What Does Schechter Decline Mean?

School Dip Sign of Trouble for Conservative Movement

Daily Minyan: Third graders read from their prayer books at the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, Mass., where enrollment has increased, bucking the national trend.
Shana Sureck
Daily Minyan: Third graders read from their prayer books at the Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, Mass., where enrollment has increased, bucking the national trend.

By Naomi Zeveloff

Published January 23, 2012, issue of January 27, 2012.
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United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism’s executive vice president and CEO Rabbi Steven Wernick wrote in an email to the Forward that the rebranding materials don’t serve to distance the network from the movement, but rather to promote some of the more universal aspects of Conservative Judaism. “By personalizing Solomon Schechter the explorer and researcher, the initiative allows us to highlight the core elements that are Conservative Judaism: learned and passionate, authentic and pluralistic, joyful and accessible, egalitarian or traditional,” he wrote.

Wernick said he was confident that the Schechter network would continue to be Conservative affiliated and that the movement’s congregational arm, which he leads, was committed to revitalizing the day school network.

Schechter schools aren’t alone in facing enrollment challenges, to be sure. Non-Orthodox Jewish day schools of all kinds are experiencing stagnant or declining numbers. According to the Forward analysis — based on reports published by the Avi Chai Foundation — non-Orthodox day schools have seen their combined enrollment rise by just 1,733 in the past decade.

While Ravsak now represents several former Schechter-affiliated schools, some independent schools are also struggling, according to Schick. “It is not the kind of thing where it is cold on the one side of the street and the weather is balmy on the other side of the street,” he said. “What is happening in American Jewish life affects more than the Schechter movement, it affects the constituencies from the Ravsak schools.”

Part of the problem is the hefty tuition that some Jewish day schools charge. According to Schick, non-Orthodox day school tuition ranges from $12,000 to upward of $30,000 annually. In the New York area, the costs can climb even higher. At the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, for instance, tuition ranges between $34,600 and $36,700.

Others see Jewish day schools as lacking the rigorous academic standards of private preparatory schools, and others still report being turned off by day schools’ reluctance to enroll students that have special needs.

Despite the general trend, day school networks are quick to tout their success stories — and Schechter is no exception. Its Lander Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, Mass., has grown its enrollment in the past five years to just under 100, from 79. That school’s principal of Judaic studies, Deborah Bromberg Seltzer, attributes its growth to its efforts to integrate itself into the local Jewish community. “By the time parents are making kindergarten decisions, they know we exist,” she said.

The Lander Grinspoon Academy was also the recipient in 2011 of the competitive Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education award. The school received $25,000, no strings attached, after it implemented an innovative fundraising program.

When asked if she intended on using the Schechter network’s new marketing material, Bromberg Seltzer said she wasn’t sure.

“We’re a little unusual in that we have a lot of families who never in a million years would have imagined that they would be sending their kids to a Jewish day school,” she said. “For us, I think we market ourselves differently. We rely on word of mouth.”

Contact Naomi Zeveloff at zeveloff@forward.com. or on twitter @naomizeveloff

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