Saturday, June 6, 2020 -
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Whither Jewish day schools?

It’s not just a tuition crisis. For some, it’s an identity crisis.

It would seem to be a tautology, wouldn’t it, that the Jewish day school is for Jewish students? Not necessarily, not anymore. True enough, the tuition crisis that has prompted an admittedly small minority of Jewish day schools to seek salvation in admitting non-Jewish students also reflects positive developments.

One of the main reasons for the increase in Jewish day school tuition, as delineated in a long report in this week’s IJN (page 16), is the increased demand for the range of educational services available in the public school setting. Full blown STEM education, for example. Or special needs specialists, for another example. The Jewish day school is now asked to provide more than even the double, Jewish and general curriculum it has always provided. All this costs more. So higher costs mean, in many schools, higher quality.

Which does not solve the tuition problem. In fact, it exacerbates the problem. Three solutions have emerged.

The first solution is to seek the wisdom, the philanthropy, of high net worth individuals and foundations. No longer is the six-figure gift the ultimate goal, or the ultimate solution. Seven- and eight-figure gifts to Jewish day schools have begun to emerge. This is a blessing. This is a necessity. This is the way forward that enables a significant reduction in tuition and a signification increase in enrollment.

The second solution is creative repackaging of tuition options (see the article for details). One option not detailed in the article is the model of Keshet of the Rockies, whose independent fundraising for special needs specialists in Denver’s Jewish day schools relieves part of the financial burden, besides having the positive impact of giving special needs students the option of being included in the Jewish day school rubric. However, not always do these repackaged tuition options work. When all is said and done, the expenses must be met and when they are not, due to temporary or permanent tuition reductions, schools can close.

So here we are, struggling with the problem that has faced Jewish day schools from the beginning, in the late 1940s: not enough understanding from philanthropists to keep up with the demand. True enough, significant progress, in the form of once unheard of dimensions of major gifts, of the search for economies of scale, and of creative tuition packages, have reduced the problem — but hardly enough to make a Jewish day school education affordable for every single Jewish student who wants it. That must remain the goal, and we are far from reaching it.

The third solution is troublesome. However beautifully packaged and justified and praised, the admission of non-Jewish students to private Jewish day schools cannot meet the goal of the transmission of the Jewish religion to the next generation. It is entirely unfair to the non-Jewish student to embrace, for example, tefilin or Shabbat, and entirely self-deceiving to think that the necessary dilutions in the Jewish religion to make them palatable to a religiously diverse student body — in effect, the transformation of the Jewish religion into a Jewish culture — serve the sacred purpose of the Jewish day school.

This is hardly to deny that the exposure of any young person to a religion or culture not his or her own can have a positive benefit. But the logic here is that a positive exposure to a religion not one’s own presumes that one knows one’s own. Yet, it is extraordinarily difficult in this day and age to build a self-confident, permanent, positive, learned and observant Jew, and it is no secret that even the best Jewish day schools these days rarely succeed with every student. Yes, exposure to different religions and cultures; yes, tolerance and acceptance; but not at the expense of concentrated inculcation of the Jewish heritage from the inside.

The semi-non-Jewish Jewish day school, while driven by economic and demographic conditions, really reflects a 21st-century version of the 20th-century opposition to the Jewish day school. It supposedly would produce unsuccessful, un-American adults. Well, the sheer number,professional range and financial success of Jewish day school graduates have shown that fear to be groundless, but, alas, it has not put that fear to rest. If the Jewish day school student cannot attend class with a non-Jewish student, what will be? Whence tolerance for different cultures? That’s the 21st-century version of an old, tired argument that should not be credited to undermine the Jewish day school. Besides, the best framework for that perspective is the public school.

To those who are bothered by the fact that a public school education in many parts of the US is hardly what it once was, and who take the Jewish day school as the next best option, we would say: If it is the advantages of the public school you prefer, then send your children to public schools and work to improve them from within. The Jewish day school was not designed to be an alternative to a failing system. It was designed to be an affirmtive, Jewishly proud option in its own right. Its cost remains a perennial problem, which cannot successfully be met by undermining the identity of the Jewish day school.

Copyright © 2019 by the Intermountain Jewish News

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