Rabbi Nir Barkin, who once served as an emissary to Milwaukee, reports his Reform public school in Israel has cut staff, salaries and progressive Jewish education to survive.
In December 2017, the Chronicle reported that new government rules in Israel were shutting down Reform-themed education for children, creating a woeful situation for the nation’s small progressive Jewish movement.
“It’s brutal. It’s really brutal,” Barkin said at the time, serving as executive director and spiritual leader at Kehillat Yozma, a Reform congregation in Modi’in, Israel. His congregation is affiliated with one of the affected public schools.
Barkin served as a Milwaukee community shaliach, an emissary from Israel, from 1999 to 2003.
Since December, the government has not withdrawn “those very tough regulations,” Barkin said in an August 2018 interview. He sought donations to plug a $300,000 shortfall but was only able to raise about 8 percent of that, he said.
“We cut 30 percent of all our positions and we cut 28 percent of the remaining positions’ salaries,” he said. “I’m not proud to say it but this was the only way to maintain the budget.”
Barkin said the school now has one full-time Jewish educator instead of four, with a vast reduction in hours devoted to progressive Jewish education.
The issue is that a government effort to have all Israelis receiving an equal education places a cap on what Israeli parents can pay to send their children to some schools. This includes Reform schools like Barkin’s, which educates hundreds of children ages 12 and younger. Barkin has chosen to keep the Kehillat Yozma school operating, along with summer camp and other programs similarly affected by new government spending caps.
Public 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.
But a government spending 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, according to Raz Morag.
Asked about the future, Barkin replied, “You make me sad and I’m on my way to a wedding.” He talked about how he would be joining a protest for the rights of Druze in Israel, after the controversial approval of the Nation-State Law there this summer.
“You ask me about the future? I’m here to stay,” he said. “I’ll do everything possible to make this country a better one.”