Study Provides Snapshot of Struggling Supplementary Schools

By Nate Sugarman

Published August 13, 2008, issue of August 22, 2008.
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America’s Jewish supplementary schools are struggling to remain relevant as a torpid American economy and higher rates of intermarriage and religious apathy take their toll. Many Conservative and Reform Jewish parents are opting out of giving their children a religious education.

Supplementary schools, also known as Hebrew schools or complementary schools, operate for a few hours, one to three days per week. They supplement the education of Jewish students attending public schools and educate youngsters in the basics of the Bible and Hebrew language. These schools are most popular with Conservative and Reform Jews; Orthodox families overwhelmingly send their children to day schools instead of public schools.

Jack Wertheimer, of the New York-based Avi Chai Foundation, has conducted a new census, which provides a good snapshot of the current state of Jewish supplementary schools.

The study, for which data was collected between May and December 2007, covers students from grades one through 12 and includes data from 1,720 schools, up to 90% of the nation’s total. Because a study of this scale had not been undertaken previously, there are no numbers from years past to use for comparison. Wertheimer, a former provost of Jewish Theological Seminary and presently director of the Joseph and Miriam Ratner Center for the Study of Conservative Judaism, instead has relied upon testimony from those who attended these schools in their heyday — in the 1950s and ’60s.

A similar study of Jewish day schools was done by Marvin Schick, also of the Avi Chai Foundation, from 2003 to 2004. These numbers have proved to be useful in comparative analysis between enrollments in day schools and supplementary schools.

Based on Schick’s findings and on his own, Wertheimer tells the Forward that “it used to be that among Jewish schoolchildren, many more attended supplementary schools than day schools, but the gap is narrowing.”

The census shows that there are about 230,000 students enrolled in Jewish supplementary schools. This compares with some 172,000 enrolled in the same grades of Jewish day schools, according to the 2003-04 study. Despite the larger number of students enrolled in supplementary schools, Wertheimer adds a caveat: “Students tend to be enrolled for more years in day schools than in supplemental schools, which means the turnover is higher in the latter and they have more kids going through the turnstile.”

According to Wertheimer’s census, 85% of children who are enrolled in grade six have left by grade 12. He speculates that many parents are content to withdraw their child after that child receives a bar or bat mitzvah education.

Wertheimer also found that “49% of children from Reform families, which make up a large portion of secondary school attendees, are brought up with only one Jewish parent.” This, Wertheimer believes, could account, at least in part, for the dwindling enthusiasm that parents have for their children’s Jewish education.

Children are not necessarily sent to supplementary schools that identify with their families’ religious denomination. For instance, Wertheimer’s census found that 59% of students attending supplementary schools are Reform; however, only 39% of these schools profess to be Reform. Most notably, 13% of supplementary schools identify as Lubavitch or Chabad, and by contrast, only 3% of students attending supplementary schools identify as such. Reasons for these discrepancies range from convenience to preference about class size.

Economics is one of the major concerns affecting the educational decisions that families make. With day schools, economic woes have not affected enrollment as severely. Students attending day schools are mostly from Orthodox families, and many academicians, including Wertheimer, speculate that families with Reform and Conservative backgrounds are less likely to require their children to be taught by those of the same denomination as their parents.

Arlene Zabary of Plainview, N.Y., attended supplementary school as a youngster, and now she sends her two children to a similar program — but sees tremendous differences between the two educational experiences. “When I attended, it was more of a real school — with a principal, over 20 kids in a class and three days per week for a weekly total of about five hours,” Zabary told the Forward. “My children attend a Lubavitch school that only meets twice a week for a total of three hours, and the classes have fewer than 10 students.”

Though she grew up Conservative in Queens, Zabary decided not to send her children to a Conservative school, because she didn’t think it was worth the significantly more costly tuition.

Jonathan Woocher — chief ideas officer at the Lippman Kanfer Institute, a Jewish education think tank that is part of the Jewish Education Service of North America — recognizes that because of a variety of external forces, including growth of day schools, declining population of young Jews and the rise of intermarriage, this segment of Jewish education is in a temporary state of doldrums. Though he doesn’t dispute the lower enrollment numbers, he is optimistic about the future of Jewish supplementary education. “There is good reason to believe things will improve qualitatively,” Woocher said. He cites that many initiatives are taking place to improve the quality of Jewish supplemental education. “Many foundations and organizations are stepping up and designing new curricula, becoming more interactive with students and parents, and developing more facilities,” Woocher said.

“Within the Reform movement, enrollment is up,” said Joanne Doades, director for curriculum development at the Union for Reform Judaism’s department of lifelong Jewish learning. “In 1997, 120,000 Reform students attended supplementary schools, and in 2007 that number increased to 131,000,” Doades said; however, she shares Wertheimer’s concerns about intermarriage and religious apathy. She adds that there are “still challenges to be met, most stemming from the issue of our schools being designed for the students of 50 years ago.”

Margie Berkowitz, director of Prozdor at the Hebrew College, agrees, and said that “the current system was designed for the children of the 1950s, and it needs to be changed to fit the needs of students today.” Prozdor is a major Conservative supplementary school based in Boston. Berkowitz indicates that there are new strategies being undertaken with Prozdor’s Makor initiative, such as “allowing students to choose their own classes; cooperation between the Hebrew schools and synagogues that the children attend, and paying close attention to feedback, both from students and parents.”

Cantor Charles Osborne, formerly Prozdor’s music director, said that “school curriculums do not account for the necessary transition from teaching Judaism as a religion for children to teaching it as a religion for adults.”

Osborne added: “The concept of God as received by many Jewish school children is akin to Santa Claus: a bearded old man living up someplace who keeps a list of who is naughty or nice. No one can believe in a God like that.”

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