A major sociological characteristic and consequence of modernity is the tendency for people to join together in associations that express a common goal or interest or a shared experience. The United States has been a nation of joiners from day one and perhaps even before independence was declared. Alexis de Tocqueville described this tendency in Democracy in America, the epic prophetic work published a century and three-quarters ago.
The impulse to join is dynamic, meaning that the instinct feeds on itself, so that the number of organizations continues to grow. This instinct is further fed by the extraordinary complexity of our society and the expanded involvement by government into nearly all aspects of contemporary life. More government means more organizations that attempt to influence what governments do. By now, we have hundreds of thousands of organizations, nearly all of them identified as nonprofit, a description that doubtlessly defines their status under the tax code but often does not appropriately describe how these entities function, as in many instances well-paid officials with matching benefits and expense accounts go about their self-important work.
We Jews have known for a long while that what happens outside of our four cubits in the societies where we dwell powerfully affects how we conduct our lives, the upshot being that we are no slouches at organization building. To the contrary, we seem to outdo everyone else, so that there may be more Jewish organizations in the U.S. than there are for any combination of several or more other major ethnic groups.
Years ago I posited that while there are fewer Jews on American soil when the sun goes down each day than there were when the sun rose, each day when the sun sets there are more Jewish organizations than there were when the day began.
The situation hasn’t improved, although it is my impression that the severe recession we have experienced since 2008 has put a damper on organization building. In fact, some nonprofits have closed their doors. Even so, it’s a good bet that the long list of American Jewish organizations includes more than a few nonprofits that have come into being during the past half-decade.
Many of our organizations focus on chesed activities, helping the poor or those who are otherwise needy. They rely mainly or entirely on voluntary work and they deserve our gratitude and support. These organizations are in sharp contrast to the mountain of organizations with high-salaried executives who have a remarkable penchant for travel, conferencing and sundry activities that invariably take place in luxurious settings and do not strike me as being invested with much altruism. They are, for sure, invested with strong doses of public relations.
I shall continue to speak out against this phenomenon as long as God grants me the ability to do so, although I recognize that the winds continue to blow strongly in the other direction and that our chosen people will continue to choose to create additional organizations. They are our false gods.
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There are, inevitably, organizations whose mission involves Jewish education. Whatever we may think of their particular orientation, as, for example, whether they promote a diluted brand of what they generously refer to as Jewish education, a case can be made that they are functional. They have work to do, a role to play in curriculum development and the training and recruitment of faculty, as well as much else that directly relates to what occurs inside schools and classrooms.
Just the same, all organizations tend to have a life of their own and even with a legitimate sense of mission there are always the seeds of self-promotion and self-aggrandizement. As time goes on, often the primary mission of a group is relegated to the background. Keeping the organization in business, including marketing and fundraising, becomes the activity that receives the greatest attention and a large share of the available resources. This is a slow process that may reach maturity before the organization or people associated with it recognize what has happened. By then it is too late.
From my observation point, the Jewish day school world long avoided this tendency, perhaps because day schools have not been much favored in our community and funding was scarcely available for schools and certainly not for organizational activities. There were just a handful of Jewish educational organizations, apart from the boards of education attached to local Federations, and the organizations that existed had plenty on their plate as they attempted to assist the schools with which they were associated. This was evident in the important work of the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools – Torah Umesorah, by far the largest day school organization.
Much has changed over the past twenty years in the day school and yeshiva world. Enrollment has risen sharply in the haredi sectors (chassidic and yeshiva world schools), almost entirely due to high fertility in those communities. Enrollment in these schools goes up steadily, despite their accepting far fewer non-haredi students and certainly children from marginally religious homes. This is a departure from policies that prevailed in the first decades of day school development.
A companion development, in a sense, is the remarkable concentration of Orthodox day schools and yeshivas in the New York and New Jersey area, a pattern that suggests a corresponding decline in Orthodox enrollment in many North American communities. What is happening regarding religious Jewish life in many smaller and mid-size Orthodox communities away from the Northeast is a critical development that deserves greater attention.
Chabad is now active in the day school field, which was not the case during most of the late Rebbe’s long tenure. Although his father-in-law and predecessor established Chabad yeshivas in the Northeast and industrial Midwest, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson seemed to consciously avoid yeshiva and day school building until his final years when he did encourage Chabad personnel to establish schools that primarily have a kiruv or outreach mission.
Also, beginning in the 1980s and continuing throughout much of the 1990s, there was heightened interest among the Orthodox in promoting schools that served immigrant populations, mainly from Russia, or had an outreach orientation. In recent years, however, there has been a sharp decline in interest and support and enrollment in these schools has plunged. This, too, is a development that gets far too little attention. We seem to consciously avert our eyes from the reality that kiruv is in trouble because there are too few yeshivas and day schools for families that fit into a kiruv mold.
Over the past twenty years, as well, there has been a jump in enrollment in non-Orthodox schools, including at the high school level. There seemed to be expanded communal interest in promoting day school education as a means of ensuring Jewish continuity. Here, too, there apparently is now a reversal of the previous trend. Since the economic downturn, there has been a steady and continuing decline in enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools. Modern Orthodox schools have also been adversely affected, as many have lost students.
