What should be done about the (Orthodox) rise and (non-Orthodox) decline of Jewish day schools?

November 20, 2014

Last week the Avi-Chai foundation released its fourth report on Jewish day schools in America, and the headlines following it focused mostly on the one obvious reality the report highlights: Jewish day schools are doing great, the number of schools and students is growing and is likely to grow even more. All of this is true for the Orthodox sector. Other schools are in decline. “There are three categories of non-Orthodox schools: Reform, Solomon Schechter (Conservative) and Community. These schools now constitute but 13% of all day school enrollment, down from 20% in 1998”. In other words, 87% of day schoolers are Orthodox.

This should not come as much of a surprise for two reasons.

One – the Orthodox have more children than other American Jews, a fact that was revealed by further analysis of the numbers in last year's Pew report. In fact, as sociologist Steven Cohen found, 27% of Jews below 18 years of age live in Orthodox households. “Orthodox birthrates in just the last few years have been soaring”, Cohen said when his analysis was published. “The sky is falling for the rest of the population”.

Two – the Orthodox community is much more likely to pursue a day school education than other Jewish communities. Orthodox families see more value in the level of Jewish education that their offspring get in school and, in many cases, less value in the level of “secular” (math, science) education they receive.

The result is exactly as you’d expect: more children in families which have more interest in intensive Jewish education make the Orthodox Jewish day school an institution on the rise, and the non-Orthodox Jewish day school an institution in decline.

This means that when it comes to level of practice and participation in “Judaism”, we are at a stage in which the strong are getting stronger and the weak are getting weaker. That is to say: Jewish day school has been proved in many studies to be a harbinger of strong Jewish identity. Of course, there are many other ways to have a strong Jewish identity, but day school is at the very top of the list. Less non-Orthodox day schoolers doesn’t have to lead to a weaker non-Orthodox Jewish community – but it certainly has the potential to lead to such a result. And the chicken-and-egg mechanism should be clear: the Jewishly weaker the community becomes, the less Jewish day schoolers we will have. The less non-Orthodox day schoolers we see, the less day school will be considered a reasonable option for the non-Orthodox. 

So what are we to do?

In talking, thinking, and reading about this new study of day schools I encountered four common types of reaction:

The oy-vey reaction: the decline of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools points to the decline of non-Orthodox Judaism – and to the rise of Orthodox, mostly Hasidic Judaism – and is going to make Judaism less appealing to the masses and less compatible with the lives of youngsters (except the Orthodox). Proposed action? In many cases none, in some cases a rehash of the old idea of the need for lowering the financial entry bar to day schools. If only they were not as costly, so the saying goes, more Jews would come. Maybe so.

The who cares reaction: the decline of non-Orthodox day schools is testimony to the better integration of Jews in America and should be neither a surprise nor a cause for alarm. Counting day schools and assuming that less day schools means less Judaism is clinging to a Judaism of the past – instead of understanding that the Judaism of today cries for other venues of education and expression than the Sunday-school-day-school-camp-synagogue remedies of days past. Proposed action? Find new and exciting programs for youngsters rather than mourn the decline of a no-longer-relevant institution.

The we need reform reaction: you can’t ignore the facts, and they tell a simple-to-understand story: day schoolers are much more committed Jews and much more likely to become leaders of the next generation of the Jewish community. So scrapping day schools would be a grave mistake. On the other hand, it is true that the day school is not exactly the most hip institution, and that non-Orthodox Jews struggle with it – they are not used to dedicate a large portion of their time to practicing Judaism, so it is almost unnatural to send their children to spend so much of their school time on Judaism. Proposed action? Lower the cost, reform the schools to make them more fashionable. Easy to say, harder to achieve.

The only the Orthodox will survive reaction: you get this from Orthodox commentators on the findings, but also from some non-Orthodox who look at the numbers and see a reality that is hard to deny. More children that are more committed to Judaism foretell a gradual story of a change that is coming to the community as a whole (many observers understand the process in Israel in similar ways) – American Judaism’s future is an Orthodox one. Other denominations did not find a formula of Judaism that can overcome the temptations of a modern secular environment. Proposed action? Don’t bother to invest in something with no future – bet your resources and energy on the one sector that will provide a future for Judaism.

I’d be hard pressed to choose one of the four. All of them have some merit, and all of them fall into the common trap of assuming that what we see today is a good predictor of an unknown future. Planners, leaders, and demographers are prone to such false predictions for understandable reasons. The day school data is fodder for such predictions for the same reasons.

But things might not always be as they are today.

Jews might decide to go back to day schools for various reasons – cost might be one, and a pilot program of no-cost day school can be a good idea for testing such a proposition.

Non-Orthodox Jews might indeed invent new ways to strengthen Judaism which do not require daily attendance at a Jewish-only school. Surely, this will not be an easy feat. Day schools have an intensity that other, presumably more instant programs cannot easily replace. But Taglit-Birthright already proved that ingenuity could provide us with solutions that have surprisingly good results.

The Orthodox might not always be Orthodox – their children can move away from Orthodoxy as many did in the past, and become the next generation of non-Orthodox Jews (not that there’s anything wrong with them remaining Orthodox).

Orthodoxy itself can change in ways that will make it less threatening, less alienating, and more appealing to other Jews. We see signs of such change in many communities.

Orthodox day schools can change – they should change – to become more compatible with providing an education that is necessary in the modern world. So counter-intuitively, maybe the resources aimed at “reforming” the schools should be directed at reforming the Orthodox day schools – to make them better, rather than reforming the non-Orthodox day schools that have a dwindling pool of population from which to draw new students.

So, it is not easy to look at these day school attendance numbers and wonder about the future of Judaism in America. It is not easy to dismiss the possibility that the dwindling of non-Orthodox day schools points to the dwindling of non-Orthodox Judaism, and not easy to dismiss the argument that the surge of Orthodox day schools points to a totally different type of Jewish community in future generations. And yet, there is time to make a change, and there is time to alter the course of both Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities and schools. There is time, and it should be used with calm.

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