I am once more surveying yeshivas and day schools in the United States, the aim being to get complete enrollment data and other useful information about these essential institutions. The previous census, conducted five years ago, included every known day school and many that were not listed, perhaps because some were small, even tiny. One key finding of the 1998-99 survey was that 40% of American Jewish day schools enrolled fewer than 100 students, a statistic that has enormous educational and financial implications, particularly for the yeshiva world of which we are a part.
Data from this year’s survey will not be available until later in the year. It’s evident already that the small school pattern has not been altered, except perhaps that there are now more than there were when I previously examined the subject.
To a significant extent, small schools are the inevitable outcome of our dispersal across a large continent. There are day schools in places where the Jewish population is small and getting smaller still and the number of parents who want a good religious education for their children is nearly miniscule. The struggle to maintain such schools is heroic and the outcome is, at times, sad because not all survive. There is, as one example, the day school in Lowell, Massachusetts, established in 1970 and affiliated with Torah Umesorah, that had 47 students five years ago and is now closed.
Another contributing factor to the small school phenomenon is denominational and ideological diversity, the obvious fact that although the overall American Jewish population is modest, we are divided into subgroups, each articulating a distinctive attitude toward religious practices. This begets separate schools and not merely, for example, under Orthodox and Conservative sponsorship, but separate schools for different Orthodox subgroups.
While we might lament the absence of Jewish unity, we can readily understand the determination of parents to seek educational settings that reflect their religious commitment. If, as a consequence, parents and others of a like mind are willing to provide the resources to sustain small schools, their decision must be respected.
Much the same can be said about parents who seek small schools because they believe that their children will do better in that environment. We do not need a scholarly study – although it’s useful to have the data - to know that the tendency to establish small schools is most pronounced at the boys high school or mesivta level. This reflects parental concern that in a larger setting their teenage sons may get lost in the shuffle or fall prey to baneful influences.
A corollary to this attitude is the practice of certain mesivtas, including ours, to limit high school enrollment to one class per grade level. While this inevitably results in greater financial hardship for the institution, the approach can be defended on educational grounds.
More problematic is the proliferation of small mesivtas that have been established by Torah scholars – they are usually young – who seek positions that satisfy their ambition and self-esteem. This is a delicate subject in the Torah world and it needs to be dealt with in a spirit of empathy for people who have studied Torah for many years and have much ability and promise and no suitable position awaiting them. As advanced Torah study has spread, there is an ever-expanding crop of young men who have spent years in yeshiva but who are stymied in the quest to teach at an appropriately high level. One possible outlet is, in a sense, to jump the gun by opening one’s own yeshiva. This factor accounts for more than a few mesivtas.
As the saying goes, this is a free country and so with perhaps few restrictions, individuals can open schools as they see fit. There is also the principle of L’hagdil Torah Ul’hadera. Yet, we should not be blind to the reality that the funds available to support yeshivas are not unlimited and as small institutions proliferate, other yeshivas are being hurt. This may not be a sufficient consideration to inhibit the ambition of those who establish schools, but it is certainly a communal concern.
It is also true, although there are important exceptions, that very small schools are usually weak educational institutions and this too is a factor that should be included in our reckoning. I would even argue that there are social considerations that ought not be ignored. It is, I believe, relevant that in the entire history of formal Torah study from the Talmudic period onward, greatness in Torah study has generally emerged in large institutions.