In a few days, the Association of Jewish Outreach Professionals (AJOP) will have its annual convention. The event will extend over several days at a nice hotel and it is one more illustration of the tendency to regard conferencing as a meaningful communal activity. If the event could have an impact on kiruv, by which is meant bringing Jews who are distant from Judaism back to their heritage, it would of course be a justified expenditure of resources that are in short supply. Unfortunately, this is not the case.
In looking at full-page advertisements in our communal newspapers promoting the AJOP conference, what is striking is the absence of any mention of day school education. Presumably, although this is not certain, day schools will get some attention, but they are not a featured topic. This is one more example of the disconnect that exists in too much of the kiruv world between chinuch and kiruv, between Torah education and outreach. This disconnect is certainly a factor in the sad state of day schools with an outreach orientation.
The statistics are appalling. Between 1998 and 2008, enrollment in kiruv day schools declined by one-third, from 5,100 to 3,400. There are strong indications that the decline has accelerated in this school year as several kiruv schools have closed, several have cut back on their grades and still others have lost students. Furthermore, conventional day schools are less willing than they once were to accept children from marginally observant or non-observant homes. Added to this barrier is the reality that high tuition and limited scholarship funding serve as a disincentive to marginally involved parents to send their children to a mainstream day school. In short, the limited kiruv function in these schools has been further limited.
The main exceptions to this pattern are Chabad day schools. The establishment of new Chabad day schools was downplayed during the life of the last Rebbe, which was a clear departure from the priorities established by his predecessor. The reasons for this are unclear, although it appears that a major consideration was his unwillingness to promote competition with existing day schools that were themselves struggling to enroll children and raise the funds they needed in the communities that they served. The focus was on supplementary schools, mitvah tanks, camping and alternate kiruv activities. There seems to have been a shift in course toward the end of the Rebbe’s life, spurred perhaps by the spread of Chabad into geographic areas that were underserved by day schools. Another possible factor was the willingness of Chabad people to take responsibility for existing schools in small communities.
Several Chabad schools did not make it through the 2008-09 school year and others are in fragile shape. As I write, there is a Chabad day school with about a hundred students in an affluent Long Island community that is contemplating not opening in January.
Putting aside Chabad and its unique dynamics, kiruv in America is in trouble, the conferences, public relations and other hoopla notwithstanding. Statistics – and they concern more than day school enrollment – are just part of the story. More fundamentally, there is too little energy and too little funding flowing toward outreach activities and there is too little interest these days in kiruv. We want American Jews to come closer to their heritage, we are happy that there are people out there trying to achieve this, we are happy when we hear kiruv success stories and, despite all of this, we keep our distance. The message is that outreach is no longer a communal priority. Having a conference about outreach is.
It is also the case that the schools that struggle to keep students who were raised in religious homes from abandoning their heritage are also the victims of communal neglect. We admire the people who have a commitment to this goal and that is where the story ends.
In making this point and perhaps the collateral point that the outflow from religious life exceeds – and probably to a considerable extent – the inflow through kiruv, it is necessary to acknowledge that the primary factor contributing to the loss of persons raised in religious homes and to inhibiting effective kiruv is not our neglect but the character of modern society which allows for enormous social mobility and holds many attractions to those who want to walk away from their religious moorings. We speak proudly about the glory that is Torah living, how the discipline inherent in fidelity to the Commandments makes us free because we are not slaves to all of our desires. It remains, however, that there are Jews, including many who are young, who do not see things this way. There are many who yield to the allures of the world around us.
This is why kiruv is a retail enterprise, consisting of one Jew at a time, in fulfillment of the Talmudic precept that he who saves a single life has saved the entire world.
This reality is no invitation to despair, nor does it justify the employment of marketing and public relations as surrogates for meaningful outreach activity. If we are serious about kiruv, then we have to be serious about kiruv day schools. We have to recognize that the disconnect between kiruv and chinuch powerfully undermines the efficacy of both. It is sad that leading Roshei Yeshiva and other notables in the yeshiva world can be featured at a kiruv conference that downplays day school education.