Getting more Jewish kids into day schools

by Maskil on December 12, 2008

The Jewish Exponent (serving the Jewish community of Greater Philadelphia) recently carried an article concerning a tuition reduction scheme being piloted at the local Perelman Jewish Day Schools. The initiative is spearheaded by venture capitalist David Magerman’s Kohelet Foundation. (I won’t get into the details of the tuition discounts, which are covered within Bryan Schwartzman’s article.)

Similar programs also exist in communities such as Cleveland, Massachusetts and Seattle.

The article mentioned a 2003 Boston survey indicating a strong interest in Jewish day schools amongst 18% of Jewish parents, but a reluctance to sacrifice academics or extra-curricular activities to send kids there. According to the article, the following factors are inhibiting a wider adoption of the day schools model by Jewish parents (as the parent of a child of school-going age, this list certainly resonates with me):

  • Affordability (almost certainly the #1 issue)
  • The quality of the secular education and extra-curricular activities
  • Exposure to diversity
  • General ambivalence towards Jewish identity

Is it possible to come up with a Jewish day schools model that will address all these factors, leading to much wider availability and adoption of this education option? I believe that it is feasible, provided that we redefine our community priorities and responsibilities when it comes to Jewish education.

What do I mean by this? The benefits of Jewish literacy accrue to the entire Jewish community over the lifetime of the individual and beyond. The costs of this literacy, however, are incurred almost entirely by the parents over the +/-12 years of schooling. These costs are in many cases incurred at a time when the parents are at their most stretched financially (young, growing family, study debt, early stages of career, etc.).

I’m therefore suggesting that if we want parents to send their children to Jewish day schools, the financial burden needs to be picked up by the entire community, not absorbed solely by the parents. In fact, provision of such an education to whoever wants it should be seen as one of the (if not THE) most important functions of the community; a cornerstone responsibility.

If not free, cost should certainly not be an inhibiting or prohibitive factor when it comes to Jewish day school education.

The quality of secular education and extra-curricular activities can be addressed by means of standards, monitoring and inspection at local, state or national levels to ensure a uniformly high standard. In addition, if education is given the priority it deserves by the community, the recruitment of qualified, experienced and dedicated staff becomes easier.

Exposure to diversity might be more difficult (but not impossible) to achieve. The issue of Jewish diversity must first be addressed. Day schools should offer a “Highest Common Factor” Jewish curriculum, focusing on Hebrew and Jewish culture, civilisation and history. Such a curriculum should find acceptance across almost the entire Jewish spectrum (apart from the Orthodox end of the scale), based on the premise that beliefs should be addressed in the home and the synagogue, not the classroom. Admission should be open to so-called sociological Jews (those with only one (either) Jewish parent), as well as to non-Jews agreeing to study the Jewish curriculum. Exposure to diversity in the wider sense could be achieved by a full and enthusiastic involvement in the local community, joint activities with other schools, and just plain effort.

The only issue that this community day schools initiative can’t address is that of the general ambivalence towards Jewish identity. I think most would agree that this is outside the scope of this project, although we would hope to raise a generation of graduates for whom this ambivalence is much less of a factor.

What about those who are not ready to commit to a fully-fledged Jewish day school education, but do want some exposure to their Jewish heritage? Why not leverage the investment and available resources by offering an after-hours Hebrew and Jewish studies program to those attending public or other private schools? Programs could be offered at both basic and advanced levels; the basic requiring a commitment of 1-2 afternoons a week, with the advanced requiring 3 or more. Adult education programs could be offered in a similar fashion.

Neither Judaism in the religious sense, nor a secular Jewish culture or civilisation can exist for long without a minimum level of Jewish literacy. As a people, we should be in a position to offer free, universal Jewish day school education to every Jewish child anywhere in the world. If we can’t get that right within the next generation or so, it puts a huge question mark over our commitment and the commitment of our community structures and institutions to Jewish survival and growth.

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