Featured Post

Yeshiva day schools: Give parents a choice

To solve the sky-high cost of Jewish education, offer a part time option with public school covering secular studies

I love French fries.

A while ago, at a certain restaurant, when I placed an order for French fries, my waiter politely informed me that I could not order just French fries. The restaurant had a policy that customers could only order French fries if they ordered the most expensive dish on the menu — the steak — which came with French fries.

Needless to say, I was not happy. I did not want a steak and, even if I did, I could not afford it. I had only $10 in my pocket.

I told the waiter that if my only choice at this restaurant was to pay for an expensive meal to get my French fries, then I would have to go to a different restaurant.

Not wanting to lose a customer, the waiter offered to consult his manager to see what could be done.

Suppose that you are the manager and that you want to keep the customer. What would you do?

Would you give the customer a voucher for a 25% discount on the steak? Would you offer a “no-frills” steak with blander spicing so that the steak is cheaper? Or would you have other restaurant customers pay more for their steaks so that I can pay less for mine?

Your solution is probably none of these things.

Sure, each solution eases the customer’s problem (the steak costs less). But no solution directly addresses the fundamental problem — the customer never wanted the steak in the first place.

Our yeshiva day schools are like the restaurant in this story. Parents send their children to yeshiva day schools to obtain a Jewish education. The problem is that yeshiva day schools require parents who want to give their children a Jewish education to also buy a “steak” — an elite secular program. And that package-deal is what makes yeshiva day schools so expensive.

This piece, the follow up to my recent discussion of the financial and non-financial costs of yeshiva day schools, proposes what I respectfully submit is a relatively simple and intuitive solution to this fundamental flaw in the yeshiva day school model. Put in place, it would radically alleviate yeshiva day school costs without compromising our children’s Jewish education, and potentially make that education more effective and lasting.

That solution is for yeshiva day schools to alter their schedules in a way that allows parents to choose to either send their children to yeshiva day school for a full-day program (Jewish studies and secular studies) at full cost, or to send their children to yeshiva day school for a part-day program (Jewish studies only) at dramatically lower cost. Students opting into the part-day program could utilize their local public schools for secular studies.

Just like, in the restaurant, the simple and effective solution is to just let the customer order the fries.

School choice that Isn’t

When my wife and I were looking for a community in which to settle, many people gave us tips on what to look for. Easy commute. Kosher shopping. Young families. And, of course, good schools to choose from.

“School choice” is a term that one hears often in our community, and it seems almost self-evident that Orthodox parents have “choices” and “choose” to send their children to Yeshiva day schools.

But do they?

One’s choice is only as real as one’s possibilities. When “possibilities” are remote or terrible, one does not really have a choice. Sure, a person who pays to avoid an injury could technically have opted for the injury. Was the decision to pay a choice? Of course not.

In Orthodox circles, to be sure, parents can find choices within the day school model — day schools that instruct in Hebrew, day schools that incorporate technology, even day schools that have no walls—but there is no alternative to the model itself, to the full “steak-and-fries” package. Yes, Orthodox parents could theoretically opt to educate their children through a combination of public school and non-Orthodox supplemental Jewish educational programs. But in our deeply judgmental Orthodox community, which parent wants to stigmatize their children as somehow “tainted” by educating them outside the fold? And which supplemental programs come even close to the quality of our Yeshiva day schools?

Those who doubt that communal stigma drives day school enrollment should consider that although the vast majority of Orthodox children attend Yeshiva day schools, the trend reverses itself at the college level. Although American Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox high schools enroll approximately 11,000 students, only 2,800 students (and that number includes a substantial number of international students and students who did not attend Yeshiva day school) attend Yeshiva University[1], the largest and closest equivalent of the yeshiva day school model for Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox Jews at the college level. Why, when it comes to college, are things so different?

