The American Jewish day school system has failed in epic proportions. And no, I am not talking about tuition costs. We don’t talk about our dirty secret much, but in the U.S., no more than six percent of the non-Orthodox Jewish student population attends a Jewish school. No other Western country with a sizable Jewish population even approaches such low rates of Jewish day school attendance.

There is significant evidence that day schools are a strong vehicle in promoting Jewish continuity for the non-Orthodox. Such Jews are less likely to inter-date[1], more likely to be Jewishly involved[2], and more likely to provide tomorrow’s Jewish leadership. (40% of today’s young Jewish leaders attended Jewish day schools.) Even amongst the non-Orthodox, they have much lower rates of intermarriage and higher rates of joining communities and studying Torah. Parents with limited Jewish background are often the ones who grow the most through the Jewish content their children receive.[3] No alternative model can do this. Sunday School has been shown to be ineffective in preventing intermarriage[4] and may even do the opposite.[5]

Yet, in the USA, the last five years have actually seen a drop in non-Orthodox enrollment.[6] Between 1997 and 2003, Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE) invested $65 million to help the establishment of sixty Jewish elementary and middle schools throughout North America[7]. The results: the number of non-Orthodox students attending Jewish day schools actually went down by 5-6%![8]

Only 12% of Americans attend day school, compared with 50% in Toronto, 90% in Mexico, 85%-90% in South Africa, 30% in France and 65% in England. The figures for the USA look even worse when we take the Orthodox out of the mix. Only three to four percent of the non-Orthodox attend such schools, amounting to 38,630 students in 2008, an abysmally low figure. Many Conservative schools have closed in the first years of the 21st century.[9]

The standard Orthodox models are also only showing traction in very select communities today. The Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva no longer sees this as its primary model for its generally highly idealistic and committed graduates. Torah U’mesorah has limited options in terms of new schools[10]. The most obvious places now have Jewish day schools and money is tight.

Large numbers of the non-affiliated will pay high tuition for the education they want. And in fact, there may be more Reform Jews in high-tuition private schools than there are in Jewish day schools. But high tuition will also make parents super-critical of any deficiencies such a school might have.[11] Many parents want a Jewish education but not as much as they want other things. The “perfect” school will win out over the Jewish school.[12] And, in a world of 50% intermarriage, some of those other things include embracing the exposure of our children to other faiths and cultures[13] as opposed to homogeneity, ghettoization and parochialism. They wonder why they can’t send their kids to elite prep schools where there is a high percentage of Jews anyhow.

Then there is always the possibility of the child becoming more observant: “I fear becoming isolated from my child, the possibility that this education, while obviously good for her, might pull her away from me.”[14]

While we cannot easily counter these kinds of attitudes, there is much we can do. Almost everything on the short list below has been discussed before. However, this is not a pick and choose menu. If we want to change things we have to include all of these elements. Parents will knock out the Jewish option if it lacks even one of the elements below:

1. A Vision of our Graduates:

Many schools do not start with the end in mind. They do not develop a common vision that all the staff in the school has of what their graduates should be like. How Jewish will they be? What values will they have? What kind of an education will lead to that result? One has to ensure complete vertical integration of that ideal. Even thoughtful teachers, who know where they want to get their children at the end of the year, cannot alone provide a compelling and integrated educational vision which in turn impacts on their teaching and all other aspects of the school.

