Israel’s Reform schools are in crisis, with former Milwaukee emissary on the front lines

 

New government rules in Israel are shuttering Reform schooling for children, creating a woeful situation for the nation’s small progressive Jewish movement.

“It’s not just unfair,” said Rabbi Nir Barkin, executive director and spiritual leader at Kehillat Yozma, a Reform congregation in Modi’in, Israel. His congregation is affiliated with one of the affected schools.

“It’s brutal. It’s really brutal,” he said.

Barkin served as a Milwaukee community shaliach, an emissary from Israel, from 1999 to 2003. He returned to Milwaukee from Israel for a 20-hour visit on Wednesday, Nov. 1 as part of a fundraising trip to try to make up the difference for what has been lost.

The problem is that Neto Mishpacha, a government initiative that seeks to have all Israelis receiving an equal education, places a cap on what Israeli parents can pay to send their children to schools. This includes Reform schools like Barkin’s, which educates hundreds of children ages 12 and younger.

There have only been a handful of Reform schools operating in Israel and Barkin said others have already shut down due to the spending cap. “I could close the system, as did my friend in Tel Aviv,” he said, referring to The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism, led by Rabbi Meir Azari. A Reform synagogue in Jerusalem also closed schooling, Barkin said.

But Barkin has chosen to keep the Kehillat Yozma school operating, along with summer camp and other programs similarly affected by new government spending caps. It all adds up to an expected deficit of about $300,000 this year, he said. “Shutting down is a financial option but not a philosophical option,” he said.

Education in Israel is not fully separated from religion, as it is in America. Orthodox schools are paid for by the government, including a “core” curriculum that includes at least some of their religious instruction, said Israeli attorney Keren Raz Morag, who represents Kehillat Yozma. At Reform schools, “core” curriculum includes almost no religious instruction, which must therefore be covered by parents or donors, Raz Morag said.

Now, with Israel’s Neto Mishpacha finance plan having come with new rules effective Sept. 1, parents may only pay up to 3200 shekels (about $913) annually per child to subsidize his Reform school, according to Barkin. This is a deep cut from the 6,600 shekels (about $1,885) they were paying for in the last academic year.

The cap means that Reform parents can’t be asked to significantly subsidize their schools by paying extra fees to enroll their children, even if they want to. In addition, any donations from the parents may only be used for overhead, Raz Morag said, and, according to Barkin, such donations have now been administratively limited to 800 shekels (about $228) per year, per family.

Students gather for the start of the 5778 school year at the Yozma school in Mod’in, Israel. Submitted photo.

“The government wants every student to get the same education so there won’t be any gaps,” Raz Morag said. The caps are the government’s response to public criticism of costly extra fees at some schools.

Reform schools are considered by the state to be “unique,” not “religious,” and they therefore are not subject to the same financial rules as Orthodox religious institutions, Raz Morag said. The cap is slicing into the budgets of other unique schools, not just Reform, she said. These are all schools that seek to add to the standard curriculum in a non-Orthodox way, including Israeli Montessori, democratic and anthroposophic schools, among others.

Israeli officials contacted for this story did not provide comment.

A Milwaukee voyage

Barkin has turned to Milwaukee for help because he got his start in Milwaukee.

Back in 1999, Barkin decided to switch to education from his work in the corporate world. He applied to be a shaliach, an Israeli cultural emissary sponsored by the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Israel Center, and was sent to Milwaukee in August of 1999.

About a year in, he said, “I discovered I’m not only Israeli. I’m also Jewish.”

Israelis, he said, can view Orthodox as the only available kind of Jewish religion. In Wisconsin, Barkin fell for the Reform movement.

“I discovered who I am Jewishly by spending a year in Wisconsin,” he said in an interview last year. “This was a direct path to my decision to go to rabbinical school.”

Barkin returned to Israel from Milwaukee in the summer of 2003 and by the end of the year he’d started school at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Jerusalem, the main Reform seminary.

Rabbi Philip Nadel and others lead children in song at the Yozma preschool in Israel. Submitted photo.

He soon joined Kehillat Yozma and started working to build it, a congregation he now leads. “This is a credit to the Milwaukee Jewish community that training one person … enabled a 1,000-family congregation to rise in a city where it almost had none before,” he said.

Kehillat Yozma opened the first state-recognized Reform public elementary day school, for grades 1-6, now serving 300 children. Barkin said he learned in Milwaukee how important education is to attracting families to a synagogue. “Before we opened the day school in 2005 we had about 100-120 families,” he said. “And ever since then we grew with more than 50 families a year.”

Now, he feels it’s all at risk, thanks to caps imposed by the government on parent spending and rules restricting parent donations.

School for 750 shut down

Azari, the senior rabbi with the The Daniel Centers for Progressive Judaism in Tel Aviv, shut his program for 750 preschool students down in August after about 20 years in operation. The program provided afternoon preschool care and learning for children, paid for by government funding and parent fees. Reform Judaism was part of the curriculum.

With the new caps on what parents can pay, Azari felt he could not maintain the same level of quality, so he chose to close the afternoon preschool program. He said his teachers had many years of experience – now, families he once served are instead turning to companies offering a “babysitting” service that hires people straight out of the army.

“We decided that we don’t want to do that,” he said, adding that the caps seem like a return to socialism.

“I think that the government of Israel made the wrong decision,” he said. “For us, it’s a terrible loss.”