Saturday, November 01, 2003

RJJ Newsletter - November 2003

We are a parochial school, a term that isn’t used much these days. The term refers to elementary and secondary schools that have a dual curriculum consisting of religious and academic subjects. RJJ wasn’t the first Jewish parochial school in the U.S., but those that preceded us exist no longer and we will soon enter our 105th year.

When we were established, religious Jewish education was mainly a ramshackle arrangement of private classrooms or cheders. Students attended public school for much of the day and then came, often reluctantly, for religious lessons. This arrangement was severely criticized as unprofessional by Jewish educational reformers who believed in standard curricula, trained and licensed teachers and other attributes of a well-organized educational system. In the early years of the last century, these reformers set up what became known as talmud torahs, institutions that had standards aplenty. From anecdotal and more precise sociological evidence, the students who came in most instances could care less. Over the years, probably several million children attended talmud torah. Relatively few emerged from this experience as Jews strongly committed to our great heritage.

Yeshivas and day schools were, to an extent, a response to the feeble Judaism offered by these after-public school programs, although they also echoed in attenuated form what religious education was like in the old country. For decades, day schools struggled to gain students, ultimately being accepted in the post-Holocaust period as preferable vehicles for preserving Jewish continuity and commitment. Organized American Jewry now recognizes the value of day schools, a state of mind that does not bring with it adequate financial support.

While day school enrollment continues to grow, it remains that the lion’s share of this growth comes from the high Orthodox fertility rate. Day schools are still off-limits for a majority of Jewish youth whose parents want them to have some formal Jewish education. Supplementary school (formerly known as talmud torah) enrollment data is hard to come by, but the figure certainly exceeds enrollment in day schools. Simply put, a majority of Jewish children who are in formal Jewish educational settings are receiving a product that, with some exceptions, has proven to be ineffective.

We are faced with a dilemma. Though day schools are preferable, because of high tuition and real or imagined social and educational considerations, too many parents will not enroll their children. Staten Island whose Jewish population is growing rapidly because of the influx of younger – mainly Russian and ex-Israeli – families serves as a case study.

Despite the population growth and a low intermarriage rate, enrollment in our three schools (and there is scarcely anyone else) has not grown. We could and should do a better recruitment job. Still, the larger pattern is not going to change.

Several respected rabbis who have done fruitful work in kiruv have recently suggested that the supplementary school/talmud torah issue be revisited, that unless we address the reality that many Jewish parents will not opt for day school, a great number of additional Jews will be lost. They argue, perhaps not convincingly, that it’s possible to structure after-school classes that are both religiously purposeful and more attractive to marginal families than the old talmud torahs.

Their position may be based more on emotion than on logic, more on the desperate feeling that almost anything must be tried than on the confident assertion that in today’s world of multiple diversions, kids would be willing to go to a Jewish school after they complete their public school work. At the least, the burden is on those who urge that after-school classes can stem the fierce assimilatory tide.

It’s also true that desperate situations may require desperate or long-shot measures. While I am not persuaded that any form of supplementary education has much promise, I am persuaded that those who have made the argument ought to be given the opportunity to demonstrate the efficacy of their ideas. Little is to be lost – except some money – if support were given for pilot projects or experimental activities. If such activities were multi-dimensional, encompassing formal religious education and informal activities that enhance Jewish identity, such as youth groups, summer camps, Israel experiences and Shabbatonim, it is at least possible that beneficial outcomes will emerge from a form of Jewish education that heretofore has been a Jewish dead end.