2. Judaism as Values:

Torah needs to be presented as something inspiring and empowering. It should be seen as a set of values and not just as a set of traditions. The focus should be on relevance and meaning rather than on information. Children need to know how they will grow from their Judaism, how they will develop their characters and become better, more spiritual, people who will live more meaningful lives. The message of Jewish schools ought to be: “Send your child to us for 12 years, and he or she will come out with the core of 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom.” We need a “Jewish Great Books” program, showcasing our great spiritual and intellectual history. [15] We should promise to teach our youth a Jewish approach to the contemporary issues of the day. Graduates of Jewish day schools should be able to answer fundamental questions about their Jewish identity like: Why be Jewish? What does it mean to be a good person? How do we define human nature? What is man’s relationship to the earth, and a Jew’s relationship with non-Jews? How should we organize society? What is the meaning of science? How does Judaism help me to fulfill my potential? What is the Jewish system of growth? What does Simcha really mean, or Tzniut for that matter, and how does this understanding make me a better person? Do we know what the Rambam, Rav Yosef Albo, the Ramchal, the Vilna Gaon or the Baal HaTanya have to say about these issues? Do we walk out with any sense of just how comprehensive their grasp was, not only of the Torah, but of how the Torah applies to the world?[16]

There is no shortage of resource aid, of lesson plans, of syllabi, of high-tech and online support provided by an array of different organizations to assist in developing such a vision. And make no mistake, many principals have been able to overcome the day-to-day overwhelm of running of their schools to focus on these core issues.

3. Judaism as Empowerment:

Jewish learning can never be seen by the secular parent as something done at the expense of empowerment to deal with the world; rather it should be viewed as an enhancement.[17] Jewish learning should be made synergetic with general learning. For example, if the biology class is dealing with the eco-system, the Jewish studies teacher will give a project researching the Torah’s attitude to this. The two are not integrated, but the child gets a sense that Judaism has something profound to say about every issue in the world.

4. Communicate Successes:

Even where “excellence of relevance” has been achieved in Torah studies, we have failed to present the benefits of studying the wisdom of Judaism to non-Orthodox parents. Principals have to get out of their four walls and cultivate community relations (beyond strictly fundraising goals) through the local press, Federation, JCC and kindergarten feeder schools, and other avenues. Schools have to track and then communicate the successes of their graduates. Creating the right reputation amongst the targeted audience rather than the current body of students and their parents has to drive their admissions policy.

5. Interpersonal Excellence:

The reputation of any Jewish day school has to include a culture of interpersonal excellence. Parents have sometimes felt that Jewish day schools provide a values-set of entitlement, lack of respect and materialistic values that endangers rather than encourages the type of Judaism they want for their kids.

6. Extracurricular Activities:

In one instance, parents who sent their children to a community Jewish day school[18] said that the clincher for them were the extracurricular activities. This particular school has an Israel trip in 12th grade, a Poland trip, a moot Beit Din and a mock trial (overseen by real judges and taking place in real courts), sports and drama.

7. Cutting-Edge Secular Studies:

Unfortunately, the Jewish element, while important, is the less critical to recruitment than cutting-edge secular education. Perception has as much to do with the issue as reality. While graduates of Jewish schools do get into the best colleges in three of the most vital areas – math, science, and computer literacy – Jewish high school alumni from both Orthodox and non-Orthodox backgrounds perceived that they were significantly less well-prepared as compared with both public and private high school peers. [19] Although none of this limited the career choice of the students, the perception does impact on the readiness of parents to send their kids to these schools.

There are many best practices out there that can easily be copied. One school has outsourced its computer teaching to a local university that comes to the school.[20] There are now schools that have invited Ort into their schools to do the same. Many Chabad kindergartens in America compete by going Montessori.

8. Parental belonging:

Interestingly, parents are concerned not only about their children’s education, but also about their own sense of belonging in the school community. They should be able to see the school as an institution that offers opportunities for adult community, adult learning, and adult religious expression.

Will this be enough for those Orthodox Day Schools that are kiruv-friendly to get tons more unaffiliated through the door? Will we be able to start tens of new schools based on this model and fill them up? For most non-Orthodox Jewish parents, sending their kids to an Orthodox school is not an option; but they are willing to send to community day schools whose Jewish studies are run by Orthodox teachers. In fact, although there has been a drop in enrollment of the non-Orthodox overall, enrollment in community schools in the recent past has risen by a whopping 20%, mainly in the 2008-9 academic year.[21] 98 of the 802 Jewish schools in the USA are community day schools.[22]

To understand this success, take Weber High School in Atlanta. Weber is a community high school with a total of 220 kids. About 10-15% of these are Orthodox, 50% Conservative, 10% Traditional and 30% Reform. Although there is davening for Orthodox, Conservative and Reform offered every morning, the Jewish studies are taught by passionately frum teachers with good results. The non-Orthodox go to Weber because the school gives an excellent secular and Jewish education. And they pay an arm and a leg to do so.[23] And yes, the school is very well-endowed. For the non-Orthodox parents, Weber is not just a good school. It provides an overall better educational enrichment package than any non-Jewish school can provide! It gives the lie to the attitude that such schools, being smaller, cannot compete with the range of services provided by the best government and private schools.

While I do not believe that an Orthodox body can endorse a community school which is officially pluralistic, we ought to be looking at what parts of the model can be adopted. The most problematic part is prayer. It is possible to do away with school prayer altogether, and have students daven at home. In any case, for the non-affiliated, school prayer is rarely an inspiring experience. Shabatonim can be strictly Mitzvah-observant. The Shabaton policy of The Abraham Joshua Heschel Jewish community day school in Manhattan is similar to the policies of many outreach organizations.[24] (And while Heschel is not a normative community day school in terms of its fees and clientele, it does have a waiting list, which is my point.)

In San Antonio, the local community day school[25] is publicly committed to teaching “historical, traditional Judaism,” rather than any particular “modern” branch of Judaism — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist. In practice, it means that tefilot and many other practices of the School are Orthodox. All boys and male teachers wear kipot at all times.

And finally…

9. Create Outreach Organizations Around Schools:

If these schools are run by people who have a serious interest in the Jewish growth of their students, one could add another winning component. Examples from around the world have shown that even a bare-bones Jewish school which allows its students access to kiruv organizations will produce good results in terms of Jewish observance. In all of these cases, there are kiruv organizations at a college level to “catch” these students after they graduate and provide continuity of experience. It is enough that these schools keep the souls of their students “Jewishly warm” with a positive attitude towards Judaism and allow them contact with outside organizations.

Skeptics may say I am dreaming, especially since I have not addressed the funding issue. But, I am a great believer of gaining traction on an idea and then looking at the finances. Funders will support a clear vision in ways that surprise us again and again. In the meantime, we cannot leave it to each school to reinvent the wheel on each of the issues above. We need a national vision and a national message. It’s time to get together.

[1] The Impact of Day School: A Comparative Analysis of Jewish College Students, Fern Chertok M.A. , Leonard Saxe Ph.D. , Charles Kadushin Ph.D. , Annette Koren Ph.D. , Graham Wright , Aron Klein,  May 2007.

[2]  Day school students on campus colleges are shown to participate in Jewish activities, worship services, and Jewish studies courses in much higher percentages than their peers from public and private school backgrounds. They self-report greater knowledge of Israel, and they stay connected to Judaism and other Jews on campus. As expected, many of these effects are strongest for Orthodox students but are also reflected in the attitudes and behavior of day school students from non-Orthodox backgrounds. See also:

[3] Alex Pomson and Randal F. Shnoor orginally did their study on twenty-eight sets of parents at the Paul Penna Downtown Jewish Day School (DJDS), a nondenominational Jewish elementary school in Toronto. They subsequently wrote, Back to School: Jewish Day School in the Lives of Adult Jews.  Pomson and Schnoor then expanded their study to include two other day schools in Toronto and four in “Centerville,” an anonymous Midwestern city in the United States. The results for these seven schools that ranged across the denominational spectrum were fairly consistent irrespective of size or newness.

[4] The study also found that attending congregational school two or more times a week hardly decreases students’ chances of intermarrying.

[5] Steven M. Cohen (2007), research professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, based on data collected in the National Jewish Population Survey of 2000-01. Cohen finds that the likelihood of intermarriage increases by up to 9 percentage points among students who attend once-a-week programs in comparison to those who don’t receive any Jewish schooling. (The pool of students was controlled for factors such as family upbringing and other sources of Jewish education.) The author, Steven M. Cohen surmises that, since Sunday schools – an education option almost exclusively offered by the Reform denomination – have large numbers of children of intermarriage, and those who are in general distant from Judaism, they may actually reinforce the legitimacy of intermarriage and the distance from Jewish life.

[6]  During the 1990s, day school enrollment among community and non-Orthodox day schools rose by nearly 25 percent. (1999 AVI CHAI census of American Jewish day schools) But then, in 2008-9, Marvin Schick for AVI CHAI found a 2.5 percent drop in non-Orthodox enrollment over the previous five years. This was despite a nearly 20 percent jump  in 98 community schools, which then more or less leveled off.  Over the last five years, the Solomon Schechter Day School Network lost 25 percent of its students. The Reform movement currently has approximately 4,000 children enrolled in 13 day schools affiliated with the movement, down from the 4,569 in 17 schools in 2008-09 reported by AVI CHAI. The overall effect is a “modest but gradual attrition in non-Orthodox enrollment,” according to Marvin Schick.

[7] It then decided that the market for new day schools was saturated, and shifted its focus.

[8]  Marvin Schick began his census reports in the 1998-99 school year.  However, what is also important is that Schick found that between 1998 and 2008, the number of students in community, Reform and Solomon Schechter (Conservative) Jewish day schools increased slightly from 36,897 to 38,630 students, before dropping.

[9] The number of Schechter schools has shrunk to 43 — down from 63 in 1998. Combined enrollment is now at 11,338, representing a 35% drop during that same time period. In recent years, five schools once affiliated with Schechter have left the network for the Ravsak Jewish Community Day School Network which has about 120 members. One of those schools has since closed its doors. In addition, in 2012, after 40 years in operation, the Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School (a Schechter school) in New City, N.Y. shut its doors due to plummeting enrollment.

[10] Torah U’Mesorah is still engaged in the business of helping new schools – Portland comes to mind. But, the number of such initiatives can be counted on one hand.

[15] There have been attempts to define such a program by non-Orthodox sources and the result has been lists of what I would call non-Jewish works by Jews. Amongst these is The Soul of the Text (Avi Chai  in collaboration with the Great Books Foundation) Ruth Wisse , The Modern Jewish Canon (20th century works) and “The 100 Greatest Works of Modern Hebrew Literature ” by  the National Yiddish Book Center.

[16] For some of these ideas from a non-Orthodox perspective, see Jonah Cohen in:

[17] There is, of course, the flipside to this: the attitude of many Orthodox principles of Jewish schools that the secular studies are a necessary evil forced upon the school by the state.

[18] Weber Community Day School in Atlanta. More on this school lower down.

[20] Magen Avot in Mexico City.

[21]  Marvin Schick: A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2008–2009 for Avi Chai.

[22] ibid.

[23] Weber does provide scholarships.

[24] Heschel’s “Shabbaton code”, adherence to which is obligatory for all participants, prohibits the usage of electricity and musical instruments in public places and encourages students not to use electronic devices at all during the Shabbat.

[25] The Jonathan Netanyahu Academy, or J.N.A.

2 Responses to “The Real Jewish Day School Crisis”

  1. Heshy Glass

    My compliments on your timely and important article. Each of your 9 points are critical for successful schools. After a 34 year career as a principal of Yeshiva day schools , I have the privilege to be associated with the Consortium of Jewish day schools, an organization that is committed to the betterment of schools. We have a skills based Chumash curriculum currently in 93 schools and have established professional training programs for school principals. As important as your 9 points are , the leaders of our schools need the training and programs to effectively run these complex institutions. Perhaps a group of principals should meet and discuss practical strategies that relate to your points.

  2. A.M.

    The Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva no longer sees this as its primary model for its generally highly idealistic and committed graduates.

    What is the source for this assertion? Could you elaborate, please?

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)