Jewish day school model may now be thing of past

Jewish day school model may now be thing of past

It’s time to recognize that, with the collapse of the economy, the American Jewish day school model is breaking, if not already broken.
We have to deal with a new reality, and that calls for revisiting and reassessing the sacred cows surrounding how we approach the education of our children — from pedagogical, social and financial points of view.
In future columns, I hope to deal with the range of efforts being undertaken in our community to deal with this crisis. For now, let’s focus on a few central facts:
• An American Jewish community obsessed with its survival has determined through numerous studies that the most successful means of maintaining Jewish identity and affiliation among young people is through a sustained Jewish day school education.
• The increasingly prohibitive costs of such an education, the lingering perception that day schools are primarily for the Orthodox, and the strongly held belief that the separation of church and state would be harmed if government provided tuition relief for parochial school families, has kept the issue from becoming a priority on our national agenda.
• In the traditional community, the belief that public schools and Hebrew schools are to be avoided at all costs has kept us from using our imagination and inventiveness in responding to a new, perhaps permanent, landscape of limited financial resources.
We need to think on a communal level which values and lifestyles we are willing to sacrifice and which are most important to keep.
Loyal day school families, long faced with financial hardships in meeting rising tuition costs, cannot assume that God, the schools or grandparents will provide somehow.
The schools are tapped out. Running a dual curriculum of Judaic and secular studies in an economic environment where costs are rising and donations are diminishing has become a losing proposition, despite the passionate commitment of educators and lay leaders. The numbers no longer add up.
Religious leaders cannot hold on to the belief that Hebrew-language charter schools or newly proposed dual-immersion Hebrew-tracked programs in public schools are only of interest to secular Israelis in America.
When families are facing a range of financial troubles, including the loss or potential loss of income, all but the most ideologically committed will turn, however reluctantly, toward the option of a free public school education for their children, perhaps supplemented by a variety of Jewish educational options.
Rather than bemoan the situation and make the point, however true, that there is no substitute for a high-quality Jewish day school education, we have to accept the fact that we can no longer sustain a way of life where families spend one-third or more of their income on day school tuitions.
Rabbis seem naïve and short-sighted when they tell congregants who may be considering pulling their kids out of day schools and putting them in public schools, to “come see me and I will help you get scholarship money.” There’s just not enough to go around.
Old myths need to be shattered.
One is that day schools are for the Orthodox, and that few others care. It is true that more than 90 percent of Orthodox families in this country send their children to day schools at some point, compared with about 17 percent of Conservative families and 8 percent of Reform.
But those labels, and numbers, are changing. In recent years, more people are eschewing denominational definitions and calling themselves “post-denominational” or “just Jewish.” And we have seen the creation and growth of community day schools, not limited to a specific denomination, around the country.
Perhaps the most endangered group of day schools today in the United States, as the economy falters, are the Solomon Schechter schools of the Conservative movement.
Marvin Schick, a consultant to the Avi Chai Foundation and expert on day schools who is now completing his third five-year census of day schools in the United States, notes that the Schechter schools are “very seriously impacted,” with some closing and many losing significant percentages of students. The effect on the community could be profound, weakening the traditional wing of the Conservative movement.
One assumption that needs to be re-thought in our traditional communities is that the combination of a public school education and supplemental Hebrew school is, automatically, the road to assimilation and away from Jewish engagement. True, Hebrew schools of the past were a disaster, for the most part, no doubt providing generations of young American Jews the single most negative Jewish experience in their lives.
But that does not mean that supplemental schools cannot be made enriching and rewarding if the community focuses its resources and creativity on them. And while a public school environment can present a challenge for some, we would be better served addressing the issues rather than demonizing the experience.
Perhaps the most deep-seated myth, prevalent in the liberal Jewish community, is that the separation of church and state is so sacrosanct as to be threatened by government aid for parochial schools. Our democracy will not crumble if, for example, the expense of providing a secular education in our day schools is subsidized.
America is the only Western country whose Jewish day schools receive no direct instructional aid from the government. Youngsters in countries like Canada, England, Belgium, South Africa and Australia attend day schools that receive generous funds from their governments.
Why shouldn’t our government pay for the secular costs of a Jewish-secular education, especially on realizing that charitable funding is insufficient to meet the enormous and increasing needs of subsidizing Jewish education in this country?
Once debated actively within our community, the very topic of whether Jewish organizations should advocate for government aid to parochial schools has been off the communal agenda for many years. It’s time to re-introduce the subject with a renewed sense of urgency.
A confident American Jewish community that has focused successfully on lobbying for government aid to Israel could, if it turned its attention to supporting day schools as a means of strengthening the future of Jewish life, be effective as well in Congress in advocating for government funding.
I don’t claim to have the answer to these problems, and I don’t believe there is one. Rather, there are many alternatives to be explored, and I have faith in our communal creativity to address them constructively. The key is to recognize that time is not on our side; we need to come together and focus on this crisis now, with fresh thinking, not old arguments. Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.