Thursday, August 01, 2002

A Postscript to a Symposium

It’s understandable why Wellsprings’ symposium on Jewish education focused almost entirely on what happens inside of our schools. Education is, after all, primarily about the acquisition of knowledge and values and the molding of the young so that they will be properly prepared for fruitful lives when they become adults. These activities take place in classrooms where subject matter is taught and where the dedication and talent of teachers are powerful determinants of the success of the enterprise. It is a sufficient challenge to figure out how to improve the classroom experience.

I would like to add another perspective, one that is informed substantially by what happens in the world outside of the school. This far larger world inevitably affects the character and reach of Jewish education and may determine whether our core educational institutions can accomplish their religious and educational missions.

For a decade or since we were provided with the lamentable statistics of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, organized American Jewry has placed a large share of its Jewish continuity bets on day schools. Institutions that were once reviled by most American Jews as antithetical to the goal of adaptation to American life and perhaps also anti-democratic are now recognized as necessary and vital elements in the desperate effort to counteract advanced assimilation and Judaic abandonment. Day schools are in and it hardly matters whether they have the resources or the commitment to accomplish what we want them to accomplish.

Admittedly, this most favored status for day schools comes with strings attached, for it has not been translated into communal financial support. Our schools are in the aggregate badly underfunded. With key, but diminishing, exceptions within segments of Orthodoxy, day schools have come to embody the dubious and anti-historical proposition that Jewish education is a consumer product – something like a container of milk – and like all products it is to be paid for by the persons who are the consumers, namely the parents.

It’s also of note that while our communal rhetoric is now far more hospitable to the concept of full-time Jewish schools, the rank and file of American Jewry continues to regard these institutions as violations of values and goals that have long been central to the dysfunctional American Jewish ethos. Put simply, a substantial majority of American Jews continue to believe that public education, rather than intensive Jewish education, is the articulation of the proper approach to the schooling of our young. It is small wonder that despite considerable enrollment growth during the last decade – there are now more than 200,000 students in days schools in the U.S. – only a relatively small proportion, perhaps twenty percent, of American Jewish children of school age are in day school. It is small wonder that after a decade of huge emotional and financial investments in all sorts of continuity projects, advanced assimilation continues to take a frightful toll.

Still, day school enrollment has risen steadily and the prospect is for further growth. Much of this results, of course, from the high fertility rate among the Orthodox, notably in the chassidic and yeshiva world sectors. Non-Orthodox enrollment has arisen as well, as there is a new respect for day schools within Conservative Jewry and, far more tentatively, among Reform and uncommitted Jews. New schools have been established to serve these constituencies and non-Orthodox day schools that previously terminated before the full complement of grades were reached have been expanded into the upper grades.

This growth is reflected in the remarkable statistic that over the past four years perhaps as many as 200 of the 800 or so yeshivas and day schools in the United States have embarked on capital campaigns. These expenditures are an exception to the previous point about communal parsimony, although it is also the case that an inordinate share of capital costs are being met by parents and, as the case may be, out of the regular operating budget. Interestingly, the investment in new facilities has shown no sign of slowing down in the current period of economic downturn, the obvious explanation being that additional facilities are needed to accommodate enrollment growth.

Understandably, proponents of day schools are celebrating. We now, it is widely believed, have a sure-fire instrument to reverse the defections away from Judaism. Day schools have been an important part of my life for half a century and I have reason to be pleased because much of what I have advocated is coming to pass. But I cannot tear myself away from the statistics that tell a different and rather unhappy story. There are realities about day schools that call into question whether they have the capacity to do what we need or expect them to do. I am not eager to rain on anyone’s parade, but I am also not in the habit of proclaiming that emperors who are without clothing are splendidly garbed.

After visiting two hundred or more day schools I have come to believe that too many of them show advanced signs of becoming the Talmud Torahs or supplementary schools of the 21st century, institutions which for all of their veneer of Jewish commitment and the excitement they generate are likely to be the handmaidens for further Jewish loss.

The least troublesome part of the day school picture are the statistics that show that supplementary school enrollment continues to outstrip the day school sector. The gap, which is fairly narrow, would be huge if Orthodox enrollment were factored out. At least 80% of non-Orthodox children enrolled in formal Jewish education are in schools that primarily are keyed to the Bar/Bas Mitzvah experience. The incontrovertible evidence is that this attenuated form of Jewish education contributes little to a lasting Jewish commitment.

