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We Should Not Be Surprised


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.

Elsewhere, the picture is different. The abandonment of kiruv is painfully evident in the troubled condition of day schools that serve an outreach function, including the education of children in immigrant families. Between 1998 and 2008 these schools lost one third of their enrollment. By the time this September’s statistics are in, the loss will be in the vicinity of 50 percent. Some of this has to do with the changed profile of immigrant families, notably within the Bukharian community. The greater responsibility lies with too little concern about the situation of these schools. They once attracted much attention and a fair amount of support. Now they are like unwanted stepchildren.

On the day this is being written, the principal of a kiruv school that he opened nearly forty years ago told me in shul in Jerusalem that he does not know whether the school will be able to open in September.

Conventional Orthodox schools are also experiencing unprecedented hardship. Modern Orthodox institutions that in the aggregate cater to relatively affluent families and charge top of the line tuition that without pause grows each year are now in trouble and forced to make staffing and other cuts. After smoldering talk for several years about the tuition crisis, chickens are coming home to roost. Much of what we know at this point is impressionistic. What is certain is that there are parents who have switched their children to public school. The notion of public school for Orthodox children is gaining in legitimacy, as parents claim they are confident they can provide alternate meaningful religious education. They are wrong, yet I believe more parents will follow in this direction.

What is clear is that enrollment in Modern Orthodox schools is declining.

Admittedly, a significant portion of this decline results from the impact of aliyah, as in recent years a significant number of Modern Orthodox families with children of school age have settled in Israel. The long-term impact of this development will be greater still because children yet to be born will not add to the enrollment rolls of the schools they would have attended had their parents remained on these shores.

Even so, there is no denying that a small but growing number of Modern Orthodox parents are opting out of day school, giving high tuition as the explanation. The evidence is in yarmulke-wearing male students in public schools from New York to California.

Modern Orthodox schools have miscalculated in believing that economic forces do not affect enrollment. Generally, Modern Orthodox schools do not do a good job of fundraising and their leadership arrangement is impaired by the practice or tradition that mandates that the school’s lay leadership changes every two years or so. While I do not recommend that any school or person follow my example of serving thirty-eight years (so far) as a voluntary yeshiva president, the two-year term that is standard at many day schools is a recipe for failure.

Admittedly, even the best of leadership cannot overcome the unwillingness to make support of yeshivas and day schools a tzedakah priority. This hurts all our schools, from the most Orthodox to those that are minimalistic in their Judaic commitment. Even with their high enrollment, haredi schools are experiencing severe hardship. They remain open because (1) salaries are low, (2) they are often paid late, (3) educational enhancements are severely stinted on and (4) it is their mission to remain open. We should not regard this as a healthy situation.

Tzedakah is at once mandatory and voluntary, the former because we are obligated to give and voluntary because we can choose where to give. As astounding as it may seem, over the past generation American Torah leaders have sent the message that basic Torah education is not a tzedakah priority. As I have written over the years, that message is sharply in variance with what Rav Aharon Kotler taught and demonstrated during his exalted lifetime, as well as what other American Torah leaders taught in the post-Holocaust period when the day school movement began its remarkable growth.

The message we hear is to give elsewhere, not to basic Torah chinuch. It is not surprising that too many observant Jews heed that message. It should not be surprising that as a consequence, whether in enrollment decline or the inability to meet payroll, our yeshivas and day schools are suffering.

Dr. Marvin Schick is president of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School.

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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