OY Day!

Jewish groups who embrace Stockwell Day over private school funding are freaking out the rest of the community

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Driving up Bathurst through the pastel expanses north of the city, it’s hard to miss how important private religious day schools are to the Orthodox Jewish community.

There, on large neon billboards beside the road, various learning institutions advertise for the tuition cash of families anxious to educate their offspring through the Torah instead of the secular public system.

In these cookie-cutter bedroom colonies built around synagogues, where the women wear long dresses and cover their heads and the men wear yarmulkes and prayer shawls, the cost — $8,000 to $12,000 a year per child — of private schooling can be crushing.

Although subsidies are often available for low-income families through these schools, it’s still a pricey commitment and a source of huge bitterness since these households still have to fork over taxes to support the public system as well.

The main political parties in Ontario won’t touch this explosive issue — and for good reason.

Enter Stockwell Day and the Big Promise. During the Alliance leadership race, Day wooed Jewish groups, and Muslims as well, by pledging that if elected he would give families who send their kids to religious schools a tax credit.

Gentle persuasion

And if the Ontario government wouldn’t respond to gentle persuasion on the issue, not to worry — he would amend the constitution to require the province to fund all religious schools.

For some in the Jewish community, this all felt heaven-sent. And you certainly can’t blame Day for trying the Reform-Alliance has always suffered from the perception that it has little patience with immigrants and minorities. A little promise to a small but well-organized spiritual community could do wonders for a leader labouring under a perceived tolerance deficit.

But watch out, Stock. Besides a backlash from the broader public hugely devoted to a common school system, there are large numbers of vocal Jews themselves attached to secular humanist education.

Some of these have not minced words to say how they feel about members of their own community consorting with a right-wing evangelist.The former treasurer from Alberta might in the end discover himself skewered by a Jewish constituency habitually and blessedly to the left of all he holds dear.

To understand how differently the Day promise played among T.O.’s 200,000 Jews, consider the responses of B’nai Brith and the Canadian Jewish Congress, the two largest Jewish organizations.

On the eve of the Alliance leadership vote, B’nai Brith met with Day and subsequently published a puff piece in its newspaper, the Jewish Tribune.

The article made no mention, for example, of the controversial Christian curriculum that many say was used at the Pentecostal school where Day was an administrator in the early 80s.

Although Frank Dimant, B’nai Brith’s executive director and the publisher of the Tribune, says questions were asked at the meeting, he says that “the innuendoes had been circulated and (Day) denied them publicly. So this was nothing of great significance to us at the time, other than that we had the opportunity of dealing with him face to face on the issue.”

The Tribune reported on Day’s supportive stance on Israel and, of course, his views on school funding.

“(Day) offers hope in the sense that he’s making (funding) a national agenda item,” says Dimant.

Go soft

Dimant scoffs at the suggestion that this was reason enough for B’nai Brith to go soft on Day.

“B’nai Brith doesn’t go soft on anyone,” he asserts. “If we think there are issues to go hard on, then we don’t care what stripes or what colours they are.”

Although the Canadian Jewish Congress also supports funding for religious schools, the organization declined to meet with Day during the race.

“We felt that would not be appropriate,” says Moshe Ronen, the CJC’s national president. (The CJC’s policy is not to meet with any candidates in the heat of a party leadership race).

Ronen says he has subsequently invited Day to meet with the CJC, and that a key question he wants answered is whether Day condemns racists and anti-Semites.

“I would not say I’m satisfied with his views on intolerance and racism and anti-Semitism until I hear them,” Ronen says. “And simply to say that one is not an anti-Semite or not anti-gay or not intolerant is not enough for a politician.”

(In a nationally published statement during the campaign Day stated, “I oppose racist and anti-Semitic views, and those who propagate and defend them, with every ounce of my being.”)

As well, says Ronen, “I think it’s unfair to the politician and I think it’s unfair to the group that I’m representing to simply judge a politician on one or two issues without having the broad vision.”

Although private schooling is still a minority option in Jewish Toronto, overall enrolment is up for grades 1 to 13, from 6,879 students in 1989 to 9,120 this year.

At the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto (CHAT), enrolment has jumped from 902 in 1998 to 1,260 this coming year. The Downsview school is so packed, it’s opening a new branch in Richmond Hill this September.

“The Jewish day school program has seen very significant growth in the last few years,” says CHAT’s headmaster, Paul Shaviv. “We believe this reflects positive views among young Jewish parents about cultural continuity and the desire to give students an education in their heritage.”

