It’s shortly before the opening of a new school year and nearly three months since a friend asked for help to get a girl who was about to graduate from a local Beth Jacob elementary school into a suitable high school. After much effort, I succeeded, thanks to a caring principal who exemplifies the best in Torah chinuch.
There is a high school attached to the Beth Jacob that she attended, but it would not accept her, despite the ruling of Rav Pam, Shlita, Rosh Yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, that except if a student’s behavior raises serious questions, Beth Jacobs must accept their own graduates. So much for Daas Torah. That’s for the next school or next person, for the more modern crowd, and not for those in the yeshiva world whose “frumkeit” demonstrates their fidelity to Torah standards. They are therefore at liberty to disregard the counsel of Torah leaders.
This is what the unprincipled principal of this girls school has decided to do. It is his school – something like a private summer camp – and he alone will decide who gets admitted.
This one student’s predicament is not unique. The situation is repeated each year in hundreds of religious Jewish homes, mainly in the New York area, and the number is expanding rapidly. While attention is being paid to the problem of yeshiva dropouts and Orthodox teenagers at risk, we hardly seem to be aware of the school admissions crisis. We know little of the pain suffered by families seeking admission into yeshivas and Beth Jacobs.
The shortage of seats accounts for much of the problem. This is, at best, an explanation, not a justification. It is extraordinary and entirely unacceptable that at a time when we confidently proclaim the centrality of Torah education, we cannot provide sufficient space to accommodate families who want their children to study Torah.
Additional seats are needed – and perhaps additional schools, as well - and it is the responsibility of Roshei Yeshiva, Torah Umesorah and community leaders to take appropriate steps to ensure that Jewish children seeking a Jewish education get one. Right now, there are other priorities, often in distant places and often with the prospect of minimal benefits. I think it appalling how the pain of families in Orthodoxy’s backyard evokes a puny response.
RJJ has a responsibility, as well, and I wonder whether we are doing all that we can to reach out and attract students who could benefit from the religious and secular education that we offer. It has distressed me over the years that at least in one or two of our schools, we haven’t been as open or creative as we ought to be.
Space is only one of the contributing factors. There are children who are turned away because they are only average students or because their families are poor or without good connections.
It has been said that parents who are determined to send their children to yeshiva or day school ultimately manage to find institutions that will accept them. This is true for many families, but it is not true of others. There are families that perhaps because they are not sufficiently committed to a full Jewish education give up after one rebuff or two. In other situations, parents limit their children’s Jewish education to the elementary school grades because they know that they will not find a suitable high school.
I suspect that the number of Jewish children in the New York metropolitan area who do not attend a yeshiva or day school despite their parents initial effort is quite high. We do not know who these children are. They are, at most, anonymous faces in the American Jewish crowd. Yet, there is evidence that we are losing children and families in this fashion in the comprehensive census of day school enrollment that I conducted a year ago. Outreach and immigrant day schools enroll a surprisingly low number of students, this despite exaggerated claims to the contrary. At the same time, chassidic and yeshiva world schools do not accept children from marginally Jewish homes and the number attending centrist Orthodox institutions is declining rapidly.
Nearly all Orthodox enrollment growth is internal, arising especially from the high fertility rate in the yeshiva world and chassidic sectors of Orthodoxy. The percentage of outreach students is in decline and perhaps this is also true of the absolute number of outreach students. As a practical matter, the credibility and effectiveness of kiruv in North America is being severely undermined by the inability or unwillingness of Jewish schools to accommodate children from kiruv backgrounds.
In Brooklyn and Queens, there is what I would term, with regret and hesitancy, a lower tier of day schools that have liberal admission policies and which operate at a perilously low level of academic and religious achievement. While their leaders and faculty struggle to do a credible job, these institutions are literally starved for resources. Especially on the Jewish front, they cannot adequately accomplish their mission, so that too often their efforts end in disappointment as their students and graduates are ultimately lost to Judaism. Of course, these are children who were admitted into a Jewish school and presumably we should be satisfied. After all, we have fulfilled out responsibility. Or have we? Of course, these statistics of loss are never discussed.