Monday, March 21, 2005

Do We Still Care About Day Schools?

When I visited the Shalom Torah Day School in Old Bridge, New Jersey, in June 2003, the school was a collection of unattractive trailers with an enrollment of about one-hundred. Three months later, Shalom which is noted for its effective outreach, was in an impressive new building in Marlboro, built by my friend Yossi Stern in memory of his father. I wrote at the time that the facility would serve as an instrumentality for outreach to unaffiliated and marginally involved Jewish families. Today, Shalom enrolls 240 and there is talk of expansion.

That's the good news, demonstrating once more that day school education is our most effective tool for bringing Jewish families back to Judaism.

This fundamental principle was like a mother's milk to an infant when great Orthodox leaders established and nurtured the day school movement. Nowadays, basic religious education gets much lip service and little practical support. Day schools are regarded as a consumer product, the obligation of parents and not of the community. Most of these schools are in great difficulty, with their faculty being badly underpaid and often not paid in a timely way, vital educational services not being provided, psychological services not being provided and their facilities being inadequate and poorly maintained.

There was a key exception in Orthodox ranks to the consumerist mentality in the support given to outreach schools and those that serve immigrant populations. But this is changing. With the notable exception of Lev Levayev's tuition-free (at least so far) Gymnasia in Queens, nearly all immigrant/outreach day schools are in trouble. Between 1998 and 1993, overall day school enrollment grew by 11%, but in the immigrant/outreach sector it declined by 7%. A Queens school, established in 1965, with a strong record of outreach is closing in June, while two important Brooklyn outreach schools are sharply cutting back. It is likely that there will be additional bad news in this sector.

Efforts will be made, of course, to transfer the students in the affected institutions to comparable day schools, yet the likelihood is that some will be lost altogether. Inevitably, fewer schools will mean fewer children getting a meaningful religious education.

Demographic changes account for some of the bad news. In some communities, with the aging of the Jewish population there are fewer children of school age. There are families that move away and this clearly affects enrollment. Competition from newer schools is another factor. In the five-year period covered by my recent day school census, nearly 150 or 20% of all day schools experienced enrollment declines and another 30 closed. It remains that what is happening in the immigrant/outreach sector constitutes a significant and unhappy development in day school education.

When a school closes, the loss is felt. What we do not sense - and for good reason - are the losses resulting from the unavailability of day schools in areas that are underserved. In the New York metropolitan area there are huge chunks of Jewish population for whom there is no day school that meets the situation and needs of families that are not observant but which would consider a day school such as Shalom Torah. Children that never were in day school and schools that were never opened do not make it onto our spiritual radar screen.

Embedded in the day school movement during its formative years was the understanding that chinuch (religious education) and kiruv (outreach) needed to be linked and that this linkage would bring about transformative results in greater religiosity in Jewish homes. This understanding was a principle of faith in the Orthodox day school world. Paradoxically, the development and relative success of kiruv has in an unintended way undermined day schools as instrumentalities of outreach. Kiruv has become a distinct activity, separate from day schools, not only in the institutional sense but in the more important sense that the primary focus has been on adults.

With the exception of Chabad and a small number of day schools, the chinuch-kiruv linkage has evaporated. This has hurt day schools immensely, if only because there is greater excitement in many communities about kiruv and too little concern about chinuch. In my view, the effectiveness of kiruv has been reduced.

As I have lamented, day schools are now regarded as a product or service to be paid for by parents. Outreach is understandably viewed as the agent for Judaic transformation. This helps to explain, but not fully, why Torah Umesorah-the National Society for Hebrew Day Schools has shifted its focus. The decline of Torah Umesorah as a vital force in day school education is a painful subject, especially for me. This is an issue that needs to be faced by the yeshiva world which from the outset has assumed primary responsibility for an organization that once was a treasure of American Jewish life but which has badly lost its way. If yeshiva deans are unwilling to face this reality, the organization will continue to decline. Worse yet, additional children will be deprived of their heritage.

When the New York Federation shamefully terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools, Torah Umesorah stood mute, as if what happened was someone else's problem. It has gone the way of all organizational flesh, indulging in frivolities that are being marketed as the fulfillment of its mission. One such example is a weekend in a posh hotel for affluent Orthodox; another is a three-day excursion of principals to Israel. There is no message and there hasn't been for years that support for basic Torah education is a communal obligation.

This is a tragedy. The leaders of the yeshiva world need to return the organization to the vision of their great predecessors. A good place to start is the establishment of a network of schools in the New York area that follow the wonderful example of Shalom Torah Centers. This goal can be readily reached, provided that we sufficiently care.