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Jewish World Review June 27, 2003 / 27 Sivan, 5763

Jonathan Tobin

Jonathan Tobin
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‘We Must Teach Our Children’

The battle to prioritize Jewish day schools is still being fought

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | The title used by President George W. Bush for his national education program is "no child left behind."

The virtues and faults of that plan are a matter of public debate. But if there were a comparable title for the policy that has long governed the approach to Jewish education in this country by our organizations and philanthropies, it might best be titled, "All children who cannot pay are left behind."

The drive to make quality Jewish education affordable for all has been continuing for some time. But as the current school year ends, the truth is, we're still losing the battle.

In the early 1990s, after the controversial National Jewish Population Study revealed that more than half of all Jews were intermarrying, the buzzword in Jewish communal circles was "continuity." Donors to Jewish groups that had paid scant attention to the question of whether or not their members would have Jewish grandchildren suddenly became very interested in the subject.

The notion that intermarriage and assimilation would undermine not only the demographic base of American Jewry, but topple its infrastructure, served to focus attention on a growing movement that was starting to shift from the margins of Jewish life to its mainstream: Jewish day schools.

THE BEST INVESTMENT

The idea of providing comprehensive, religion-based alternative to the public schools has been alien to most American Jews. Outside of the minority that identified themselves as Orthodox, day schools seemed to contradict the traditional liberal ethos of the majority of Jews who viewed parochial education as a contradiction of their embrace of a secular American identity.

But to the generation of Jews who came of age at the close the 20th century, the fear that their identity was slipping away in the sea of American freedom was acute. They are, as one Jewish educator put it, "less uptight" about being thought of as "less American."

Day-school advocates point with pride to studies from the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation and other sources that showed their graduates had lower rates of assimilation and intermarriage, as well as greater affiliation with the Jewish community later in life.

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These numbers were influenced by the fact that those who went to day schools came from families that were already committed to Jewish life. Day-school kids were likely to have grown up with observance of Judaism in the home and to have been exposed to other factors that foster Jewish identity, such as summer camps and trips to Israel.

But even when that's taken into account, day schools still stand as the best continuity investment available. This has led to an expansion in the number of institutions and the funding available to them. The success of groups such as the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which has mobilized some big names in Jewish philanthropy behind the day-school movement, is an indicator of the momentum that has been built.

But though a decade has passed since talk about prioritizing day schools began, most Jewish kids are still not attending, and that fact seems unlikely to change.

Why? One key reason is cost. Tuition for day schools runs high. A survey of local schools here in Philadelphia shows that the least expensive one costs more than $5,000 per year for kindergarten; the highest is priced at more than $9,000. And the higher the grade, the higher the tuition. Even more startling is the fact that the prices in many other places range even higher.

Jay Leberman, head of the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School here in Philadelphia, sums it up in one phrase: "sticker shock."

"Enrollment is up, and federations are trying to find creative ways to fund tuition," Leberman says. "But the high costs have had a tremendous impact."

Scholarships are available, but this remains a system open for the wealthiest and effectively closed to the middle-class. Most of those who are not wealthy are simply intimidated by the price of day school. Given a declining economy, that means many Jews simply cannot afford the sacrifices they must make to buy the best Jewish education.

WHAT TO DO?

Can the organized Jewish world do something about this? One veteran activist still thinks it can. Chicago businessman George Hanus has been organizing efforts to get communities and federation to do more for day schools for several years, but believes the time has come for a "national movement."

"I believe the current crisis is getting worse daily," says Hanus. "But there is no visible energy being put into solving the problem."

For him, placing the onus for funding on parents is a mistake. Hanus sees day schools as being as important to Jewish survival as the armed forces are to national survival.

"The current system is like a movie theater. You want to attend, you buy a ticket," he explains. "What it should be is like the army and the navy that everyone supports. Instead, the schools are just fending for themselves."

Leberman says that initiatives aimed at increasing attendance by lowering tuition have gotten a "decent response." But he admits there simply isn't enough money available to make it happen. Simple math shows that even in the Philly region, where day-school attendance is lower than in many other places, the money needed to lower fees for all students to around $5,000 per year would be equal to almost the entire amount raised locally by the Jewish Federation.

ARE THEY LISTENING?

Activists like Hanus have been raising a ruckus in federation circles for some time. But are people still listening?

Some communities, including Philadelphia, have increased the subsidies to the schools from federations. Locally, a special fundraising campaign on behalf of the schools is even being mooted as a possibility. But many other communities do far less. And the majority of kids getting some form of Jewish education are still not in day schools.

Some fear that the window of opportunity for galvanizing the Jewish community into decisive action on behalf of day schools may have passed before we even realized it was closing. The demand to create a Jewish-education safety net to match the social-service safety net we have in place is one that continues to fall on deaf ears.

Still, educators like Leberman are optimistic. "Viewed from the perspective of only two decades ago, the day-school movement has proved the naysayers wrong," he says.

"No one ever believed this many schools would be operating today. We're changing the culture."

Despite the many obstacles to his idea of building a national movement for day schools, Hanus also remains upbeat.

"This is a crisis, but I have faith we'll ultimately do the right thing. The problem is not going to go away. It's very simple. We must teach our children."

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JWR contributor Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent. Let him know what you think by clicking here.

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