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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In January 2012, Irit Pinkus was shocked to learn that her daughter’s Jewish day school would close at the end of the semester, leaving her and the parents of the school’s other 150 students with a tough decision: where to place their children next year.

It’s a decision faced by an increasing number of families. According to a new survey released in January, the number of non-Haredi Jewish day schools in America has shrunk by 5.6% over the past three years.

How families respond can depend on their degree of commitment to Jewish education and their financial means. For Pinkus, there was never any consideration of sending her 7-year-old daughter to a secular public school, or even to a private secular school.

“It’s important to me that the children go to a Hebrew day school to develop a sense of Jewish community,” she said. But Pinkus had other concerns, too. The school that her daughter attended, Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, which is in New City, a suburb north of New York City, was a Solomon Schechter School, part of the network of schools affiliated with the Conservative stream of Judaism. Pinkus appreciated its proximity to her home and the type of Judaism her daughter learned there.

To Pinkus’s great relief, at the meeting the administrators called to announce the Gittelman School’s closing, representatives were on hand to talk about the opening of a new school nearby — Rockland Jewish Academy, which would be run under the supervision of the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester. “It went from a funeral to a wedding,” Pinkus said.

Not every parent whose child attends a Jewish day school that closes is as fortunate as Pinkus. According to the survey of Jewish day school trends, conducted by Jewish educator Marvin Schick for the Avi Chai Foundation, 11 Jewish day schools have closed within just the past year. These closings can confront parents with an array of difficult choices, including sending their children to public school; to another Jewish school whose religious ideology they may or may not agree with; or, frequently, to a new school that comes from a merger of the school that is closing with another, already existing school whose future viability can be hard to predict.

According to the Avi Chai survey, some of the recent trends in school closures are surprising. While the long-term decrease in the number of Schechter schools has received some attention, over the last three years, Modern Orthodox schools have led the decline in percentage terms, shrinking in number by 7.2% during this period. The Schechter schools follow, falling in number by 6.8%.

But since 1998, the number of Schechter schools has dropped by more than 35%, down to 41 nationwide in 2012 from 63. (No comparable data going that far back were immediately available for the other religious streams.)

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.

Jonathan Scott Goldman, who has one child in second grade at Perelman’s Forman Center in Melrose Park, Pa., disagreed with the decision to combine the middle schools. He worried that the K‑5 program could also be in jeopardy. “If they do it once, I don’t know why they wouldn’t do it again,” he said. “Also, institutionally, it makes it harder to sustain a lower school if there’s no middle school.” Goldman said that when his son ages out of elementary school, he will not send him to the combined school.

Sharon Levin, head of Barrack, said she has already met with every Perelman elementary school family, and there will be incentives such as transportation initiatives and scholarships to support the merger of the two schools. “We want to feel like one integrated mishpucha by September,” she said. “We will bring the best from both schools.”

In St. Louis, parents have been more enthusiastic over the combining of two local day schools. The Saul Mirowitz Day School-Reform Jewish Academy and the area Solomon Schechter Day School merged in January 2012 to create the Saul Mirowitz Jewish Community School. As separate schools, the two institutions had 170 students. In August, 165 students moved into the Schechter building for the merged operation.

A representative of the Reform movement’s Mirowitz School estimated that it lost about two students to the merger, with a few others having moved away from the area. Cheryl Maayan, the head of the new school, said that very few Schechter school students did not move on to the Mirowitz community school. The fact that it is located in the old Schechter building, she said, made students and parents feel more at home.

Even the best mergers entail significant financial risks. And some school mergers have brought financial disasters. In 2005, Providence, R.I.’s Alperin Schechter Day School merged with the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island, also in Providence, promising a school that, as the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island’s website put it, “embraces the entire Jewish community, offering the highest quality of Jewish day school education.”

In August 2011, the Jewish Community Day School of Rhode Island filed for receivership to get out of the debt it had accumulated in seeking to expand staff and increase capacity for the merger. The economic crash of 2008 and the recession that followed led to lower than expected enrollment and made the debt impossible to service.

Calls to representatives of JCDSRI were not returned, but Schick said that the Schechter school in Providence had been “very successful.” Nevertheless, he said, the local federation “pressed it to merge with the local community day school, and the result was a disaster.” Schick said there was a “massive drop off in students,” causing JCDSRI’s default on its debts. “It’s a pale shadow of what it has been,” he said.

Elaine Cohen, director of the Schechter Day School Network, said her organization was conducting its own study of enrollment figures. She admitted that there were some schools experiencing enrollment decreases, but said that Schechter schools in some areas were showing enrollment growth. Overall, enrollment in Schechter schools dropped by 3.6% between 2011 and 2012. Schick said he had expected a greater falloff in Schechter School enrollment last year.

Cohen said one of her main concerns is finding the extent to which day school tuitions are affecting enrollment. “With multiple children and the economic climate, affordability becomes a big issue,” she said. “It’s been hard for parents to keep up.”

In several cities, local federations have provided tens of millions of dollars in scholarship aid for day school student to address this issue. But in Westchester, such outside support was not enough to save the Gittelman School. In the end, the school’s board of directors sought to use their own dissolution to help the Rockland Jewish Academy escape a similar fate. At one of their last meetings, the directors voted to establish a fund from the sale of their school to support the academy.

Contact Seth Berkman at berkman@forward.com


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