Day Schools Stuck in Neutral

Enrollment Numbers Grow, But Only Among Ultra-Orthodox

Declining Numbers: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visits the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, which, bucking a trend, is seeing its numbers grow. Despite a massive push, enrollment is down at Jewish schools, except for those serving the ultra-Orthodox.
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Declining Numbers: Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak visits the Jewish Primary Day School of the Nation’s Capital, which, bucking a trend, is seeing its numbers grow. Despite a massive push, enrollment is down at Jewish schools, except for those serving the ultra-Orthodox.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published December 29, 2011, issue of January 06, 2012.
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Comparing 2011 and 2010 enrollment figures, as Avi Chai’s December announcement did, doesn’t tell us much. Comparing 2011 with 2008, however, tells us a great deal. Going back to 1998 tells us even more.

Nationwide, day school enrollment increased 24% in the decade between 1998 and 2008, jumping from 184,333 students to 228,174. Experts and community leaders often cite this increase to suggest growing acceptance of day schooling.

Breaking it down by denomination, that’s not so clear. Of the 43,841 new enrollments over the decade, 35,238 were in Haredi schools, virtually all due to birthrate. Another 4,858 new enrollments were in Chabad schools, which are counted separately for complicated reasons. The non-Orthodox streams — Conservative, Reform and Community schools, on which continuity mavens mostly pin their hopes — saw their combined enrollment grow by only 1,733.

In absolute numbers, Haredi enrollment increased from 86,702 in 1998 to 121,940 in 2008, a 41% rise. The three non-Orthodox streams grew in that time from 36,897 to 38,630, or 4.7%.

In the three years since 2008, following the collapse of the economy, non-Orthodox enrollment dropped 9.5%, to just 34,977. Non-Orthodox enrollment is even lower this year (by 5.2%) than it was in 1998, when Avi Chai first counted.

Avi Chai didn’t collect Haredi enrollment figures for 2011. It’s safe to assume, though, that birthrates remained stable and virtually none moved to secular schools despite the economy. Accordingly, Haredi school enrollments probably now total 144,500.

The other major category, Modern and Centrist Orthodox, has remained virtually unchanged since 1998 at a combined 48,000, give or take a few hundred. Here again, however, numbers can deceive. Those two streams reported non-Orthodox student populations in 1998 of 20% and 10%, respectively. Their flat totals probably reflect declining non-Orthodox enrollment matched by a growing Orthodox population.

Today’s total enrollment nationwide can therefore be estimated at roughly 242,000. About 14% are in non-Orthodox schools, 20% Modern Orthodox and 60% Haredi.

In 1998, those numbers were 20% non-Orthodox, 26% Modern Orthodox and 47% Haredi.

In a category by themselves are Chabad schools. These are an odd mix; some serve the traditional population of Lubavitch Hasidim in New York, while others around the country are administered by Chabad rabbis but serve mostly non-Orthodox families. In 1998, Chabad enrollment totaled 7,438, of whom 30% or 2,232 were estimated to be non-Orthodox and 5,206 Hasidic. In 2008, total enrollment was 12,296. Non-Orthodox Chabad pupils outside New York probably represent about 45% of that, leaving a Lubavitch Hasidic school population of about 6,800.

The biggest Hasidic sect is not Chabad, but Satmar. In 1998, Satmar school enrollment totaled 17,500, roughly equal to Schechter. It accounted for 45% of the total Hasidic school population of 39,000, and nearly 10% of all day school enrollment nationwide. Satmar growth has been slower than Hasidic enrollment overall; in 2008, Satmar schools enrolled 22,000 in a total Hasidic school population of 61,000, or about 36%. Probable reasons include families joining other sects to escape an ugly Satmar leadership feud, plus smaller Hasidic sects long in Satmar’s shadow growing large enough to launch their own schools.

Nonetheless, Satmar still accounts for about 10% of all day school enrollment. And it’s now about twice the size of Schechter.

Here, then, is the most important insight to be found in Avi Chai’s numbers: Day schooling isn’t catching on among non-Orthodox Jews, despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea. The proposition that day schools are the answer to assimilation isn’t panning out.

Some argue that while day schools won’t change the masses, they’ll provide the leadership. Unfortunately, the vast majority of day school growth occurs within a population that shows no interest in engaging with the rest of the community.

Contact J.J. Goldbert at goldberg@forward.com


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