I am writing this post to appeal to those who have withdrawn, or are considering withdrawing, their charitable giving from university education to repurpose those charitable dollars into Jewish day schools and high schools.
Earlier generations of Jews may have deliberately foregone Jewish day schools and Jewish high schools, but the current state of public school instruction combined with a declining environment for Jewish students should encourage a revival of parochial education.
The first large wave of Jewish immigrants to the United States made a conscious decision to eschew Jewish day school education. Between 1820 and 1880, the bulk of Jewish immigrants arrived from the German Confederation and the Austrian Empire. Many of these Jews had suffered through the undoing of Jewish civil rights following Napoleon’s defeat, the failure of liberal revolutions in 1848 and nationalisms from which they were excluded, and desired to integrate into American culture. In 1855, the leading rabbis of traditional Judaism and of moderate Reform gathered together at the Cleveland Assembly under the banner of “Shalom Al Yisrael,” meaning “Peace upon Israel,” in an attempt to unify American Judaism. Despite their differences, the meeting closed with a stated position opposing Hebrew day schools, and instead supported sending children to public schools and supplementing their religious education with after school programming. This approach, of sending kids to public schools, was meant to be a step towards an acceptance that had been denied Jews in Europe and stood in contrast to the Catholic approach, as Catholics, fearful that anti-Catholic attitudes of Protestant teachers and students would lead to students abandoning their Catholic faith, built a network of schools that continues to operate until today.
The next larger wave of Jewish immigrants also did not set up an expansive Jewish educational system of day schools, and the children themselves may have paid the price for the failure to do so. The assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 set off a wave of pogroms against Jews within the Russian Empire and triggered a mass exodus of Jews to the United States. While these Jews were religiously more traditional than the German Jews who preceded them, they for the most part did not establish a wide network of Jewish day schools, and at least at the outset, opted instead to send their children to public schools for a few years before the children would join the workforce to help support their families. The 1910s saw a rise in American antisemitism that would last until the end of World War II and the magnitude of the Holocaust was better understood. This antisemitism manifested itself in discrimination in employment, housing and higher education, and as shown in the research of Stephen Norwood, in physical violence by Irish gangs and the Christian Front in cities such as Boston and New York. The lack of an extensive, independent network of Jewish schools likely left Jewish students in sub-optimal learning environments.
In the years following World War II, a general decline in antisemitism, a sense that Jews could achieve integration without public school education, and a shift in denominational patterns led to a spike in formal Jewish education. The Orthodox branch, at the time described as a “case study in institutional decay,” began a recovery process that has continued unabated, a recovery process in part driven by an expansive educational system. Conservative Judaism became the most prevalent form of Judaism, and this traditionally oriented branch expanded its footprint of parochial schools. In more recent decades, Reform Judaism, which had historically foregone private for public education, also began to open up a network of day schools.
This momentum has waned. As Jews have become increasingly integrated into American society, as Conservative Judaism has given way to Reform Judaism as the largest branch of American Judaism, and as the costs of private school education have risen sharply, attendance at these schools has dropped significantly. According to a report by the Jewish Education Project, enrollment in Hebrew schools fell by at least 45% between 2006 and 2020. Since the Great Recession, attendance at Conservative Jewish schools has plummeted and a good percentage of the Reform day schools in the United States and Canada have closed.
It is time to reverse this trend.
The last few decades have seen a rise in a national educational philosophy that diminishes and denigrates the Jewish experience and demonizes Israel as a colonizer and occupier, with Jews assumed to be connected to Israel. Recent weeks have shown that Jewish safety in schools cannot be assumed.
Reform Judaism has long retained an allegiance to the public school education that for generations served as the path to upward mobility, but in 2004, Dr. Michael Zeldin and Rabbi David Ellenson, President of HUC-IRJ, articulated the value of a Reform Jewish education, arguing that the Reform Jewish schools would do a better job imparting the “ethical-cultural-religious-national heritage that is Judaism” as a means of preparing children for their futures than the “ethically unsure American landscape and an excessively individualistic American society where traditional roots of identity are shallow and where traditional religious-moral values are frequently called into question.” As the American economy has seen a widening gap between the haves and have nots, the high cost of private school education has put it out of reach of many. Even accounting for denominational shifting, Conservative Jewish schools suffered a marked drop in attendance after the housing bubble burst in 2007-2008. In a similar vein, the built in assumption of a yeshiva education in the fast growing Orthodox segment is straining many families. Donors can help bridge the gap for those seeking a more hospitable educational environment.
Isolation from other ethnic and population groups need not be an impediment to success in life. Many of the most successful legal and financial firms in the United States were started by Jews who were excluded from “white shoe” firms. The entertainment industry was founded by Jews who could not enter more traditional companies. When in the early part of the century quotas were placed on Jews at the country’s leading universities, Jews attended CUNY schools and went on to earn 13 of the 14 Nobel Prizes awarded to CUNY graduates.
Just as one does not raise a sapling in a storm, Jewish students should not be left to an educational environment that attacks their history and very being. There are plenty of outlets for Jewish educational charity across the denominations, including Prizmah, Solomon Schechter, Chabad, Torah Umesorah, individual schools and many others with which this author is unfamiliar. The North American Jewish community has been blessed with resources that were unavailable to our destitute forebears of the late 19th century. From this position of strength, now is an opportune time to give these students a better chance.