Atlanta — Long considered a crown jewel of the Conservative movement, the Schechter Day School Network is fast contracting — its enrollment dwindling and its schools being closed, consolidated and, increasingly, transformed into nondenominational community day schools.
Since the late 1990s, the network has lost about a third of its schools, a handful of which haven’t closed, but rather have shed the Schechter label and the denominational affiliation. This trend is widely seen as emblematic of the problems plaguing Conservative Judaism, which in recent years has experienced a slide in synagogue membership.
“If the Schechter schools continue to decline, it’s because of the decline of the Conservative movement,” Marvin Schick, a Jewish educational consultant who studies day school demography, told the Forward. “There is a feedback relationship. Each decline feeds further decline.”
According to a recent Forward analysis based on Schick’s studies, the number of Schechter schools has shrunk to 43 — down from 63 in 1998. Combined enrollment is now at 11,338, representing a 35% drop during that same time period.
Schechter’s challenges were a topic of several workshops at the North American Jewish Day School Conference, held in Atlanta from January 15 to 17. The conference also addressed such issues as funding services for special needs students, integrating technology into curricula and growing endowments.
In recent years, five schools once affiliated with Schechter have left the network for the Ravsak Jewish Community Day School Network; one of those schools has since closed its doors, and the prominent Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Md., has dual affiliation. Ravsak’s executive director, Marc Kramer, said that he is in conversation with three other Schechter schools about joining the network of 121 member institutions.
He said the Schechter schools that have joined his network have done so for “a combination of philanthropic and pragmatic reasons.” Some find it easier to make a case to major funders as Jewish institutions not bound by movement doctrine, he said.
Gerald Skolnik, who is vice president of an international association of Conservative rabbis, the Rabbinical Assembly, and a board member at the Solomon Schechter School of Queens, said that in this post-denominational era, the Conservative movement gets a bad rap — and unfairly so. But as a result, “there has been some toxicity with saying that these are Conservative Jewish schools,” he said.
“People are much less focused on the label of Judaism than on the way they practice,” Skolnik said.
At the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, the desire to be more inclusive informed the decision in 2008 to switch from Schechter to Ravsak. “The board felt there should be no real or perceived barriers to Hillel Day School based on affiliation,” and that aligning itself with a particular movement created a potential barrier, said Steven Freedman, the head of the school.
In an effort to reverse the decline and reach out to those families who wouldn’t otherwise consider a Jewish day school, much less one associated with the Conservative movement, Schechter recently unveiled a $250,000 rebranding effort. The campaign, funded by the UJA–Federation of New York, positions Schechter as a place where students “engage the world.” The materials portray Solomon Schechter, the network’s namesake, as an “adventurer” who “unites passionate spirituality with rigorous scholarship.” The brochure mentions Conservative Judaism just once — in the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism logo on the bottom of the back page.
According to Elaine Cohen, director of the Schechter day school network, linking Schechter with Conservative Judaism wasn’t helpful in school marketing, even though Schechter stays committed to the movement. The branding campaign, she said, was initiated by a 2008 UJA-Federation of New York study showing that Jewish parents in Manhattan and Long Island see no distinctions between Orthodox schools and non-Orthodox schools.
“For parents who are exploring the possibility of Jewish day school, when they see that they often react with, ‘It’s too religious. That’s not me,’” she said. “So we want to keep the door open.”