It is not because Yeshiva University is less academically rigorous or prestigious than secular alternatives. Yeshiva University is ranked 52nd among national universities — comparable with other elite universities that Jewish college students attend like New York University (32nd ), Brandeis (34th), and University of Maryland (57th) and certainly better than city and state schools like Queens College and Binghamton University.[2]

It is also not because Yeshiva University is particularly selective. Yeshiva University’s rate of admission (81.8%)[3] actually far exceeds that of its peers and even that of substantially lower ranking schools like Temple University (115th, 61.7%)[4] and Ohio University (135th, 74.3%).[5] Indeed, it even exceeds that of the University of Colorado (199th, 73%), the lowest ranked University on US News’s list!

It seems to make little sense that parents opt to send their children to lower ranked schools than the yeshiva day school alternative — until one considers the cost. It costs approximately $41,000 a year (without room and board) to send a child to Yeshiva University[6]. University of Maryland costs approximately $17,000 a year for non-Maryland residents and as little as $6,000 a year for Maryland residents.[7] Binghamton University costs approximately $9,000 for New York residents and $24,000 for non-residents.[8] And Queens College costs approximately $6,300 for New York residents.[9]

At the college level, when there is no communal standard for educating Orthodox children, parents finally have a real choice, and can make a decision that is financially sound without being marginalized for it. Our community needs to look honestly at what Orthodox parents do when they have that choice — they overwhelmingly reject the Yeshiva day school model — and, like the restaurant manager in the story, we need to ask ourselves if a “steak-and-fries” package should really be the only choice on the menu.

The benefits of letting parents just order the fries

Providing parents with a choice between a part-day program and a full-day program entails a simple request of yeshiva day schools, which they should be able to accommodate relatively quickly and at minimal expense. That’s because all of the infrastructure and resources for offering a choice already exist.

To offer a part-day option, yeshiva day schools would need to adjust their schedules so that secular classes are taught in the morning and early afternoon (when public schools are in session) and Judaic classes are taught in the later afternoon (after public school hours). Parents could elect to enroll their children for a full-day yeshiva day school program. Alternatively, children could enroll in a part-day program where they attend the same yeshiva day school classes as their full-day peers in the afternoon, but utilize the free secular education offered by their local public schools in the morning.

There are logistical challenges associated with a part-day option — transporting children between schools, aligning schedules between the public schools and Yeshiva day schools so that students can move from one program to another, all while ensuring that Jewish elements of the day, like morning prayers, are not lost in the shuffle — but none of those challenges is insurmountable. There are also environmental challenges and we will discuss them later in this piece.

Some may argue that allowing parents to choose between a full-day program and a part-day Jewish-studies-only program would destroy the yeshiva day school system. It would not; just like a fries-only option does not entail closing a restaurant.

First, there will always be parents who, for legitimate educational and religious reasons, prefer to have their children educated in a private school environment. All the more so when yeshiva day schools’ secular programs are excellent. Undoing the “steak-and-fries” package may make the full-day option more expensive, but some parents’ desire for a full-day option should not come at the expense of, or entirely preclude, the equally legitimate right of parents with different preferences to have a more cost-effective option, where they utilize Yeshiva days schools for Jewish education only.

Second, and more fundamentally, offering parents a choice is designed to make our use of our yeshiva day schools more efficient and sustainable, not replace yeshiva day schools. Let us be absolutely clear—the institutions that our community has worked so hard to build are outstanding and our community does not need to and absolutely should not abandon them. Moreover, we do not need to scale back our children’s curricular and extracurricular options to make these institutions affordable. On the contrary. Offering parents a choice can offer our children unparalleled educational opportunities and profoundly enhance our collective communal experience.

Here is why.

  1. Simplicity.

Many ideas have been proposed for addressing yeshiva day schools’ costs, including state-funded vouchers, no-frills schools, communal subsidies and various cost-saving and synergistic initiatives. All are helpful and, some, downright brilliant. Nevertheless, in the final analysis, none actually address the model’s inherent flaw (the package-deal); they merely alleviate the symptoms of that flaw (the expense). Offering parents a choice addresses the model’s flaw directly and, in so doing, offers extraordinary promise from a cost-savings perspective.

