(Originally published by the American Jewish Committee)
It is comforting to know that after a century of day schools on these shores, a corner has finally been turned and American Jewry is prepared to embrace these institutions by providing them with the spiritual, intellectual, and — hopefully — financial resources they require. There are good reasons for optimism, for believing that we are at long last on the right path. Day school enrollment is up, notably in the non-Orthodox sectors where it has been lagging, and the trend is certain to continue as new schools are established and additional families that must be regarded as Jews at risk recognize the importance of a meaningful Jewish education. The naysayers appear to be gone with the wind or at least silenced and marginalized. Day schools have become legitimate, the in thing. Stories about them fill the pages of our publications. Philanthropic support has increased, and the vast new wealth attained in the recent period has resulted in a building boom in the day school world.
Everything is apparently coming up roses for day schools, as the longtime votaries of these institutions sense that their dreams are being fulfilled, their advocacy heeded, their efforts rewarded.
But if all is hunky-dory in dayschoolville, why did Jack Wertheimer write a scathing essay for Commentary with the provocative title "Who’s Afraid of Jewish Day Schools?" and why has the Jewish Council on Public Affairs retreated from its limited acceptance of modest and indirect government benefits to sectarian schools? More disturbingly, perhaps, after all of the attention and effort, why is enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools only 40,000, a small percentage of the school-age children in Reform, Conservative, and unaffiliated homes? What are we to make of the statistics of enrollment in non-Orthodox high schools? The figure is fewer than 2,500. Furthermore, there are parallel statistics which indicate that, in non-Orthodox schools, enrollment is heavily geared to the preschool and early elementary grades. More tellingly, are we certain that day schools can do the job that we want them to do, that they can arrest and effectively counteract the powerful assimilatory forces that are integral to the lives of all Jews at risk and that ultimately impel many of our youth away from a lasting Jewish commitment?
In a word, where is the evidence to back up the heady claims being made by day school proponents? In the main, this evidence comes from the experience of the Orthodox, most of whom have life patterns that are significantly different from those of other Jews.
The purpose of these questions is to provide a necessary antidote to the unbridled optimism that informs too much of the discussion of Jewish education, especially the day school sector. It is not my aim to rain on the day school parade. There is, I suppose, a touch of heresy in the questions I am asking, for all of my adult life I have been an advocate of day schools.
They spring, in fact, from a fierce belief that day schools are far and away the best that we have in Jewish education and about the best that we have to counteract Judaic abandonment. I hope that these questions and others like them will force us to think more deeply about the day school phenomenon, what these schools are about and what they can accomplish in an environment that for most Jewish families is antithetical to the mission of meaningful religious Jewish education. There is good news about day schools, to be sure, but the good news is only part of the story.
Even as we focus on the problematic side of the day school equation, as I will, it remains that a great deal has been achieved in recent years. It’s just that the work isn’t done, not by a long shot. Day schools need cheerleading because they have been starved for affection, because after being treated for so long as the stepchildren of Jewish communal life they need tender loving care. It is good for their spirit, maybe also for business as day schools become stylish for Jews who had shunned them.
Even as their status has improved, the economic lot of most of these institutions has not. Excluding yeshiva-world and Hasidic schools, the strong tendency is to view the education that is being provided as a product that is sold to consumers who happen to be parents. As with other goods and services, the expectation is that the consumer will pay the regular price, irrespective of financial ability. This means, of course, that some children, mainly in middle-class homes, are being turned away.
Despite the confident claims that the number is substantial, it is impossible to figure out how many potential students are not enrolled in day schools because of parental financial constraints. American Jewry, after all, is not quite in the poorhouse. There are bar/bat mitzvahs of non-day schoolers that, when all costs are factored in, are about as expensive as eight or ten years of day school tuition. Cost is obviously important for some American Jews who remain on the day school sidelines, but probably not for most of those who prefer private schools or strong public schools for their children because they believe that these institutions are stronger and that supplementary education is sufficient.
While economic considerations may themselves not be a disincentive for most parents who reject the day school option or who limit their children’s attendance to the early years, the poor financial condition of too many of these schools and the limited philanthropic support they receive result in unattractive facilities and curtailed academic programs that do not offer the enhancements or variety available at the competing, non-Jewish institutions.
