Day School Numbers Not So Bad

Statistics Show Declining Enrollment, Not System in Decline

Declining, Not in Decline: Non-Orthodox day school enrollment is declining, but we should treat the data carefully. It’s unclear how the figures compare with participation in other areas of Jewish life.
getty images
Declining, Not in Decline: Non-Orthodox day school enrollment is declining, but we should treat the data carefully. It’s unclear how the figures compare with participation in other areas of Jewish life.

By Jack Wertheimer

Published January 16, 2012, issue of January 20, 2012.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Avi Chai Foundation’s newly released data on current day school enrollments has drawn attention from many, including J.J. Goldberg in a column on these pages. Like Goldberg’s, these assessments have been mostly pessimistic, a reflection of findings that show a decrease in attendance in all but the Orthodox day schools. What is missing, however, in all these analyses is some important context. Without the right perspective, it’s easy to misread the day school numbers and miss the larger significance of the trends they portend.

The mere existence of the data is worthy of comment, as is the identity of the data compiler. Thanks to Marvin Schick’s yeoman’s efforts over the past 13 years, we possess detailed information on trends in day school enrollment. The same cannot be said about participation rates in any other form of Jewish activity, except summer camps, for which we have only partial information. We lack regularly published data on national trends in synagogue and organizational membership, supplementary schooling, trips to Israel and other forms of Jewish engagement. Why, one wonders, does a Jewish community that prides itself on its respect for knowledge continue to make policies based on such a profound absence of data about its most basic activities?

As a result of this data vacuum, we have only limited knowledge about how patterns in day school enrollments compare with participation in other areas of Jewish life — all the more reason to approach these data with caution. Goldberg’s immediate reaction to the Avi Chai numbers was to conclude that “day schooling isn’t catching on among non-Orthodox Jews, despite two decades and millions of dollars spent pushing the idea.” But isn’t the question, “as compared with which other institutions?”

Since Schick began his census reports in the 1998 to ’99 school year, non-Orthodox day schools have suffered a decline of 5% to 6%. It’s lamentable but not surprising — perhaps even impressive — in light of the deep recession and the decline in Jewish affiliation more generally. In these hard economic times and in light of the long-term trend toward disaffiliation, most synagogues, national organizations and federations wish they were merely “stuck in neutral,” to quote the headline of Goldberg’s column. And in comparison with plummeting Catholic parochial school enrollments and the declining share of students in all American non-sectarian private schools over the past 15 years, non-Orthodox enrollment figures in day schools look healthy.

The more meaningful questions for the community, though, are what difference the day schools and their graduates are making in Jewish life and whether that difference justifies renewed efforts to expand day school recruitment.

Day school proponents understand that the future leadership of the Jewish community will be drawn disproportionately from the cadre of day school alumni. How do we know? A little more than a year ago, Avi Chai released my own report on young Jewish leaders. Based on a survey conducted by Steven M. Cohen, we learned that 40% of young leaders in their 20s and 30s involved in the non-establishment sector of Jewish start-ups and 38% of those working in the establishment sector (synagogues, federations, long-standing Jewish organizations) had received a day school education. These day school graduates constitute a mere fraction of their non-Orthodox peers but nonetheless are massively overrepresented in the leadership cadres of the rising generation. The American Jewish community relies increasingly on day school products to serve as the energizing nucleus of Jewish life in this country.

How can it be otherwise? To be a Jew with strong commitments requires immersion in a culture that is different in language and concepts from the American reality. Whether one is an adherent of a particular strand of American Judaism or is a secular Jew with deep attachments to the Jewish people, it is difficult to connect to the sources of Jewish culture without a strong grounding in the Hebrew language in its different registers — biblical, rabbinic and modern. In order to relate sympathetically to the categories of Jewish thought, belief, cultural ideals and norms that are often different from contemporary American ways of thinking requires immersion in the texts and artifacts of Jewish civilization. Day schools offer the tools and experiences in a more sustained and intensive fashion than any other form of Jewish education.

Armed with the requisite skills and understanding, day school alumni are on the whole most likely to invest themselves in the needs of the Jewish public, building on their knowledge and love of Jewish life to contribute disproportionately to all manner of Jewish endeavor because they have been socialized to identify with tzorchei tzibbur, the needs of the Jewish collective.

And, contrary to those who fear that day school education leads to insularity, alumni of intensive Jewish educational institutions also are active in the civic sphere of American life, bringing the wisdom of Judaism into the public square.

Does this mean that day schools are the only “answer to assimilation,” to use Goldberg’s phrasing? Of course not. The same philanthropists who have invested heavily in day schools also support residential Jewish summer camping, trips to Israel and other forms of immersive Jewish education. For those philanthropists, it is not a zero-sum game. But here’s the rub: Only a small fraction of all American Jewish youths are exposed to any of these forms of intensive Jewish education. And so, the American Jewish community finds itself perpetually engaged in self-described remedial education for Jewish adults, whether they are college students or older adults who seek entry-level courses to make up for what they never learned as youngsters.

To break out of this cycle would require a concerted communal effort to increase the numbers of young Jews exposed to the best Jewish education available. If, as we often hear, American Jewish leaders seek to stimulate a “Renaissance” of American Jewish life, the surest way to do so is to encourage ever more families to enroll their children in Jewish day schools.

Jack Wertheimer is a professor of American Jewish history at the Jewish Theological Seminary and director of the Avi Chai Foundation’s center for policy and research.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • British Jews are having their 'Open Hillel' moment. Do you think Israel advocacy on campus runs the risk of excluding some Jewish students?
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.