It is also an easier solution to implement. Creating the option requires no legislation or lobbying; implementing the solution entails no legal battles; and sustaining the solution requires no financial outlay by our community. Our local public schools already exist and, as citizens, we can use them as a matter of right. There are logistical challenges with utilizing those schools for part of the day and yeshiva day schools for another part of the day, but those challenges pale in comparison to the challenges that alternative solutions present, and can certainly be overcome.

2. Control.

The part-day option stands for the principle that we as a community have the resources and infrastructure to solve this problem and should do it ourselves rather than look to others to do it for us. Other solutions outsource our community’s problems to non-communal actors and require our community to depend on those actors to solve them. And that is problematic for the following reasons.

First, outsourcing our problems presents practical challenges. Vouchers, for example, require politicians to craft and fight for legislation and courts to uphold such legislation. And successfully lobbying for tuition assistance legislation is not an easy feat for Jewish organizations to achieve. In our current climate of historical political deadlock[10] and in the face of opposition from powerful special interest groups, such as teachers’ unions who oppose any state support of private schools[11], Jewish organizations face incredible odds in getting such politically-charged solutions through Albany, Trenton and/or Washington. As one senior member of a major Jewish organization’s Jewish tuition task force put it to me, “‘vouchers’ is a dirty word in political circles.”

Nevertheless, our organizations are trying hard. The Orthodox Union, one of the most powerful and politically savvy Jewish communal organizations in the United States, for example, has dedicated millions of dollars and retained professional political consultants in a campaign to increase government funding for Jewish day schools in the metropolitan area.[12] It has partnered with Jewish day schools in jurisdictions outside the metropolitan area.[13] It has published scholarly position papers on American educational policy[14]. Nevertheless, despite these extraordinary and commendable efforts over the course of years and in states with large Jewish populations, Yeshiva day school costs have not only persisted, but gotten worse.

The second problem with outsourcing is one of principle. The United States Constitution’s tenth amendment provides that all power not expressly granted by the Constitution to the federal government is reserved for the states. And the Constitution’s limitation on our central government’s reach was imposed not merely to curtail potential tyranny, but out of the belief, echoed by those like Nobel-prize winning economist Milton Friedman, that local government is better suited to address local issues. The same logic applies for communal issues. Solutions to our communal problems cannot and should not come from those outside of our community, who do not have our knowledge and sensitivity for those issues, when we have the means to effectively solve those problems ourselves. In the case of yeshiva day school costs, we do have the means. All we need is the communal will.

3. True Tuition Assistance.

Providing our children with a Jewish education is a core Jewish value, one that our community has long understood as not only an individual duty—it is a mitzvah for parents to educate their children—but as a communal duty. We believe that it is incumbent upon us all to ensure that a Jewish education is available to every Jewish child that desires it, regardless of financial means. That value is what drives Jewish schools, through the generosity of their parents and other community members, to subsidize tuition for all students who need assistance. And it is a value that works well when the subsidy is applied to a part-day program for Jewish studies.

That value does not work, however, when we are subsidizing a “package deal.” The value is not to subsidize an elite secular education. Our community would not assist parents in paying for the Trinity School or Dalton, two premier Manhattan private secular schools. The purpose of tuition assistance in our community is to provide our children with a Jewish education. That purpose should not change because a secular studies program is offered at the same physical location as Jewish classes.

The values problem with the “package deal” is compounded by the reality that, in a community with finite financial resources, communal funds devoted to one cause cannot be devoted to others. One of my friends, Rebecca Saidlower, correctly noted that an additional cost of the yeshiva day school system is that our community’s financial resources are being diverted from other worthy Jewish causes to support our Jewish day schools. That cost becomes acute when one considers that a large share of those funds are not underwriting another Jewish cause, but subsidizing a secular studies program.