Philanthropic support has gone up, of course. However, the new funding is usually targeted for discrete projects and not to the institutions themselves. In the federation-centered philanthropic arrangement, the tendency was to give direct subventions to day schools. As inadequate as this assistance may have been in many instances, the schools themselves were helped, to one extent or another.
The new boys on the block—the emerging and increasingly powerful world of private Jewish foundations—do not believe in this approach. Like foundations generally, they are project-oriented. Teacher-training and curriculum development are perennial favorites in this philanthropic sector, as they are in public education. A reliable barometer for determining what to invest in in Jewish education is to examine, rather uncritically, what is preferred in the public sector, without much heed to the obvious circumstance that, despite endless rounds of reform, public education does not appear to be in good shape.
The upshot is that there are private Jewish foundations blessed with good intentions without much of a clue about Jewish education that scurry around as they replicate what is currently correct in the education field, without regard to effectiveness or overlap. The day schools themselves tend to get lost in the shuffle, so that there are institutions all over the Jewish educational landscape that, while poorly housed and poorly fed, are blessed with philanthropic dollars that allow administrators, teachers, and students to travel to Israel, attend conferences, take special courses, and engage in other rather pleasant activities that allegedly enhance the educational product. All of this is marketed as advancing Jewish education.
Unless there is greater appreciation of the value of philanthropic networking and also of the need to give direct assistance to underfunded schools, we will be in for a stream of announcements hyping wondrous grants and activities, all of which will result in little im-provement in schools that cannot attract parents who are comparison shoppers and who are turned off by the, at times, pathetic facilities and puny programs.
For all of their limitations, day schools have a splendid track record. The indicators of weakness are easy to point to—inadequate buildings, poorly stocked libraries, outdated computer rooms, and limited curriculums—and yet, when they are measured by student performance on standardized tests or college admissions or career success, day schools do well.
And this is without factoring in the Jewish benefits.
There is something wonderful and mysterious about the success of day school students, something that cannot be explained by the ordinary accounting that informs too much of society’s understanding of what makes for good education. Top-flight facilities and elaborate and innovative academic programs are, of course, to be desired, but they do not provide any guarantee that the product will work, no more than their absence can serve as a certain predictor of educational failure. Everything else being equal, it’s good to have the accoutrements, but everything else is never equal in education. What counts most for educational effectiveness is the environment, whether the school is a place where study and intellectual curiosity and growth are paramount, whether there is a culture that promotes learning.
Jewish schools succeed far beyond what might be expected of them because they are inherently infused with a spirit of educational purposefulness. The ideals and attributes, as well as the positive approach to texts, that imbue these places of learning serve these youngsters, their families, and society well during their formative years and later on. The strongly positive study ethic leads to a strongly positive work ethic.
Day school accomplishments are not myths. What is fanciful are the reasons given by community officials who justify their lack of enthusiasm for day schools—in Wertheimer’s phrase, they are afraid of day schools—by exaggerating the problems of these institutions and ignoring their successes. A prime example is the charge that day schools do not promote social integration. Jewish schools are inherently exclusionary in that they are for Jewish students, which is to say they are not for 98 percent of the population. But it is wrong to build on this inevitability the claim that day school graduates do not ultimately fit in with the rest of society. They do, as is evident in the academic world, in professions, in the workplace, and many other settings.
Some day schools fail on the Judaic side, particularly in their religious education and socialization of young Jews at risk. In too many places, the religious ambiance and program is threadbare or minimalist, so the schools can scarcely promote an abiding Jewish commitment. The sense of educational purposefulness that is richly evident on the secular side is not matched by a corresponding sense of religious purposefulness.
This deficit is manifested in several ways. The Jewish program takes a backseat to the core academic curriculum, often amounting to no more hours than are provided in typical supplementary schools. As in supplementary schools the course work is basic, focusing on Hebrew language skills, a touch of Bible study, attention to the holidays and, at times, to certain observances. What is lacking is spirit and intensity, the recognition that a concerted effort must be made to raise the religious consciousness of the children, else their Jewish instruction ultimately will be lost in a sea of assimilatory tidal waves.
What is or should be distinctive about Jewish schools is their Jewish component. As important as the regular academic program may be, it is not the reason why the institution is brought into being. When a school community—its lay leaders, educators, and parents—lose sight of this, the day school is apt to be regarded as a begrudging choice whose attractiveness diminishes as grade level rises. Small wonder that a considerable proportion of non-Orthodox day schoolers are transferred out before completion of the full complement of elementary school grades. As for Jewish high schools, even for most day school families it is not on the radar screen.
