Supplementary Hebrew school enrollment in the United States decreased by more than 40% between 2006 to 2019, and the overall number of Hebrew schools in the US dropped by more than 25%, according to a new study released on Wednesday by The Jewish Education Project (A Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in North America 2019-2020).
The Hebrew Sunday schools, or supplementary programs, are still the most significant way for non-Orthodox Jewish American children to get their Jewish education. TJEP’s director, David Bryfman, told eJewishPhilanthropy that these programs “are still the largest place where the greatest number of non-Orthodox kids are getting their primary form of Jewish education. As a community, that’s a responsibility for us. We cannot ignore it and keep saying, well, we heard it’s bad, it used to suck, and it’s still going to suck. We have to say to ourselves, No, that’s where the kids are, that’s where the Jews want to be, and therefore it’s our obligation, our responsibility to fund and resource them adequately to do that work.”
Here are some of the conclusions reached by the survey’s authors:
- 1,250 schools responded to the census. An additional 208 opted out of the census, but we have an overwhelming reason to believe that they meet the criteria. By those means, the census estimates that, during the 2019-2020 school year, there were 1,458 schools in the United States and Canada and 1398 in just the United States.
- In all schools, the 2019-2020 enrollment (including adjustments and imputation) was just shy of 141,000 students. Utilizing a comparison to the earlier census of the AVI CHAI Foundation, one could compare the 230,000 students in 2006-2007 to 135,087 in 2019-2020.
- The decrease in students is proportionately larger than the decrease in schools. The average school size has also decreased, and every single grade is, on average, smaller.
- Another area of comparable difference is in movement affiliation. Most notably, Chabad has increased its reach in both students and school count, and the Conservative movement is on the decline. The Reform movement continues to educate over 50% of all students in supplementary schools.
- Geography and movement affiliation (if any) play the most significant role in predicting school size.
- Bnai Mitzvah remains a “graduation” point from supplementary schools, with just shy about 50% of eligible students enrolling in 6th and 7th grade, and less than 20% in all grades 8th and beyond.
- When asked, most census respondents express that the most important purpose of supplementary school is to foster a sense of belonging to the Jewish people amongst their pupils.
TJEP also released a “call to action,” urging educators to focus their efforts on six design principles:
- Elevating cultural identities
- Adding value to a family’s life
- Affirming diverse people and families
- Putting family at the center
- Prioritizing caring and purposeful relationships
- Redefining the roles of teacher and learner
“We believe that it is incumbent upon the Jewish philanthropic world to begin to reconsider the importance and primacy of the place where the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish kids still continue to get their primary form of Jewish education,” Bryfman said. “And there’s a strong call in this report, whether it’s implicit or explicit, for federations and foundations and individual philanthropists to start investing in the change necessary to give these kids what they deserve.”