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In addition to the enrollment decline in non-Orthodox schools, there has been a disturbing change in the curriculum of many of these schools. The Judaic component is being downplayed and downsized and it is questionable whether these institutions sufficiently recognize that a minimalistic Judaic curriculum and ambience will result in minimalistic Judaic outcomes. Too many in vital sectors of American Jewish life naively believe that irrespective of the Judaic curriculum and ambience, day school education alone is a reliable guarantor of a bright Jewish future. That just isn’t so.
What is remarkable about the Judaic dilution occurring in more than a small number of non-Orthodox schools is that it comes at a time when philanthropic funding aimed at elevating the religious character of these institutions has been significantly expanded. There is a sad disconnect between what is occurring on the ground level in schools and what funders want to believe is happening. This is another aspect of day school education that isn’t being addressed.
Another recent development that bears watching is the emerging and expanding Hebrew charter school movement. If these schools continue to grow in enrollment, as is certain to be the case, they will take more students away from day schools, including some from Orthodox day schools. As this article is being written, several day school leaders across the country have been in touch with me about how the local charters are drawing away an escalating number of day school enrollees. The educational and economic viability of more than a few day schools is being undermined by the charter school movement.
What also seems certain, at least to this writer, is that for all of the hype accompanying Hebrew charter schools, they are minimalistic in their Judaics and their growth does not bode well for Jewish continuity. The encouragement being given to charters, including by some in the Orthodox community, is cause for concern.
What all of this adds up to are darkening clouds in the day school world, outside of the haredi sectors. On top of all of this there is the tuition crisis, the feeling among day school families that high tuition exacts a toll in living standards and priorities that is too high a price to pay. More and more Modern Orthodox parents are opting out of day school, saying that the cost is too high and that they are not prepared to sacrifice their living standard so that their children may have a day school education.
One apparent side effect of the tuition crisis is its contribution to an increased level of aliyah. This is, of course, good news, yet it is also a dialectical development because it inevitably means a decline in enrollment in many schools, primarily those that serve the Modern Orthodox. This exacerbates, in turn, their financial difficulties.
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In short, in the blink of the eye, the day school world has become more complicated, as it is beset by serious issues that demand attention and which may not have any ready remedy. This more complicated reality is now yoked to the tendency I have described of organization building and the instinct to develop projects outside of the school that, it is claimed, will benefit schools struggling to make ends meet. There is an explosion within the day school world of outside organizational activity.
As an inevitable consequence of this, philanthropic funding that is earmarked for day schools ends up supporting activities that occur outside of schools, the claim being that such funding is necessary if day school education is to be improved. It is fascinating that enrollment has slipped within the day school sectors that these funded activities purport to support. Put otherwise, as day school enrollment has gone down among the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox, funding for outside projects that purportedly assist schools serving the non-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox has risen dramatically. It is astonishing how little attention is being given to this development.
We are now blessed – I would say the proper description is saddled – by what can rightly be described as an alternate world of Jewish day school education. It is a world of organizations, of experts sitting in offices, of expensive consultants, of conferences in plush settings and much else that costs serious money. I do not know how many tens of millions of dollars are spent on all of this. The number is not small. Whatever the figure, it is climbing at a time when a great number of schools are experiencing enrollment decline and at a time when an even larger number of schools are in financial trouble.
I am not referring here to curriculum development or the training of principals and teachers, although these activities are also enveloped in an excess of hype. There obviously are activities that can benefit day schools and yeshivas that are the proper mission of outside organizations. What is difficult to accept is the long list of expenditures that essentially go toward organizational self-aggrandizement.
Nor is the issue only or primarily financial, as important as this is in the day school world. What the organizational activity does in large measure is to suck interest and oxygen out of the day school world. We are witness to the sad spectacle of people of sincere interest in day school education coming to believe that the alternate world of Jewish day schools is the more critical world, that its activities are more deserving of support than the core education that occurs inside of schools.
There is also the unfortunate tendency of experts who invariably are well paid to heap scorn on those who teach and who have direct responsibility for our schools. This is a cynical approach to Jewish education. Those who teach in our schools deserve our respect, especially because so many are badly underpaid and, despite this, they make an extra effort to do a good job. If there are individuals in the alternate Jewish day school world who do not have the decency to show respect, may we at least hope they would not heap scorn on those who devote their lives to Jewish education?
Apart from economic realities that, as noted, have curtailed in a limited way the appetite for feeding the alternate day school world, there is scant prospect that the tendencies discussed here will be reversed. Organizations are not noted for fessing up to their shortcomings and they certainly do not have a track record for proclaiming that they are not needed. I do not know of any post-mortems on educational conferences that describe the event as a mistake. To the contrary, participants generally proclaim the experience has been exciting and transformative. School principals are too often co-opted into this dynamic, which isn’t surprising because, after all, why turn your back on a free lunch?
If there is to be reform, meaning that the feeding of this alternate world is limited if not reversed, the initiative needs to come from those who do the feeding – Federations, philanthropies and individual donors. They need to recognize that much of their largesse has been for naught. This isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.
Dr. Marvin Schick is in his fortieth year as president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, a voluntary responsibility. He has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years.
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