Elchanan Poupko

Urgent Letter to New York’s Jewish Community

Illustrative: The Empire State Building in New York City, November 14, 2022. (AP Photo/Julia Nikhinson, File)

I recently started teaching in a school experiencing a 10%-20% growth in its student body. The school is not in New York. This is not an unheard-of phenomenon. Jewish Day Schools in Florida have been experiencing extraordinary growth, as have schools in many other communities. With the Orthodox community’s growth rate, it is natural for Jewish Day Schools to be expanding and growing their student body. Schools are being opened and expanded. Yet the one ubiquitous exception to this is New York City. New York Jews would be hard-pressed to name a school that opened or significantly grew in New York City in the past 50 years, and that is a serious problem.

It is no secret that since 2019, New York has been losing much of its Jewish community to Florida, Connecticut, and other parts of the US. If there are not enough students, you might ask, what is the point of adding new schools or classrooms?

The answer is that there needs to be more space for the community to grow. Getting children into schools in New York is a difficult process and leaves some to other schools. While countless members of New York’s Jewish community have gone to Florida, Connecticut, and other community schools with little to no problems enrolling in school, getting kids into school, and especially high school, is a difficult and disheartening experience and keeps too many people out. There is no way to justify the fact that Jewish schools outside New York are eagerly adding sections, wings, and classrooms to accommodate influxes into their community while New York parents are begging to get their children into school in what is still America’s largest and wealthiest Jewish community.

Jewish life in New York goes all the way back to 1654 when Jacob Barsimon arrived, followed by many millions of Jews for whom New York was the gate into the new world. It would still be a critical mistake to take Jewish life in this city for granted. If New York’s Jewish community does not take very concrete steps to expand and support Jewish education in New York, we will see synagogues continuing to shrink, friends and family continue to move out, and eventually, large Jewish organizations that lean on New York’s Jewish community, becoming weaker and smaller.

With Florida offering school vouchers of eight thousand dollars per child and Pennsylvania inching in the same direction, anyone who is thinking seriously about the future of Jewish life in New York must be thinking hard about education. Speaking from personal experience of getting kids into Jewish high schools, I will say it is a very unpleasant experience. Calling principals, lobbying for children, and begging administrators are all unpleasant experiences that show, above all, that we lack the infrastructure needed for a growing Jewish community in New York.

It is time for the UJA Federation, TeachNYS, philanthropists, foundations, rabbis, and community leaders to come together and address these hard questions. We must all make sure New York meets the standards of other Jewish communities in North America in which parents do not need to lose sleep over whether their child will even get into school before they even start worrying about tuition.

The United States has seen many cities with very large Jewish communities that have dwindled and moved elsewhere. The strongest predictor of the longevity and robustness of a Jewish community is the state of Jewish schools and education. Does New York’s Jewish community face the fate of disappearing? Probably not. Yet the idea that the world’s most philanthropic community can hardly make space for its own children and that it is not in a state of growth is a moral and historical tragedy in the making.

New York’s Jewish community has been at the forefront of some of the Jewish people’s greatest achievements. From being the first to answer Golda Meir’s call to help fund Israel’s establishment and defense in 1948 to the fight for Soviet Jewry, from feeding the needy to being the ones to establish America’s Day School movement, New York’s Jews have taken the lead. There is no substitute for a strong, growing, and robust Jewish community in New York. For that to continue to be a reality, it is time for New York’s Jewish community to address the great need to expand Jewish education in the city sooner rather than later.

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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