The Program that Saved my Jewish Education

Posted by Larry Schooler on Mon, Jan 31, 2011 at 15:01 pm

It’s only been a few weeks since I became involved with HIAS and the Young Leaders, but already I feel a deep sense of passion for their work – from the start, HIAS’ issues resonated with me. During my recent participation in HIAS’ Advocacy Mission – where I interacted directly with policymakers in Congress, the United Nations, the U.S. Department of State, the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service (USCIS), and others – I realized how closely these issues are tied to my own life.

It was during a meeting with USCIS that I learned about the program that saved my Jewish education. In that meeting, I learned about the Religious Worker Visa Program.

I grew up in Houston, Texas, and attended a Jewish day school from pre-K through the 6th grade, with religious school (after school) through 12th grade. It’s not like growing up in New York, DC, Chicago, or LA. In Houston, some people actually think that a yarmulke is our version of a cowboy hat. And some people don’t understand why we wouldn’t go to all the high school football games—on Friday nights. And some people didn’t think it was a big deal to assign major tests on major Jewish holidays—I experienced that year after year when I switched from a Jewish day school to an independent, private school.

So, in a community like that, with a thriving but relatively small Jewish community, my Jewish education was extremely important to me and to my family. When you’re surrounded by people who are different than you, it’s really important to understand who you are when you feel pressured to assimilate in every way. That’s why my Jewish day school education meant so much to me—I could immerse myself in understanding my heritage, my tradition, and the ways I could guide my life.

At least one of my teachers along the way benefitted from the religious worker visa program, which allows U.S. religious denominations to fill religious jobs with qualified workers from abroad. I know other Jewish day schools across the country have utilized the program as well – in places like Houston, TX; Greensboro, NC (where I worked); and Austin, TX (where I live now); it’s just not easy to find people with the education and skills needed to teach Hebrew and Judaica subjects. Jewish congregations, particularly in remote areas with small Jewish communities, rely on rabbis, cantors, kosher butchers, Hebrew school teachers, and other foreign workers who come to the U.S. through the RWVP. We simply do not have enough institutions in the U.S. providing that training.

The Religious Worker Visa Program was enacted in 1990 and for years, HIAS has taken a lead on the issue of advocating for the renewal of this important program and pushing for it to become a permanent part of our immigration laws, which would allow faith communities around the country to sustain the institutions and practices essential to religious and communal life.

Whether you have direct Jewish day school experience or not, I’m sure you’d agree that it is important that Jewish parents be able to give their students a Jewish education from qualified, well-trained professionals, just as we want students to receive training from such professionals in the secular subjects. In a country that holds freedom of religion sacred, the freedom to study one’s religion is just as important.

I strongly believe that the future of religious education, and the ability to freely express and practice one’s religion, depends on the Religious Worker Visa Program. My own experience is just one example of how this program changes lives. My day school experience led me to heavy involvement in the B’nai Brith Youth Organization, AIPAC, Hillel, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the Anti Defamation League, and synagogues in my adult life. I am not exaggerating when I say that the foundation laid by my Jewish day school education, made possible by the religious worker visa program, changed my life and made my religious identity meaningful.

Unfortunately, this important program is currently scheduled to expire next year. HIAS is getting the word out about how vital it is to religious education, and you can help by taking some time to learn more, and letting your legislators know that you support the Religious Worker Visa Program.

Jewish educations depend on it.

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