The values problem with the “package deal” is compounded, moreover, by the fact that we already underwrite a secular studies program for all children in our tax-funded public schools. So the real question is: Why isn’t that enough? Since when did providing every Jewish child with an elite secular education become a communal responsibility? A part-day option limits tuition assistance to what it was intended for—Jewish education.

Some may argue that it is unfair that only children from wealthy families will be able to have an elite secular education. Such arguments, while not without merit, are beside the point. Yeshiva day schools were meant to provide Jewish children with a Jewish education, not right the societal wrong of wealth inequality. The best way to equalize secular educational opportunity—a noble and worthy goal—is by bolstering our public schools, which were designed for that purpose, rather than by “recreating the wheel” in our yeshiva day schools.

4. Prioritizing Jewish Education

Having separate institutions cater to Jewish studies and secular studies rather than one institution offering both, recognizes the reality that Jewish studies and secular studies are profoundly different. Jewish studies carry experiential and inspirational components that secular studies do not. Secular and religious courses require different teachers with different training. How we measure “success” in each is starkly different. To expect one institution to be excellent at both is a pretty tall task and, almost inevitably, one subject will become dominant and overshadow the other.

A Jewish studies-only option forces schools to hone and perfect their Jewish studies programs to compete for students. In the package deal model, the strength of a Yeshiva day school’s Jewish studies program is only one in a list of features that one considers when deciding on a yeshiva day school program. The website of Ben Porat Yosef, an Orthodox day school in Bergen County, for example, leads off its discussion of life at its elementary school with a discussion of its secular studies program, and its description of its math program is longer than that of its entire Jewish studies program.[15] The website of Yeshivat Noam, another Bergen County Orthodox day school, does not even mention Jewish studies or personal religiosity in its description of the school’s philosophy.[16] And both schools have outstanding Jewish studies programs.

A Jewish studies-only option elevates Jewish studies from a check-the-box part of yeshiva day schools’ program to the basis on which schools compete. And our community should be focused on the quality of our Jewish studies programs.

In her book Sidetracked, Harvard professor Francesca Gino discusses a phenomenon known as “change blindness,” where individuals’ intensive focus on one activity can blind them to events happening right before their eyes. In the Yeshiva day school context, yeshiva day schools’ intensive focus on secular achievement and their success in those areas—high AP scores, college placement, science competition victories—blind us to their Jewish shortcomings.

Some of those shortcomings are substantive—a lack of Hebrew literacy among day school students[17], little familiarity with the “non-story” portions of the Bible, and a lack of understanding of Jewish philosophy and core Jewish values. As Rabbi Avraham Edelstein puts it in The Real Jewish Day School Crisis, “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 a Jew’s relationship to the earth, and with non-Jews? How should we organize society? What is the meaning of science? How does Judaism help me to fulfill my potential?”[18] These are difficult questions. Generally speaking, can today’s yeshiva day school graduates answer them?

Other shortcomings are directional—do we have a vision for what constitutes “success” among our students? Does the education that we give them, substantively and pedagogically, achieve that vision?

We need to address these shortcomings, but we can only do so if we focus on Jewish education. No model achieves that focus better than a part-day model.

5. Challenging our Children

We should expect our children’s part-day experience in public schools and the friendships that they hopefully form in those schools with students from different religious, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds to cause our children to think critically about themselves and their faith. Jewish educational institutions and parents will need to work together to help our children deal with those challenges.

I personally believe that is a good thing.

Consider Chickenpox—the contagious virus that causes an itchy rash with red blisters all over one’s body. Chickenpox typically occurs only once in a person’s lifetime and one is less likely to experience complications from the virus if one contracts the virus earlier life rather than later in life. [19] Prior to the modern Chickenpox vaccine, contracting Chickenpox was a child’s ticket to popularity because every parent wanted their children to have a play date with the chicken-pox-infected child in the hope that their child too would contract the virus earlier in life rather than later. It’s simple: Do not run away from issues that become larger later. Confront them now.

