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We Should Not Be Surprised

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If I am granted the years and strength, in three years (and during my eightieth year) I will conduct another census of Jewish day schools in the United States, following up on my previous research conducted at five-year intervals.

While of course the precise data are not yet known, much of what will be learned is already apparent. Enrollment from kindergarten through grade twelve will grow by about ten percent over the 2008-09 statistic, so that there will be about 250,000 day school students, an impressive figure when we reflect on the modest number of dayschoolers just several decades ago. There is a lot to be proud of.

Unfortunately, the overall numbers do not tell the entire story. The record is mixed. Nearly all the enrollment growth – in fact, all the growth – will be in the two haredi sectors, comprising yeshiva world and chassidic schools, and this growth will entirely be the result of high haredi fertility. Elsewhere in the day-school world, the story is one of stagnation and – what may be surprising to many – enrollment decline in many schools, including in quite a few Orthodox institutions.

Non-Orthodox schools are losing students, with the Solomon Schechters (Conservative) leading the way down. By 2013, they shall have lost at least one third of the nearly 18,000 students enrolled a decade earlier, reflecting in large measure the remarkable downward spiral of the Conservative movement. There are some Orthodox who welcome this development. I do not because I know these schools once provided many recruits for the Orthodox Union’s National Conference of Synagogue Youth.

When a Solomon Schechter school closes, often there is no substitute day school for its students. The reality is that children from even more traditional Conservative homes are increasingly being enrolled in public schools. High tuition, in addition to the atrophying of Conservatism, is taking an ever-expanding toll.

For years there was enrollment growth in Community day schools, the so-called trans-denominational institutions that invariably are light on Judaics. The trend is now being reversed, as Community schools are reporting enrollment decline and some have closed. Here, too, high tuition is part of the explanation and this has produced a spreading climate of opinion in what once may have been regarded as day school families that this form of education is not mandatory.

Although still tiny in numbers, Hebrew-language charter schools are beginning to have an impact. This is certain to expand despite the prospect that severe budgetary problems confronting nearly all of the states will restrain the willingness of public officials to authorize additional charters. The Jess Schwartz Jewish Community Day School in Phoenix, which less than a year ago merged with another Community school and now enrolls about 200 students, has just applied for charter status.

Outside of New York and New Jersey, nearly half of all U.S. day school students are in non-Orthodox schools, a statistic that may seem surprising in view of significant pockets of Orthodox enrollment in Baltimore, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Dallas and Atlanta. The sociological reality is that younger Orthodox families are gravitating to the New York metropolitan area.

With the limited exception of Chabad schools, themselves now encountering severe financial stress, there are few Orthodox schools with anything close to a kiruv or outreach mission or orientation. There are reasons for this, some perhaps acceptable, others not.

The day school movement which once was imbued with a spirit of kiruv has substantially shed that commitment and the results are not welcome. This development reflects the strange mindset in nearly all of Orthodox life that kiruv and chinuch are distinct obligations and activities and that it is possible to have a viable kiruv movement without a strong focus on the education of children. This attitude is sharply in contrast to what occurs in Israel where under the guidance of Torah leaders enormous energy and resources are poured into basic Torah education aimed at ensuring a meaningful religious future for children from marginal families.

There is no justification for the tragic division between kiruv and chinuch, a division that explains why for all the public relations efforts, kiruv is in the doldrums. It does not have to be this way, witness the major exception in all of North America: Dallas, where an extraordinary Torah community has emerged because of the organic relationship between outreach and basic Torah education.

About the Author: Dr. Marvin Schick has been actively engaged in Jewish communal life for more than sixty years. He can be contacted at mschick@mindspring.com.

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