Monday, May 10, 2004

RJJ Newsletter - May 2004

After a half-century of uninterrupted growth in Orthodox day school and yeshiva enrollment, the understandable assumption is that our schools are flourishing around the country. In fact, Jewish schools are a bit like real estate: Location counts – not for everything, but certainly for a great deal. The overall statistics of enrollment growth mask what is happening in quite a few communities where Orthodox schools are experiencing a drop in students, as well as the inevitable corollary financial hardship that comes with reduced tuition income.

As noted in the previous Newsletter, I am conducting another census of U.S. day schools, the aim being to have complete information on these vital institutions. A report is slated for release in the fall. What can be reported is that in a surprising, even shocking, number of places, Orthodox school enrollment has been going down. This is the primary pattern outside of the New York metropolitan area and several other large cities.

This unhappy picture is the outcome of demographic developments that may not be reversible. There is a shrinking pool of children available for Orthodox schools in most cities with fairly sizable Jewish populations, this despite the high fertility rate among Orthodox Jews. Especially after marriage, younger Jews are moving away, partly in fulfillment of the apparent American Jewish belief that children should not live near their parents. It is also the case that Orthodox parents with young children are attracted to the richer religious communal life in the New York area and larger cities.

Historically, Orthodox day schools were able to recruit children from marginally religious homes, some only nominally Orthodox and others located in the more traditional segment of Conservative Jewry. This has changed dramatically, as the nominal Orthodox have faded away and as the non-Orthodox have opened day schools, thereby drawing away students who otherwise might attend an Orthodox institution.

Intra-Orthodox competition is another factor. This is an old story that goes back to the 1970’s, although it has become more complex as the Orthodox –10% of U.S. Jews – have become more diversified and splintered. In some communities, the mission of the flagship day school to serve the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy and some of the non-Orthodox has been undermined by the determination of those who have veered toward greater religiosity to have schools that reflect their attitudes and behavior.

More recently and particularly at the high school level, there has been a reaction in the other direction, as schools reflecting a more modern outlook have been established. The expansion of the Chabad day school network has contributed as well to the escalating enrollment problems of older day schools. Interestingly, this development has picked up steam since the Rebbe’s passing.

While the increased concentration of the Orthodox in New York and a handful of key urban areas is not likely to change and in certain respects it is a welcome development, there is an inescapable downside. Concentration has unhappy economic consequences, including more limited job opportunities and higher housing costs, two conditions that already are causing great distress in the lives of too many New York area Orthodox, notably in the yeshiva world sector. This issue receives too little attention in the yeshiva world, I believe because rabbinical and lay leaders fail to understand the challenge and their responsibilities. It’s of note that several Chassidic groups are planning the establishment of new communities for young families somewhat away from the expensive environs of New York.

At the communal level, the precarious condition of many day schools could presage the deterioration of religious life in the communities where they are located. Without stable day schools, more families will move away and few observant families will move in. Prospects for meaningful kiruv could be lost, with Chabad filling the vacuums with its increasingly feel-good brand of Judaism.

This is a large and free country. People can relocate as they please and they have the freedom (with some socio-psychological restraints) to determine what schools their children attend. Any pitch imploring religious parents to enroll their children in schools that desperately need to bolster their enrollment is not likely to be received favorably. Again, it may be that there is nothing to do to help struggling communities and their schools. I have urged that those who are responsible for the day school movement and kiruv focus more on neglected areas in the New York region where there are large concentrations of Jews and few Jewish schools to meet their needs.

The Orthodox day school movement and yeshiva world that directs it have settled on kollels and adult education as the best way to prop up communities in distress. These are meritorious approaches because the promotion of Torah study is always meritorious. Available evidence suggests, however, that kollels and adult education do little to strengthen communities or day schools unless there are meaningful corollary efforts to assist the schools.

Long ago, in the 1940’s and 1950’s when the Orthodox prospect was less promising than it now is and to a large extent newly-founded Orthodox day schools were reaching out to parents who were minimally observant, great Torah leaders gave inspiration and strength to the educators and lay leaders who accepted the responsibility of day school education in their communities. These Torah leaders recognized that communities and schools could be build only from the bottom up, not from the top down.

We ought to speak to the educators and lay leaders in communities across the country and ask them how we might assist them in their sacred work as they struggle against great odds to sustain the schools that sustain religious life.