Far worse, hundreds of thousands of Jewish children receive no formal Jewish education. In the main, they are being raised in homes where Judaism has been excised and exiled. Every reliable survey of contemporary Jewish life shows that about half of American Jews scarcely regard themselves any longer as Jewish. They do not pay attention to our messages, contribute to our causes, join in our activities or care about Israel, which for them is just another country, though at times one whose policies they oppose. A small number may return to Judaism through serendipitous or unplanned circumstances. Overwhelmingly, they are our Ten Lost Tribes.

There is still a worse bit of news: half or more of the children in what are normally regarded as Jewish homes are being raised in another religion or no religion. Intermarriage has made a huge contribution to this phenomenon, but even in homes where both parents are Jewish there is so much abandonment or our heritage and traditions.

Day schools, it needs to be admitted and underscored, should not be judged by those who do not attend but by what they accomplish with children who are in their care. The record in this regard is favorable, for the growth of a vibrant religious Jewish experience on these shores could not have come about without the education provided by day schools. Here is where the external world comes into play in assessing whether day schools can fulfill their mission.

With the exception of many, but certainly not all, of the Orthodox, all American Jews are Jews at risk. This is true of day school attendees, although it is convenient to believe otherwise. One of the lesser known statistics to emerge from the 1990 NJPS is that of the adults age 25-45 who had attended day school, more than 20% of those who married had intermarried. It is clear that nearly all of these adults had attended an Orthodox institution. Yet the incidence of intermarriage was high, the lesson being that day school alone is not necessarily a formidable barrier to intermarriage.

Admittedly, this statistic was largely driven by an aspect of day schools that has sharply curtailed their effectiveness. Their enrollment is pyramidal, which is to say that it is heaviest at the pre-school level and then steadily tapers off as grade level rises. In many non-Orthodox schools, a large proportion of the children are there only for preschool. Not surprisingly, this brief day school experience has little beneficial impact on Judaic commitment in adulthood.

Until recently, American Jewry regarded intermarriage as entirely incompatible with Jewish identity. There has been an attitudinal sea change during the past decade which has a bearing on the character of day schools. A majority of American Jews, by which I mean a majority of Americans who readily identify themselves as Jewish, have come to believe that the intermarried and their offspring can be fully involved in our communal life. From the standpoint of our heritage and history, this attitude is bogus. Yet, it is today’s reality and it is powerfully affecting virtually the entire range of Jewish community activity, specifically including day schools.

The children of intermarried parents, including when the mother is the non-Jewish spouse, constitute a steadily increasing share of non-Orthodox day school enrollment. Inevitably, the composition of the student body and parental expectations as to how day schools should function have an substantial impact on the operation of our schools. Day schools that have reached out to intermarried families or to other families of dubious religious status have experienced attrition in their religious ambience and mission. Their Jewish studies curriculum which was never robust in terms of subjects taught and the allocation of class time has been further curtailed because schools feel compelled to accommodate their clientele. More than a few of our day schools are satisfied with a Judaic curriculum that consists of little more than Hebrew language instruction.

Minimalistic expectations must yield minimalistic results. We can confidently trumpet the value of day schools and this may inspire the notion that in many homes and places we have turned back the assimilatory tide. Like other fairy tales, this one is comforting; at the end of the day it is little more than a fairy tale because the truth is that a growing number of day schools are too feeble Jewishly to challenge the powerful assimilatory forces that are a constant in the lives of Jews at risk. Rather than being religious institutions too many day schools are no more than private schools operating under Jewish auspices.

The situation is worsening even as – or perhaps because – day school enrollment in threatened parts of our community has been growing. There is the dilemma, noted by several scholars, that as day schools become more popular among Jews of lesser religious commitment, there is likely to be a further watering down of the Jewish studies curriculum and religious ambience. The phenomenon is evident in certain trans-denominational or Community day schools. As they attempt to serve families across much of the American Jewish spectrum, their constituency encompasses parents and communal leaders whose notion of a day school is different from what these institutions traditionally represented. More and more, schools are attempting to accommodate the lowest common Jewish denominator and this finds expression in diluted forms of Jewish education.

