It's one thing to talk about making Jewish education a priority, but it's quite another to actually do something about it. While there has been a good deal of lip service paid to this goal in our community in recent years, it must be recognized that attorney Leonard Barrack and his family foundation have now actually done something for the cause.
Barrack, who's been nominated to become chairman of the board of trustees of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia (this newspaper's publisher), has given a $5 million gift to the Akiba Hebrew Academy that will primarily pay for increased scholarships. In return, the school will change its name to the Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy in honor of his late brother.
There are some, including students and alumni, who apparently regret the name change. That's understandable and, given the school's reluctance to change its name in the past, this decision is bound to cause some internal debate within the Akiba community. But our reverence for the memory of the martyred sage Rabbi Akiba notwithstanding, we think that the name on the building is not as important as what's going on inside it.
Even more to the point, what is truly vital is whether or not we are acting to ensure the future of Jewish day-school education in the Greater Philadelphia community.
That future is endangered by two key problems.
One is the lack of general support for the concept of day schools by a largely secular community that's failed to recognize the tremendous value such institutions give to families.
The other is the fact that the cost of tuition at these schools is so great that the middle-class is being priced out of the market. This has created a situation where schools like Akiba (where the annual tuition is now a staggering $22,000) are simply not considered by many who might otherwise choose them for their children.
What is needed is a comprehensive funding plan that will make a day-school education a viable option for every Jewish family in the region. And that can only happen if the price of tuition is effectively lowered either by a community-wide voucher system or a vast increase in the amount of scholarships available at each of the various schools.
As a nondenominational community-wide high school with excellent secular and Jewish studies, Akiba serves as a touchstone for quality education. By expanding its ability to offer scholarships, Barrack — himself an Akiba alum — has taken a decisive step toward making his old school a place more affordable for a wider audience. That is praiseworthy in and of itself. Yet it's crucial that his action should not be regarded as an isolated act of philanthropy.
It is imperative that this be seen as a springboard for other philanthropists, as well as the community as a whole, to address the issue of educational funding in a way not done before.
By that, we do not mean the creation of more committees or a call for more discussion about the topic. We don't need more studies that tell us what we already know about the value of day schools to the Jewish future. Nor do we lack plans for action on Jewish education. All that has been missing is the money to implement such plans — money that needs to be raise in the immediate future, so that one man's gift doesn't remain an island.
What's necessary is for community leaders and members alike to act decisively to fund measures that will ensure that every child will not be denied a place in a day school because of the costs. If the Barrack gift to Akiba can generate momentum toward that goal, then it will have served an even greater purpose than ensuring the future of a single school.