Friday, June 16, 2006

Has the Day Passed for Day Schools?

A year ago, we were occupied with the scheme hatched by Five Towners upset over the very high and ever-rising day school tuition charges. That quarter is now silent, not because there hasn't been another increase and the problem is being addressed, but because running into brick walls is not an experience that induces continuity.

There are signs that day schools are a declining priority on the communal agenda. True, New York has enacted a tax credit that includes day school parents and this resulted in large measure from the advocacy of the Sephardic Community Federation. It is, however, an achievement that will have a minimal impact. As for the community, with few exceptions day schools are once more neglected stepchildren. Following the trauma, even panic, resulting from the frightening 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, there was a meaningful uptick in communal support. Even prior to NJPS, in New York the great philanthropist, Joseph Gruss of blessed memory, invested enormously in day schools and leveraged his support to get Federation to join in the Fund for Jewish Education which helped a large number of yeshivas and day schools.

The trend is now in the other direction. In the important expanding field of private Jewish philanthropy, except for a small number of key foundations, day schools are little more than a footnote. At the Federation level, the annual extravaganza known as the General Assembly devotes no more than one panel session to day schools. Two years ago in a transcendental awful decision, the New York Federation terminated basic grants to yeshivas and day schools. The response from those who still pass as Orthodox leaders was silence.

The nearly universal attitude is that day school education is far less a communal service than a product provided to a select group of parents who should pay the bill. As a consequence, there is pain in many homes and schools and scarcely anyone cares. A growing number of parents on the margins of our religious life reject day school for their kids because of the high cost. We do not see their faces in the vast American crowd. What we see is expanding enrollment, fed primarily by the high Orthodox fertility rate, particularly among the fervently Orthodox.

This masks other realities, such as enrollment decline in Solomon Schechter schools, in some measure because of the problems afflicting the Conservative movement. Some Solomon Schechters have closed and others are headed in that direction. A few days ago, I received an email from a Solomon Schechter that I helped last year, pleading for support as "we are desperately seeking funds so that we can open in September." Apart from the four schools that I serve as president, I am involved in one way or another in dozens of day schools, right now including a large institution with a noble record that is experiencing much difficulty.

I sense that the day school situation is rougher than it has been in a long while. In the Rosh Hashanah letter to be sent in September to alumni of the Rabbi Jacob Joseph School, I write that "although my RJJ activity is voluntary, it has encompassed at times forty or more hours a week, which is to say that I am not a typical yeshiva president. Yet, it has always been difficult to put together the resources we need to meet our obligations. This lets me understand how hard it must be for the vast majority of yeshivas and day schools that do not have a president or lay leaders as active as I am."

As a postscript, over the past five years I have appended a note to the column published during Chanukah asking for support for RJJ. Total contributions over this entire period do not exceed $5,000.

Financial hardship has long come with the territory called religious Jewish education. What is worrisome is the declining interest in these schools, in their now being ranked behind camps, Israel and other activities as instrumentalities for promoting Jewish continuity. There is some logic to this among the non-Orthodox because their children are found only in relatively small numbers in day schools. What is tragic is the Orthodox abandonment of day schools, of course not for their own children but as outreach vehicles for children from marginally observant homes. The sad, steep decline of Torah Umesorah is an important factor in this unfortunate story and it also highlights the failure of Orthodox leaders at both the Rabbinic and lay levels.

This is reflected in the continued and inexcusable Orthodox leadership silence two years after the termination of the basic grants and, perhaps more shockingly, in the sharply declining enrollment in schools serving immigrant and outreach families. The day school census I conducted in 2003 showed a significant drop in enrollment since the 1998 census and there are clear indications that the trend is continuing and perhaps accelerating. While mainstream Orthodox schools once served such families, most now accept only applicants from fully Orthodox homes, either because of space reasons or because of ideological considerations. Thousands of children who could be part of a glorious Jewish future are being lost to Judaism.

There are Orthodox lay leaders whose primary goal is establishment access. They look at their role not in terms of advocacy but in terms of "let's make a deal." If they have made any, likely its for the benefit of the institutions they are involved in, not for the full range of yeshivas and day schools. While they refuse to advocate for day schools, they snidely criticize those who do. It should occur to them that if the Orthodox do not advocate on behalf of these most vital institutions, it cannot be expected that the rest of the Jewish world will pick up the slack.