As important as day schools are, some of the rhetoric about their transformative potential among Jews at risk is overblown. It takes determination to bring about transformative results and where it is lacking, as it is in many day schools, we ought not expect miracles.
It is evident that day schools—all of the non-Orthodox and some of the Orthodox—are caught in a dilemma. If they aim too high Jewishly, they are likely to turn off Jewish involved families that are on the fringe regarding day schools. Their children will not be sent if the day school is regarded as "too Jewish," as significantly above the Judaic level of the home.
But if the schools aim too low, as is now often the case, they probably can attract more students, but their defining-down of Judaism will inevitably result in disappointing outcomes. Several researchers have noted that the admission into non-Orthodox schools of children who are further removed from Jewish commitment than the core school population may result in the dilution of a day schools’ mission and effectiveness.
It is facile to suggest that day schools should aim down the middle of the Jewish road. Rather, it is better for their leaders, advocates, and parents to understand that a day school education is not a quick fix or a guarantor of lasting Jewish involvement. Statistically it provides better results than any other educational approach; even so, the ability of day schools to succeed in a Jewish sense has been compromised by the compromises made in American Jewish life during the century that has just ended.
If day school education is oversold, support for the product will be short-lived, as evidence appears pointing to its limited effectiveness. But, because they are the best shot we have to limit our losses, perhaps also to recapture lost ground in a modest number of Jewish homes, there are reasons enough to rally around them and to open new schools and expand those that exist.
As for their Judaic content, critical as it is, after visiting a great number of schools and reflecting on my ardent advocacy of the concept of religious purposefulness, I have come to recognize that change in the desired direction is severely limited by imperatives of time and curriculum and by parental expectations. Change will not come in response to outside advocacy, except perhaps very slowly. It can result only from awareness within the community that comprises each school that it is in the interest of all to enhance the sense of religious purposefulness.
Since this is a long shot in many places and, at best, a slow process everywhere else, Judaic enhancement for day school students can come from programming that does not challenge the imperatives of time, curriculum, and parental expectations. As a practical matter, this means outside programming that reinforces and adds to what can be derived from the day school experience. This programming should encompass youth activities, camping, Israel experiences, innovative synagogue services, extracurricular activity such as Shabbatonim and whatever else can bring children into an informally linked network of Jewish contacts and consciousness-raising. The hope is that with day schools as the centerpiece, children will grow in Judaism and this growth will be maintained as adulthood approaches.
It follows that the debate over the relative merit of different types of continuity activities is an idle, perhaps unhealthy, exercise. We need to invest—financially and emotionally—in a range of activities, hopefully in a linked fashion.
It follows, as well, that because the reach of day school obviously does not extend to the vastly greater number of homes and children who prefer supplementary education, if we are not to concede defeat about the Jewish prospect of such children, they too must be brought into the ambit of networked activities. In the aggregate, the Jewish prospects of day schoolers are brighter, yet statistically reality compels that careful attention be paid to Jewish children in supplementary schools.
As for children who receive no Jewish schooling, Jewish messages and programming generally do not enter their homes or lives. While serendipity occasionally brings about unexpected results, it is rather difficult to plan or program for serendipity.
But we can target the children in Jewish schools and their families. The debate over priorities—over assigning relative value to different continuity activities—arises from communal parsimony and not from a determination to weed out activities that are ineffective. The American Jewish community is affluent, and it manages to sustain a huge infrastructure that is as impotent as it is unnecessary. If priorities are to be set and funding shifted, they should be in the direction of day schools and other Jewish education and away from the feeding of a bloated infrastructure.
The triage mentality that now dominates communal thinking and philanthropic actions relating to Jewish education guarantees that results will be slow and puny.
We are lacking the will, not the resources, to try more and to accomplish more. Even where there is sufficient commitment, as in the private foundations, there is too often a lack of an understanding of the field or of the need to have cooperative ventures. As we seek to attain a newer level of support for Jewish education, we must recognize that new arrangements are needed. What didn’t work in the past will not work in the future. If we package yesterday’s result, we will forfeit the opportunity for a brighter Jewish tomorrow in many Jewish homes.