In the most recent period, there has been a new source of pressure which further weakens the prospect that Jewish schools will contribute to the continuity of our people. While the subject has received little attention, day schools are being asked to admit applicants who are not Jewish by any definition or standard. I estimate that there are now as many as sixty schools, including some that are Orthodox, that have admitted non-Jews. The typical justification or explanation for this extraordinary development is that without these students, schools would not be educationally and financially viable because their enrollment would be too low and there would be too few students for particular grades and too little tuition income. I heard this argument from the principal of a small day school in the south that is listed in the directory of Torah Umesorah and the National Society of Hebrew Day Schools.

For all of these practical, albeit misguided considerations, it remains that in too many places a welcome mat is being put out at the school door for non-Jewish applicants. A financially-strong Community day school in Texas has a provision in its by-laws that mandates the acceptance of non-Jews. Recently, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) decided with very little dissent to support day schools that accept non-Jews. It is of note that this decision was made by philanthropists who presumably have joined in an effort to strengthen day schools! What they have done is likely to encourage additional schools to bolster their enrollment and perhaps also their fundraising activities by looking outside the Jewish community for students.

PEJE’s action may be shocking, yet it should not be surprising. As noted, American Jews have in great numbers come to accept intermarriage, not only in the sense that it is a fact that cannot be ignored but also as a development that is compatible with Jewish continuity. When we reflect on the contemporary situation of American Jewry and especially the constantly defining downwards of what it means to be a Jew, it would be surprising if day schools were exempt from the process of dilution. Of course, yeshivas are exempt, as are most other Orthodox day schools. However, in the educational sectors where new schools are being created to serve at risk populations, the story increasingly is about schools that are Jewish in name and not in performance.

It follows that the news about day schools is not all that good and some of it is terribly bad. But day schools continue to be the best hope we have as we seek to stem further losses. Besides, there are schools that are effective, both as educational institutions and as the setting for the strengthening of Jewish commitment. Additional schools, even in the at-risk sector, could perform far better if they only had the will to do so.

In looking at day schools, we ought to keep the following points in mind.

1. We need to have truth in labeling. When a school is called a “Jewish day school,” we know little about its Jewishness, about its curriculum or mission or whether it cares at all about bringing Jews at risk toward a safer harbor. There are day schools that care next to nothing about Jewish commitment and some may leave their students worse off Jewishly than when they entered. This unexpected point was made not long ago in an article in the Wall Street Journal that told of a girl from a traditional Conservative home where Shabbos was observed who abandoned religious observance after being switched to a Reform day school. I have seen data about this school that points powerfully to the conclusion that students from homes that were seeking to become more Jewish would have been better off Jewishly had they stayed away.

2. Because they serve Jews at risk, day schools must be imbued by a sense of religious purposefulness. They must strive to elevate the religious commitment of their students, perhaps not too quickly and perhaps not to the extent that some within Orthodoxy may want. If they are content to leave their children in their care as they were when they enrolled, these schools will contribute little to our desperate goal to salvage remnants of American Jewry. Again, minimalistic expectations yield minimalistic results.

3. While day schools are the best we have, they are not all that we have. It’s important that the potentially meaningful day school experience be constantly reinforced by other activities that strengthen Jewish identity. These activities include camping, youth groups, Shabbos programs, synagogue participation and more. Activities ought not to be conducted as separate experiences; the goal must be to achieve linkages among activities. Day school educators can accomplish more if they recognize that there is a world out there beyond the classroom that can be either hostile to what schools want to achieve or they can add to what is being taught at schools.

4. What this means is that the separation between chinuch (Jewish education) and kiruv (outreach) undermines the effectiveness of both kiruv and chinuch.

5. The most effective day schools are the Orthodox. There was a time when even nominal yeshivas were willing to accept at-risk Jewish children. This has changed entirely, to an extent for good reasons. Nowadays, except for immigrant and explicitly kiruv schools sponsored by the Orthodox, few at risk children are being taught in the Orthodox schools. As a consequence, there is a disconnect between the rhetoric employed by the Orthodox as they trumpet the value of a Torah education and the actual road that many of them take. Disconnects do not provide fruitful ground for the fulfillment of noble missions.

Finally, we need more open discussion about day schools and, generally, about Jewish education. We are too prone to employ clichés which mask the difficulties facing our schools as they seek to accomplish their vital mission.