Are day schools the ‘magic carpet?’

One of my “headmasters for the day” this year was a first-grader. In case you don’t know it, there’s a big difference between first- graders, sixth-graders and eighth-graders. Sixth-graders will say what they think you want to hear. Eighth-graders will say just the opposite of what they think you want to hear. And a first-grader will say anything that comes to mind.

So, in mid-morning, Nathan and I were visiting a third-grade classroom, where a prospective teacher was reading a story about a magic carpet. When she asked the class to imagine where they would go if they had magic carpets, I asked Nathan for his thoughts. His instantaneous response floored me. Not Disneyland. Not Hawaii or Las Vegas. Nope. “The Western Wall,” he said.

Later in the day, Nathan assured me that he likes Disneyland just fine. And if we’d been, say, playing a video game at his home computer when I asked the question, I might have gotten a different answer. Still. A first-grader picks the Western Wall.

An accumulation of similar anecdotal evidence has long confirmed for close-in observers the effect of attending a Jewish day school, but the supporting research base was slim. But now, the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University has released a carefully conducted study — the first of its kind — of the near-term academic, Jewish and social effects of day schools on former students during their college years. To read this report is to cease being surprised at Nathan’s comment. Students who attended Jewish day school for six years or more were significantly more likely to participate in Jewish activities on campus. While you might expect this of Orthodox students, the report demonstrates the positive effects of day school on non-Orthodox students (upon whom these comments focus).

The report also validates day school students’ academic and social success. Fully two-thirds of the participants reported attending their first-choice college (virtually the same percentage as alumni of private and public high schools), most at top-quartile institutions. In fact, those from non-Orthodox backgrounds who had attended Jewish day school for at least six years expressed “higher academic self-confidence” than did their private and public school peers. Prospective day-school parents often wonder whether day schools prepare their students adequately in math (a concern I’ve never understood; why would we take math any less seriously than history or spelling?). Yet the report found an “absence of differences in math confidence” between these students and their private and public school peers, even if, like their parents, they’d wondered whether their secular school peers were receiving greater preparation. At a remarkably high level, these students rated their day school academic experience as intellectually stimulating and engaging.

“Fitting in?” Former day school students assumed leadership positions in college in proportion with public and private school alumni. They made new friends in dorms, classes and campus organizations, but when it came to dating, the study did discover a difference: Students with six or more years of Jewish day school background were significantly more likely to date only or mostly Jews than were the others (except the Orthodox). “The ‘social bubble’ of day school is not a sealed social network but is more akin to a safe foundation from which day school students venture forth to meet new friends,” the report concludes. Fewer engaged in alcohol abuse, and “by far” they indicated greater interest in engaging in community volunteerism and advocacy.

Although by itself that is a satisfyingly wholesome picture, those concerned for Jewish survival will find the big story in the far greater importance these non-Orthodox students ascribed to being Jewish, together with their far greater participation in Jewish campus events.

With tuitions in the $10,000 to $20,000-plus range, depending on grade level, day schools exceed the reach of many. Yet the schools are not making money. This is what it costs to provide the caliber of education we all expect. Indeed, secular independent schools tend to charge thousands more. Los Angeles day schools receive minimal funding from the organized Jewish community (at my school, which is typical in this regard, barely 1 percent of the budget). Tuition and gifts, mostly from current parents, enable us and our sister schools to accomplish what the Brandeis study documents.

Financially capable parents should pay for their children’s education. But when it becomes evident that the future Jewish community is a significant beneficiary, it is time for the community to think about how to ensure day school education for those who can’t afford it, and how to provide funding to maximize the quality of that education. New ventures in funding Jewish day schools are taking root in cities around the country, and exciting plans along these lines are afoot here in Los Angeles. It’s hard to imagine dollars better spent if you care about the future of the American Jewish community.

For years, I’ve read predictions of doom about the future of American Jewish life, and I’ve always guessed that the authors of those doomsday scenarios hadn’t visited many Jewish day schools. Those of us who do on a daily basis are able to take a magic carpet into the future, where we can see the children of today becoming the Jewish leaders of tomorrow.

Now, whenever Nathan and I see each other, he gives me his big, almost toothless, grin. And I give him one back, because I can travel into his future and see what he and his day school classmates will be doing decades from now.

Rabbi Laurence Scheindlin is headmaster of Sinai Akiba Academy at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles.