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The Funding Crisis In Our Day Schools

“The Jewish Academy will shut its doors after 13 years, the fourth day school to close in Suffolk County due of a lack of students.” The story in The New York Jewish Week is heartbreaking, as is the Canadian Jewish News article, “Parents, Community Concerned over Associated’s Potential Closing.” Three Jewish day schools in Toronto are going out of business; four schools on Long Island. Jewish day schools in non-Haredi Jewish America are shutting down. Why? Too few students. Why? Too expensive.

Can the American Jewish community afford to lose its future? As Americans, we need doctors; we fund medical schools. We need an educated citizenry; we fund public schools. As a Jews, we need ardent, committed, knowledgeable leaders – we need to fund our day schools. The research is clear: Jewish day schools produce Jewish leaders – not alone, not exclusively – but in sufficient numbers to demonstrate their unequivocal value.

Will the leadership of the American Jewish community step up to halt the catastrophic demise of non-Haredi day schools before it is too late? The Jewish future does not lie with those who reject modernity, the English language and interaction with the larger world. It resides with the children who must be given the opportunity learn Jewish history, the Hebrew language, our traditions and prayers, our ideals and ethics, in a Jewish environment that also prepares them for life in the 21st century. Will our Federations — the guardians of our community’s trust — finally recognize their responsibility to our Jewish future?

Schools cannot operate without a stable source of funding. Tuition does not sustain a school and Jewish day schools do not have the endowments of selective private schools. Community support is essential and that support must be generous, open-handed and given with pride, not reservation or resentment. The Jewish Federations of North America defines itself as “the central address of North American Jewry,” and proudly asserts that it manages $16 billion in endowment assets, raises over $900 million through its campaigns, and distributes over $2 billion from its endowments and foundations. Yet review of the mission statements of Federations from around the country reveals that their priorities have historically been central agencies, JCCs, Hillels, youth movements, adult education and summer camps.

Jewish day schools have been notably absent from the Federation agenda. The 1990 report A Time to Act spelled it out:

“The Jewish community has not yet recognized the indispensable role it must play in order for Jewish education to achieve its goal. Community leaders have often failed to make the connection between the educational process and the knowledge that leads to commitment. It is this lack of understanding that has prevented the top community leadership in North America from rallying to the cause of Jewish education in the same way it has to other pressing needs of the Jewish people.”

It further stated that “as a result, the environment in the Jewish community is not sufficiently supportive of the massive investment required to bring about systemic change. This affects the priority given to Jewish education, the status of the field of Jewish education, and the level of funding that is granted. Inevitably, insufficient community support limits the aspirations, inhibits the vision, and stifles the creativity of those involved in all aspects of Jewish education.”

A 1995 study by Steven Cohen, which found that “all forms of Jewish education, except Sunday school, are associated with higher levels of Jewish identity” and that “the putative effects of day school, including non-Orthodox day schools, are especially pronounced,” was largely ignored. And a 1997 study by PEJE found that on average, local federations provide only 5% of the funds needed to educate a child in day school.

The time has come for Federations to take day school education off the back burner, to champion it, to support it, to see it for what it is: the guarantor of a Jewish future. The old dual enrollment model of public school plus Hebrew school is no longer viable for the Jewish community of the 21st century. If American Judaism is to have a future, it must be one founded upon the advantages, both educational and social, that day schools offer. Synagogues are no longer the most important institutions for socializing the young into the Jewish community (not enough people belong), nor are JCCs (not enough Jews belong) or Jewish camps (not enough time is spent there).

The best and most effective model for imparting Jewish values, Jewish content and Jewish spirituality to the young are day schools, with their day to day immersion in Jewish thought, history, ethics, prayer, Hebrew and Torah. The data are in and the results are clear: Jewish day schools make a difference; their graduates are more involved Jewishly than any other cohort; their commitment to Jewish life is stronger and their influence on the larger Jewish community is greater. It is time that the Federation movement recognized and acted upon the need to sustain, support and champion Jewish day schools — not just with words, but with meaningful dollars. Because, as Peter Beinart wrote in a recent book review, “When American Jews were more ghettoized, Jewish continuity did not require Jewish learning. Today, when Jewish continuity is a choice, it does.”

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