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Finally, Schechter might, in the end, stay put as a program of USCJ.
The strategic planning process through which these choices are being pondered is being conducted by La Piana Consulting under a grant to Schechter from the Avi Chai Foundation. (Avi Chai officials would not reveal the dollar amount of the grant.)
Each option comes with pluses and minuses. But one thing is certain: Schechter is a network in survival mode. “The sad evidence is that there is this constant erosion over the last five years of the Schechter network,” said Marvin Schick, a Jewish educational consultant. “I’m not sure if any plan can reverse that.”
According to a Forward analysis of Schick’s studies for the Avi Chai Foundation, Schechter has lost around a third of its schools since 1993. While many of the schools have closed outright, several have switched their affiliation to the RAVSAK network, dropping their ties to the Conservative movement. Combined enrollment is also down, to 11,338 today from 17,563 in 1993.
In the past year, Schechter has lost two schools. In St. Louis, the Solomon Schechter Day School merged with the Saul Mirowitz Day School, a Reform elementary school; the combined schools are now part of RAVSAK. And in June, after 40 years in operation, the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School in New City, N.Y., shut its doors due to plummeting enrollment.
Schechter’s dilemma reflects both the state of Conservative Judaism and the struggles of Jewish day schools more broadly. Once the largest of American Judaism’s three major denominations, Conservative Judaism has experienced a precipitous decline in synagogue enrollment in recent years. Conservative leaders are quick to acknowledge that the movement’s membership problem has trickled down to Schechter.
Meanwhile, Jewish day schools in general are struggling to make their case to non-Orthodox parents. But with sky-high tuition — the Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan charges between $34,600 and $36,700 per year — and, some parents say, comparatively meager extracurricular offerings, day schools often find themselves on the losing end of the battle for students against public and secular private schools.
Last year, with a $250,000 grant from the UJA-Federation of New York, Schechter embarked on a rebranding initiative, changing its name from the Solomon Schechter Day School Association to the Schechter Day School Network. The network today trumpets the schools’ universal values — like global citizenship and critical inquiry — in its promotional materials.
Susan Kardos, the director of strategy and education planning at the Avi Chai Foundation, cautioned against jumping to conclusions about Schechter’s future. The network is still formulating its business plan, she stressed. But citing USCJ’s new, narrowed focus on synagogues, Kardos: “[It’s] clear that there is another place for Schechter that is a better home.”