You know them, but you don’t know who they are. Their names are Reuben and Riley, Maddison and Miriam – you’ve seen them around for sure. It could have been at your child’s under 9s footy game, or maybe they spent a year together in kinder. Possibly at that Chanukah function in the park the other year?
These seen, but unseen children are the 1,500 Jewish children the community-governed United Jewish Education Board (UJEB) engages every week of the school year. You probably know their parents – went to school with them even, but these children who attend government schools are now receiving their Jewish education through UJEB and a raft of other private or sectarian providers.
Our community’s impressive day-school system was conceived by a post-war generation and designed to cater to the needs of their children in the 1960s and 1970s. Through the 1980s and 1990s the model continued to work and successfully educate the majority of the community’s children.
The model however is tiring. Not in terms of the quality of its education or the connections it fosters between its children and their heritage – results here continue to impress. Does the model sustain the broader community’s education needs? Does the model give us security regarding the Jewish continuity of our own grandchildren? The 1,500 pupils UJEB teaches weekly (a rapidly increasing number) suggest the model is in need of urgent attention and repair.
A new model for Melbourne’s Jewish education needs to transcend established notions. For the next fifty years, for our grandchildren’s education our community needs to think in terms of an integrated, but diverse Jewish Education System rather than the current collection of institutions aligned solely by geography.
As UJEB president when interacting with the broader community I often encounter two issues that speak volumes for community attitudes towards UJEB and consequently about an integrated education framework – price and choice.
The argument goes something like this: “UJEB is comprised of families displaced from our day schools because either they can’t afford the privilege or they chose not to participate.”
Neither argument on its own is true however. And more importantly, it’s not about the parents’ choices it’s about the offering and how it matches the community’s needs and desires. Unlike shules, for example, where you can turn up three times a day or three times a year, participation in our education system is largely binary – you’re either in or you’re out.
It’s not our role to judge why people chose what they do, it’s the community’s role to provide multiple entry points to enhance access and build involvement. An initiative like the Hebrew program at Glen Eira College is a terrific example of this.
UJEB’s involvement in this program is modest, but it’s a model worth exploring. Elements of Jewish education are being offered to complement the increasingly prevalent phenomenon of our families seeking education in the public system (for whatever reason). The Glen Eira model complements the reality and looks ahead, rather than aspiring to a return to a lost, golden era of Jewish education.
Pleasingly, attitudes are changing. The debate is changing. Sure, some Jewish school principals have written in these pages that offering Hebrew in a government school is not a Jewish education. They’re right – well half-right maybe.
There’s no doubt that Hebrew lessons, after-school classes, religious instruction (JRI) during school time, and camps is not an integrated Jewish education. But add one of those components and you add a Jewish spark to the children, a kernel, a beginning – on which UJEB families, together with the community can build.
And UJEB is building. We’re working to create for our families a sustainable system that will keep these 1,500 children and their families connected with broader community. We’re opening education centres where the community actually live and play, not where they’re expected to be. We’ve been fortunate to work with some wonderful partners like Gandel Philanthropy on our new centre “Bentleigh Merkaz” and with the United Israel Appeal on enhancing the quality of our JRI program, benefiting the children in the program and connecting them with the community.
Throughout my twenty-five years of involvement in our Jewish community, I’ve consistently heard our leaders preach, and community members agree, that education is the community’s number one priority.
Education should continue to be this community’s number one priority – a priority owned by the entire community. Despite its 1,500 children placing UJEB on par with other Jewish education providers on size, UJEB is no more the owner of the issue (or the solution) than anyone else. But it is an important partner, and like all partnerships, we need everyone to contribute.
Yossi Goldfarb is the president of UJEB and a UJEB parent.