Two of the handful of remaining day schools for Russian Jewish children are at the brink of collapse because of declining enrollment and, more importantly, declining financial support. At least in the U.S., Russian Jews are yesterday’s story, yesterday’s cause. There are new causes, things called Jewish continuity and commitment. Of course, educating Russian Jewish children has little to do with these goals.
The Russian Jewish experience has not turned out well and not only because of communal parsimony. It’s been more than a challenge to counteract the powerful secular baggage that accompanied these Jews when they left their homeland. They arrived in the Goldene Medinah with aspirations that, with some exceptions, did not include a rebirth of Judaism. What has been saved is a tiny fraction, yet this is significant, for we have been taught that saving a single life is equal to saving the entire world. What has been saved is substantially the result of yeshiva and day school education, the result of programs and commitments that are now vanishing.
This mirrors the ever-tenuous situation of outreach day schools. Too many within Orthodoxy fail to understand that our educational institutions are by far the best instrumentalities for imparting Jewish practices and values to children who live in marginally religious or non-religious homes. The sad fact is that outreach schools constitute a steadily declining share of American day school enrollment, a situation that is made worse yet because most mainline Orthodox schools no longer accept marginally religious children, either because of space limitations or because they fear the impact on the school’s program or image.
We continue to talk a good game about kiruv, as if it can proceed without chinuch. The yeshiva world which has accomplished so much now acts as if we can somehow bring families closer to Yiddishkeit without children having a place to study Torah. Because of the lack of schools that will take them in, far too many Jewish children whose parents might consider a Jewish day school are not studying in Orthodox institutions. They are by and large either in non-Orthodox day schools or in public school. They are also out of our sight and out of our minds and hearts.
The situation is likely to get worse because of misplaced priorities and the absence of effective leadership. Our community has always relied on Torah leadership. It was this leadership that in a previous generation built and shaped the day school movement. We need the direction of Roshei Yeshiva, the people whom we revere and look to for guidance. Nowadays, they are gung-ho about religious schools for Russian children in Israel, which is understandable and meritorious, provided that commensurate concern is shown toward the spiritually impoverished in our own community.
The Roshei Yeshiva are also deeply committed to the establishment of kollels, which too is vital, as elevated Torah study is our lifeline. But here, too, there must be a sense of proportion, both in not exaggerating the achievements of kollels or their capacity to transform communities and also without neglecting more basic Torah education.
As incredible as it may seem, the kollel phenomenon is advancing rapidly at a time when the Orthodox day school world is contracting in many communities. It too often appears that the Roshei Yeshiva are more the led than the leaders, that they go where the money is. If wealthy Orthodox Jews decide that kollels must dominate all else in Torah education, so be it.
The argument is made that kollels produce a trickle down effect, a contention that is scarcely supported by experience. Besides, a trickle is just that and we need lots more, particularly at the level of basic Torah education.
A top-flight kollel was established several years ago in Staten Island by a single contributor. Staten Island is the home of thousands of Jewish children who receive no Torah education. Many of these are in families of Israeli or Russian origin. For all of the high quality of this kollel, it has not had the slightest impact on the community. It could as well be located in Yahoopitz. To be fair about it, our Staten Island schools are also not accomplishing as much as they should in this regard.
When Jewish schools close down or when Jewish children do not have a day school to attend, what happens is usually out of sight and therefore out of mind. Still, we ought to know where the responsibility lies. At least to an extent, the losses that are being experienced are the consequence of choices being made by communal leaders.