Friday, March 28, 2008

Another School is Closing

Another Solomon Schechter school is closing, this time a small day school in Suffolk County that has valiantly struggled to survive. It has now yielded to enrollment and financial realities. I helped the school several years ago and am saddened by the decision to close its doors when the school year ends. Good people are offering assistance to students who transfer to the Nassau County Solomon Schechter, a much larger school. Likely, most of the students will not be in a Jewish day school in September and some of them will be lost to Judaism as a consequence.

Apparently, all that is left in day school education for all of Suffolk is a small Chabad school, which is astonishing given the number of Jews living in the county. What does this tell us about Jewish life, the Conservative movement and the day school world?

I believe that at least another six of the remaining Solomon Schechters in the U.S. are on the endangered list and that more than a few of the schools that appear to be secure have lost a significant number of students. There is a declining number of Conservative parents willing to select a Jewish day school for their children, in part because of high tuition but at least as importantly because of a decline in Judaic commitment. We are witness to the steady deterioration of the movement and notably to the meltdown of its crucial traditional wing.

It’s anyone’s guess how Arnold Eisen, Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary, fits into this development since he has scarcely been heard from, except for his early and successful effort to secure approval of Gay clergy, which, in turn, has resulted in the acceptance of other practices previously rejected by the Conservatives. For all of his talent and commitment, Dr. Eisen has demonstrated so far no apparent concern about the plight of Conservative day schools. This is a mistake.

He has his hands full at the Seminary and that is why from the Conservative perspective, it would have been preferable to separate the movement’s leadership position from JTS’s leadership. It is a no-brainer that the arrangement the Conservatives have followed basically since the movement’s birth is no longer functional. This is one area, however, where tradition is maintained, albeit a foolish tradition.

In a half-year, I expect to conduct another census of day schools, five years after the previous research. There will be an overall increase in enrollment, thanks overwhelmingly to high fertility in the chassidic and yeshiva-world sectors of Orthodoxy. What the data will show regarding other segments of the day school world is likely to be another story. My expectation is that Modern and Centrist Orthodox schools may not show much of an increase, if only because of the accelerated pace of aliyah, with young families leaving to Israel in record numbers, some to escape high and ever-increasing tuition charges.

Orthodox-sponsored schools that have an outreach function and serve marginally observant and/or immigrant families are obviously in poor shape. It is certain that their enrolment which showed a significant decline between 1998 and 2003 will show a further decline in next year’s census. The commitment and enthusiasm that generated Orthodox involvement in these schools – never at the level that was needed – have faded. Sadly, these crucial institutions are limping along and fewer parents are selecting them for their children.

For nearly twenty years, there has been mounting and incontrovertible evidence that more than any other Judaic activity day school education makes a major difference in determining Judaic outcomes. The data notwithstanding, our community remains cool to day schools and little has been done, except in a small number of middle size localities, to encourage additional families to choose these schools for their children. Those who have neglected day schools are increasingly championing charter schools, a dubious ”Jewish” educational mode. Charters inherently are extremely limited instrumentalities for promoting Jewish continuity. I fear that their major impact will be to draw additional students away from day schools, the result being that more Jewish schools will be added to the endangered list.

Further darkening the day school picture is the benign neglect of too many Orthodox leaders, including yeshiva deans, toward basic Jewish education. There is much talk about the tuition crisis and its consequences, but there is no connecting of the dots, no effort to remedy a problem that worsens each year. Much the same is true about the approach to outreach schools. It is as if talk is an acceptable surrogate for action. What salutary developments occur result from the generosity of individual philanthropists, some of whom are not Orthodox.

For more years than I can recall, I have pleaded for yeshiva deans and Torah leaders to proclaim that it is a religious obligation to support basic Torah education (K-12), something that they are willing to do for Israeli schools but not in the territory that is their core responsibility.

In the New York and New Jersey area where more than two-thirds of day schoolers live, there is no longer a viable remedy for the tuition crisis. The numbers are too daunting. It is still possible to strengthen schools that serve marginally observant families, but there is no effort on the horizon to do so. This is telling.

What is also frightening is the possible impact of the severe economic downturn on those schools that are hanging in there by not much more than a thread. They live a penurious existence in the best of times. How will they survive? A similar question arises regarding more than a few non-Orthodox day schools. The reality is that, in the main, their parents are less committed to full-time Jewish education. Will the economy erode the willingness of some parents to commit their resources to expensive day school education?