Parents Face Dilemmas When Jewish Schools Close

Tough Decisions Shaped by Belief, Jewish Identity and Class

iKids: Students work on the first day of school at the Saul Mirowitz Community School in St. Louis
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iKids: Students work on the first day of school at the Saul Mirowitz Community School in St. Louis

By Seth Berkman

Published January 22, 2013, issue of January 25, 2013.
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The number of students enrolled in non-Haredi day schools nationwide also has been dropping in recent years, albeit more slowly: to 83,008 in 2012 from 85,624 in 2009 — a decrease of about 3% over four years.

Frequently, when a day school closes, parents are presented with the option of sending their child to a merged “community” school. It’s an option often encouraged by local Jewish philanthropic federations.

“Mergers often come about when the local federation doesn’t want to support two local non-Orthodox schools,” Schick said, abstracting from his data. “So Schechter schools merge with community day schools. When that happens, there’s invariably a falloff in enrollment and a falloff in the Judaic content of the curriculums.”

Indeed, only two community schools closed between 2010 and 2012 — a drop-off to 93 schools from 95, or just 2.1%. This was the smallest decrease of any Jewish stream. Meanwhile, enrollment in these community schools since 2009 has actually jumped by 5.2%, to 20,052 from 19,050. Only schools that define themselves as Centrist Orthodox showed a bigger enrollment increase during this period, to 19,442 from 18,453, or 5.4%.

In the Philadelphia area last December, the boards of Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, a pluralistic school, and Perelman Jewish Day School, a Conservative-oriented school, voted to merge their middle schools by this coming September. Students from Perelman’s middle school will attend school at the Barrack campus, while Perelman’s kindergarten through grade-five students will remain on the Perelman campus.

The merger did not come without difficulties. In late November, the two schools reached a stalemate in their negotiations, and outside mediators were brought in. Steven Brown, who was the head of the Solomon Schechter Day School of Greater Philadelphia before it became Perelman, worked at a time when enrollment was booming. But now, he said, a majority of students attend public high schools after eighth grade, or they go to prestigious Quaker day schools, like Friends’ Central.

“Parents see [the non-Jewish schools] are highly academic, and they feel comfortable in those places,” said Brown, who also served as head of Barrack. For those who choose public school, he said, it comes to a point where parents say, “I can’t keep putting up this money if we have a perfectly good public school in our neighborhood.”

But the merger may only reinforce this trend for some.


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