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.