Thursday, December 17, 2009

Congratulations American Jewry

It would take a miracle for yeshivas and day schools to fare well in the current economic environment and although it is now Chanukah which is the festival of miracles, we know that we cannot and must not rely on miracles. There is unhappy news in this vital sector of Jewish life, with the prospect of further unwelcome developments in the form of declining enrollment and school closings.

Actually, enrollment is up by about 2% this year, all of it attributable to high fertility among the fervently Orthodox who comprise about 60% of all enrollment. Elsewhere in the day school world, there is decline.

As one example of many, there is the story of Rambam, a Modern Orthodox school that opened in Atlanta in September 2008. A year later it closed, in large measure because of financial difficulties. Of the thirty-seven students enrolled in June, twelve are now in public school. In Los Angeles, a local Jewish newspaper reported recently that at one public high school there are forty boys who wear yarmulkas. Solomon Schechter schools (Conservative) that lost a large share of their enrollment between 1998 and 2008 have lost another 6% this year. There are, sadly, too many other similar developments, of course with the notable exception of yeshiva-world and chassidic schools.

As has been widely reported, the Conservative movement is in crisis, as many synagogues have closed or merged and membership is down. The Schechter situation reflects this reality. Both the Forward and this newspaper featured last week long front-page stories on efforts to strengthen the movement, the primary focus being on United Synagogue, which is the Conservative’s congregational body. The Forward article made no mention of the Schechters, while the sole reference in this newspaper was essentially a comment by a top Conservative rabbi downplaying the importance of these schools to the future of the movement. A front-page photo of Conservative leaders that accompanied the story included the head of the Cantors Assembly but no one from the Schechter Association. Unless Conservatives start singing a different tune, their woes will escalate.

Another Conservative angle points to the predicament facing day schools. Once upon a time, key Conservative leaders, mainly at Jewish Theological Seminary, strongly supported government aid to the academic or secular program of schools under religious sponsorship. No more. With the exception of the Orthodox, nearly all of American Jewry marches in lockstep in opposition to government aid, believing with full paranoid faith that any assistance would surely result in terrible evils, this despite tons of evidence to the contrary from democracies across the globe. Fanatics are never bothered by facts.

It is astonishing that we who are divided on just about every issue, including Israel, are of one voice on this issue. There is no debate or discussion, no leader saying that we should at least think about government aid, no editorial in the Anglo-Jewish press calling for reconsideration, no agenda item at the annual General Assembly. The most die-hard ideologues are more open-minded than we are.

Congratulations American Jewry on the immensely successful effort to undermine meaningful Jewish education and to undermine Jewish continuity. Even the Orthodox should not be proud, as their major organizations utilize public relations and marketing as a surrogate for advocacy.

As noted, the situation is certain to get worse. New York which has 135,000 dayschoolers recently enacted a new payroll tax to help fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. No employers are exempt, including nonpublic schools. The law provides, however, that public school districts will be reimbursed. This strikes me as constitutionally questionable on several grounds and I believe that there should be litigation. As yet, there is no interest in pursuing the matter. This tax will cost yeshivas and day schools as much as $2 million a year.

Many of our schools were on shaky financial ground when the economy was doing well. The downturn has hit hard. My rough estimate is that more than half of the 800 U.S. day schools are in trouble. They rely almost exclusively on tuition and contributions and both have been impacted. More parents are saying that they cannot pay what the school is asking and contributions are down dramatically, at some schools nearly to the vanishing point.

Yeshiva and day school financial realities are translated into additional hardship in thousands of homes as faculty and staff, nearly all of whom are greatly underpaid and many of whom are traditionally paid late, must struggle to make ends meet when their meager paychecks do not arrive. Our community is standing idly by as people who have devoted themselves to religious education are suffering.

Rabbi Yitz Greenberg who has played a noble role in advocating for day schools has circulated an eloquent article calling on our community to provide greater support. His plea is earnest and yet the prospect that it will generate even modest results is remote. What is needed is a return to the militant advocacy that he demonstrated decades ago, as well as a willingness of our community to abandon the false god that preaches against government aid.