Day schools don’t isolate, they foster Jewish identity

It’s too soon to tell. We still have to hold our breath. But the Jewish people may be slowly gearing up to save themselves. About 700 day schools are now in America, enrolling 200,000 students — double the number in 1978.

Because the Orthodox utilize day schools more than any other Jewish stream, have the most children, and intermarry least, Orthodox day schools are fastest growing.

But growth has also been impressive among the non-Orthodox: Since 1985, enrollment in Solomon Schecter (Conservative) schools has doubled, and since 1970 the number of Reform-affiliated schools has jumped from two to 22.

All this, however, is not enough. In the United States, as the number of Jewish day schools has been growing, the number of Jews has been shrinking.

As Jack Wertheimer wrote in a sobering article in Commentary (October 2005), “In a community that has long since ceased to replace its natural losses, continued low fertility rates mean the number in the communal pipeline will soon drop sharply, causing a decline over the next decade in enrollments in Jewish schools.”

What this means is that the growth in Jewish education of all kinds is racing against demographic decline. We must not only struggle to retain Jews who are marrying out at very high rates, but overcome the effect of below-replacement birthrates, which would cause the number of Jewish people to shrink even if there were no losses to assimilation.

Against this background comes a piece of encouraging news: a new mega-gift to a Jewish day school, the third in five years. In 2001, the Sidney Kimmel Foundation gave $20 million to the Perelman Jewish Day School, a Schecter school in Wynnewood, Pa. In 2004, a group of families donated $45 million to three Jewish day schools in Boston, including $15 million earmarked for innovative educational projects. And now, the Smith-Kogod Foundation announced a $15 million gift for the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md.

Yet even these gifts do not necessarily indicate that the trend of Jewish giving primarily to non-Jewish causes has shifted. A 2003 study by Gary Tobin of the Institute for Jewish and Community Research found that a staggering 25 percent of American gifts more than $10 million between 1995 and 2000 were made by Jews. Of these 188 gifts made by Jews, totaling $5.3 billion, less than 10 percent went to Jewish or Israeli organizations.

Because total spending on Jewish day schools in America is about $2 billion annually, it is clear that if Jewish givers were simply to shift half of their current philanthropy in this direction, the current trickle of mega-gifts could be transformed into a torrent.

How could such a torrent be effectively employed? A new study, led by Jack Wertheimer and published by the Avi Chai foundation, identifies the barriers to achieving a critical mass of Jewish identity-building efforts, particularly Jewish day schools.

Called “Linking the Silos: How to Accelerate the Momentum in Jewish Education Today,” the study argues that many communities and organizations are doing a great job of pushing certain elements, such as Jewish preschools, camps, day schools, or adult education. Almost no resources exist, however, to guide people through the variety of Jewish educational frameworks, to help ensure that each leads to and reinforces the others.

Jewish schools don’t steer kids enough to Jewish camping, and don’t take advantage of the influence kids can have on their parents taking up adult education, which in turn can result in greater enrollment in day schools.

The study also identified the three attitudes that most influence parental decisions over whether to send their children to a Jewish day school: their interest in fostering Jewish identity, their perception of these schools as effective Jewish educators, and the concern that Jewish schools would isolate their kids from wider society or make them “too” religious.

These concerns really get to the crux of the issue: How much do Jews care about surviving as a people? Many American Jews understandably care deeply about their kids being fully integrated into American society. The influence and pull of American society is so strong, however, that it would take extreme efforts for a non-Orthodox Jew not to become integrated into it.

The concern that day schools “ghettoize” Jews might make sense if Americans shunned ethnic or religious identity, but America celebrates ethnicity in general and Jewishness in particular. If non-Jews see a certain cache in being Jewish, one might think that Jews could see the benefit of helping their kids become both serious Jews and serious Americans, and the lack of conflict between the two.

The Wertheimer study should be required reading for every Jewish philanthropy and federation in America. It argues that Jewish education in America “has reached a level of maturity where serious resources should be directed at creating the linkages between educational programs.”

It shows how communal attitudes, such as the Orthodox valuing larger families, or of individual communities — some of which support Jewish education much more than others — can make a huge difference. It even shows that many American Jews do care about passing their Jewish identity on to their children, but that the community’s organizational and financial resources are not being sufficiently or effectively marshaled to reinforce such desires.

The American Jewish dilemma, ironically, is like that of the poor; just as it takes money to make money, it takes Jewish identity to foster Jewish identity. America, though, is a place where someone starting from nothing can become rich, and where the Jewish community is already wealthy and secure. It is also a place where a small, passionately Jewish core, with some help from small numbers of mega-philanthropists, could leverage and multiply what is being done right to reverse seemingly irreversible trends.

Saul Singer is editorial-page editor of the Jerusalem Post.