and other Jewish institutions in the United States and elsewhere should begin applying for grants, Brown said it was unclear how the money would be distributed. He said the prime minister would include it in the budget that takes effect in January.
“We have to sit down and talk about our priorities,” he said. “We need to create global standards and global obligations. We have to look at needs and responsibilities, and Israel is at the stage where it can begin having a responsibility; it is not just diaspora Jewry that has the responsibility.”
Netanyahu’s commitment was welcomed by the chief operating officer of UJA-Federation, John Ruskay.
“While details need to be clarified, the readiness of the prime minister and his government to become involved in Jewish education throughout the world can only be applauded,” he said. “Israel has substantial resources that can strengthen Jewish education, and Jewish educational leaders look forward to working with them.”
Jonathan Woocher, executive vice president of the Jewish Education Service of North America, said the real test would be how the money is used.
“Will it be a vehicle to develop real partnerships between the government of Israel, communities in the diaspora, the Jewish Agency and the [American Jewish] Joint Distribution Committee?” he asked. “If that is something that is now beginning to develop, I think that would be very positive. There are professionals in the Ministry of Education who are very interested in this, and there is a lot of interest in beginning the process of dialogue.”
Rabbi Ellis Bloch, director of the Board of Jewish Education’s Department of Yeshivot/Day Schools, said the new money Israel would provide for Jewish education would “certainly be helpful. Teaching the Hebrew language is one of the biggest challenges we have in terms of finding qualified teachers and developing appropriate programs that will work in the United States.
“And an initiative that helps makes affordable [the Israel Experience program] would be helpful because it would make it available to more people. These types of things are very important to assure that those from all backgrounds have the chance to participate in the programs and to benefit from the experience.”
For the last two years, the AJCommittee has seen the worth of sharing educational ideas with Israeli educators. It has co-sponsored a program with the Ministry of Education that brings to the United States some of the ministry’s senior officials, as well as educators from Israeli schools, religious and secular.
“The program gives them a taste of the vibrancy, vitality and diversity of the American Jewish community,” said the AJCommittee’s director of public relations, Arthur Berger. “The Israeli educators have met with education officials from all streams in the American Jewish community.”