Rafi Eis
Rafi Eis

Jewish Day School: Our Children, Our Future

In a challenging  essay, Yigal Gross argues that we can solve the day school affordability crisis by having students attend public school in the morning followed by afternoon Judaic learning at the local day school.  While he does not put a number on it, such a model would probably be about 40% less than current tuition- an incredible savings indeed!

Throughout the essay, the reader feels his angst as he imagines having to pay high school tuition for his children that will likely be at least $30,000 per child, per year. He is correct that we need to find solutions to this crisis and that too many organizational efforts have led to close to zero results.  Tuition is higher now than it was 9 years ago when affordability became a central issue in the Jewish community.

At the most basic level, the affordability crisis is not an educational crisis; it is an economic crisis. The economic challenge is not central to what school is about, but rather it is a critical secondary issue to the function of our schools.  This means that we should do whatever we can to keep education at the same level while investing our efforts in cutting costs and raising revenues.  My own energies have been focused on bringing Blended Learning to Jewish day schools to cut costs, but it is primarily because I believe in the educational value of standards and instantaneous data analysis in helping teachers educate.

Mr. Gross essentially proposes that American Jews return to the Talmud Torah model that saw its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, where students would go to their local public school in the morning and then go to their local synagogue for lessons in Judaic studies.  Dr. Jack Wertheimer thoroughly documents the failure of the supplementary education model.  While Mr. Gross proposes a better version of the supplementary school model, his Talmud Torah 2.0 idea will suffer from the same devastating shortcomings:

  1. Perception- any school that describes itself or is described by the community as supplementary or secondary will be viewed as such by students.  It will be less impactful in forming Jewish identity. Many schools emphasize the importance of Judaic studies by beginning the day with it.
  2. School Values- public school does not just impart secular studies’ skills and information.  While math is basically utilitarian and is universally applied, literature, history, and some sections of science are filled with life values that come into conflict with Jewish values.  What does a student learn from Aldous Huxley’s A Brave New World or Alice Walker’s The Color Purple?  In the study of ancient civilizations, does the Jewish story play a role, or are students taught that the history in Tanach should be relegated to myth and that Tanach has little to say about power and politics?  When students are taught sex-ed, reproduction, and the creation of the world, the Jewish view will be absent. Catholics started their own school network because they understood that public schools were transmitting Protestant values.  We can now state that public schools transmit secular values.  A Jewish day school chooses its curriculum and how it will deal with conflicting values. Further, a Modern Orthodox Day School has the opportunity to teach Torah U’Madda as an ideal!  We believe that Torah inspires us to be a blessing to all the nations.  Aside from math, secular studies are filled with values, and a Jewish day school has the opportunity to teach them as General studies, instead of secular studies.  We are even able to create an integrated curriculum where students can read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter while also looking at Jewish perspectives on repentance.
  3. School Culture-  from officially sanctioned school events like sports games and the prom to informal weekend parties, public school social events constantly pull at the hearts of students.  The social dynamics and experiences of public school create an existential cognitive dissonance in students.  A Jewish day school has a more homogeneous group of students restricting a non-religious social pull at a time when forming an identity is so real and present in their lives.
  4. Tests and Grades- the academic pressures of school are immense.  A main reason day schools gives grades in Judaic studies is for students to perceive their importance and give it the attention it deserves. Students will view as important that which receives grades and that which requires them to stretch a little more than usual.  If a student has an important test coming up, s/he will skip the non-graded Judaic course. This already happens in day schools that don’t test Judaic studies.
  5. Tefilla- Jewish day schools devote a significant amount of time in teaching the meaning, values, experiences, and choreography of davening. Given that this is at the beginning of the day, the Talmud Torah model would have to provide a way of providing tefilah.
  6. Time- There is no way a supplementary school can provide the same amount of Judaic learning.  If public high school ends at 2:30, the Judaic learning can begin at 3 at the earliest, if the schools are close in proximity.  If the Jewish high school day ends at 5:30, we are at 10 hours per week.  Many Orthodox Jewish high school schools currently provide 12 hours per week (an additional 20%) of Judaic studies in addition to Hebrew language and tefilla, per year.  This extra time acts as compounded interest.  At the  elementary and middle school levels, where the end times of public school and Jewish day school are closer, the amount of Judaic studies time is even less.

In his presentation, Mr. Gross makes a number of analogies and arguments that misrepresent the nature of Jewish day school:

  1. French fries and restaurants- we expect a wide variety of choice from a fast food establishment and want an upscale restaurant to have a specific menu that engages our palate in a particular way.  Should Jewish day school be like a fast food restaurant where people choose what they want or are we trying to cultivate a deep and profound experience of Avodat HaShem?  Should we even be making this comparison at all?  The output of a restaurant is the food they make and the revenues they generate.  For some restaurants, the revenues are primary, for others, the culinary experience is primary.  In expecting the restaurant to just serve him fries, Mr. Gross views the restaurant through an economic lens.  Jewish education is about shaping identity and inspiring lives.
  2. College choice and day school choice- Mr. Gross compares the range of choices that families make in choosing a college for their children, like in choosing secular college instead of Yeshiva University, to the choices that families should have in choosing to K-12 education, by giving them the option to choose a public school-day school hybrid instead of full day school.  Yet, it is the same families that are choosing to send their children to secular college that are also choosing to send their children to K-12 Jewish day school, even though public school exists and is free.  These parents correctly believe that children are more vulnerable through adolescence, and afterward can take on greater academic and societal challenges.
  3. Jewish say school and charitable giving- in Yoreh Deah 249:16, the Shulchan Aruch states that Jewish education takes a higher priority than building a shul and than other charities.  The idea that we should invest less in Jewish day school to promote charitable giving to a wider diversity of charities goes against the Shulchan Aruch.

Making Jewish day school affordable is a holy endeavor that lacks an easy or obvious solution. Keeping Jewish education at its current level, and figuring out ways to make it better is our first priority; making it affordable is a close second. As we go through this uncertain process of making Jewish education affordable, we need to remember that Jewish education plays such a central role in our religion that as God describes his reason to distinguish Avraham, he states, “For I have singled him out, that he may instruct his children and his posterity to keep the way of the LORD by doing what is just and right” (Genesis 18:19).

About the Author
Rabbi Rafi Eis is the Executive Director at the Herzl Institute.
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