Shaviv says the school never turns away a child because of a family’s inability to pay the tuition, which is $11,500 this coming year. The UJA Federation of Greater Toronto provides more than $7 million in subsidies for families in the GTA who can’t afford to pay full fees.

Always begging

For Rabbi Yoseph Zaltzman, executive director of the Jewish Russian Community Centre of Greater Toronto, providing a religious education for his children is an all-encompassing project.

Eleven of Zaltzman’s 13 kids are currently enrolled in Jewish schools. Admittedly, he can’t afford the full cost and each year must ask school administrators for help.

“It’s very hard for many people to come and, in a way, be a beggar every year,” he says.

Three years ago, Zaltzman founded the Toronto Jewish Academy. This fall his school will move into a new building on Bathurst in Thornhill, with 60 students in classes up to grade 4.

Fed up with the Ontario government’s refusal to support religious education, Zaltzman actively supported Day in the Alliance leadership race, signing up a number of his constituents.

He would have no problem supporting Day in a general election.

“If he’s the only one who supports private schools, for sure,” Zaltzman says.

The Russian rabbi is also a member of Ontario Parents for Equality in Education Funding (OPEEF), a multi-faith lobby group on the funding issue.

During the leadership race, OPEEF hosted a public meeting with Day at the Beth Jacob High School for Girls on Lawrence.

OPEEF’s director of operations, Georganne Burke, says the group signed up about 800 new Alliance members for Day from the Jewish community alone.

After initially having reservations about him, Burke says she was satisfied with the answers Day provided in an earlier meeting to some tough questions about his past.

“We were able to come away saying we felt comfortable supporting him on this issue,” says Burke. “And we made it clear that we weren’t saying we were endorsing the Alliance party. None of us could say that.”

That Jewish voters would be comfortable with the Alliance leader seems obvious to MP Jason Kenney, Day’s campaign chairman.

“(Day) finds the suggestion that he may be tolerant of such (racist and anti-Semitic) views personally very hurtful,” he says.

“The fact is, his attitudes toward the Jewish people are on the opposite end of the spectrum of those that he’s allegedly been associated with.”

Day may be saying all the right things, but is he really going to make a breakthrough in the Jewish constituency? Many who know this community well say it’s a fool’s dream.

Michael Marzolini, a Liberal pollster with Pollara, notes that for the Reform party (Jewish support) has traditionally been negligible, and it isn’t moving.

“There’s still a suspicion in Canada among a lot of non-Anglo-Saxon groups about the Alliance,” he says.

Where does the Jewish vote go? “The Jewish vote was the first to break down in Canada,” Marzolini says. “It used to be that when Jewish Canadians hadn’t been here that long, they were big Liberal voters. But (the vote) seemed to dilute itself in the 70s and became more small-c conservative. And (Jewish voters have) been above average for support of the NDP. So it would be very difficult for a new party to make inroads.”

That’s also the view of Martin Goldfarb, CEO of Goldfarb Consultants, who personally opposes state funding for private schools.

“It would be folly to think that one issue like this would drive voting behaviour. People are smarter than that,” he says.

Small percentage

Political strategist and Liberal Marcel Wieder agrees that the Alliance leader’s stand on this one issue won’t translate into more Jewish votes.

“While a significant number of people send their children to private Jewish schools, it’s still a small percentage of the overall Jewish population,” says Wieder.

Indeed, there are many Jewish voices aghast that some of their own have been seduced by Day’s appeal.

“I disagree with him (on school funding) and I think most people in the Jewish community do,” says Nelson Wiseman, a U of T political scientist, adding, “Jews are more left-wing historically, although some have been conservative. Across the spectrum, they are more associated with social progressivism.”

The United Jewish People’s Order, which promotes secular Jewish culture, is rattled by the Orthodox welcome to Day.

Says the Order’s president, David Abramowitz. “I’m neither surprised nor shocked. I’m saddened and frustrated that he has had the impact he has.”

scottand@nowtoronto.comCost of sending a child to Jewish school: $8,000-$12,000 a year
Number of GTA Jewish schools: 32

Children enrolled in GTA Jewish schools: 9,120

GTA Jewish population: 200,000
Amount UJA provides to subsidize Jewish education: $7 million

Sources: UJA Federation of Greater Toronto, Board of Jewish Education


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