Religious questions are inevitable for any religious and intelligent person and—like Chickenpox—are addressed best when people are young. Children with religious questions have a robust support system of parents, grandparents, well-trained educators and rabbis who can help them navigate those questions, which will not be available to them when they are older. When our children confront those questions for the first time only later in life—when they are in college, professionals or are parents themselves—dealing with those questions can be terribly lonely and complicated.

One of the recent Pew Study’s most notable findings was Orthodox Jews’ remarkably high rate of “denominational switching”—only 48% of Jews who were born Orthodox were still Orthodox at the time of the study.[20] What is particularly interesting is when the switch happens. The study shows that the percentage of Jews who identify as Orthodox declines markedly among Jews who are 50 and older.[21] That makes sense. Those who confront religious challenges earlier in life when they have a robust support system are more likely to withstand those challenges than those who do not have such a support system.

Some will argue that a part-day option robs our children of a sheltered “Jewish environment,” and that our children can develop into committed Jews better in such an environment. They will say that a part day option sacrifices something experiential and transcendental that comes with experiencing secular classes in an institution dedicated to perpetuating Jewish values, and that public schools are hardly “value-neutral” institutions. All of these points have merit.

Ultimately, offering a part-day option is about choice. This means that parents who want their children educated in a “Jewish environment” should be able to do so by opting for the full-day option, provided that they can pay for it. At the same time, we also need to recognize that some parents, for equally legitimate reasons, may not have those reservations. Some may feel that a “Jewish environment” in a part-day option is enough. Some may feel that Jewish experientialism would be better imparted by other means, like strengthening our synagogues, than by having our children take calculus in the same classrooms where they study Talmud. Both sets of parents should be afforded the option to educate their children in a manner consistent with their respective values.

6. Opening the Door and the Broadening the Tent

We should also make our community’s excellent Jewish education available to all Jewish students. A part-day program could dramatically increase enrollment in yeshiva day schools by putting Jewish education within reach of those currently priced out of it. And students with limited financial means who do not want to depend on communal aid are not the only ones priced out of a Jewish education. So are students who can afford Yeshiva day school tuition, but whose commitment to a Jewish education does not align with its cost. Twenty thousand dollars per child per year is a substantial investment even for those who have the financial means to afford it.

Jewish children priced out of Jewish day schools typically opt for a sub-par Jewish education in Jewish supplementary schools (which we will discuss later in this piece) or, worse, for no Jewish education at all. Not because these children and their parents necessarily have lower standards, but because it is difficult to find any supplementary programs even close in quality to what our Yeshiva day schools provide. And the religious outlook for such children is abysmal. In contrast to Jewish students who receive 7-12 years of yeshiva day school education, of whom 96% marry Jews, 76% of Jewish students attending supplementary school for 7-12 years marry Jews, 60% of students attending 7-12 years of Sunday school marry Jews and, of those students without any Jewish education, 67% marry out.[22]

Educating our children is a core communal responsibility that is incumbent upon all of us and which extends to all of our children. Make no mistake—whether they are Orthodox, Conservative, Reform or completely unaffiliated, they are all our children, and no less Jewish or critical to Jewish continuity and survival than we and our children are. If the result of our current educational system is that Orthodox children—a tiny sliver of the American Jewish population—receive an excellent education while the vast majority of American Jewish children do not and are lost, then our educational system is a failure no matter how qualitatively outstanding it may be.

But it does not have to be.

Dramatically lowering the price of the outstanding Jewish education available at our Yeshiva day schools can be done. We can change the calculus of parents of all denominations and levels of affiliation and make that outstanding Jewish education accessible to all Jewish children.

At a reasonable price, which even minimally identifying Jewish parent would not be delighted to have their child understand his or her heritage? Who would not want their child to be conversant in Jewish history and philosophy, fluent in Hebrew and literate in Bible and Talmud? Who would not want their child to be a part of the warm and supportive educational community that we have worked so hard to build?

7. Greater Educational Opportunity

The final advantage of giving parents a choice is that achieving affordability and sustainability can actually expand our children’s educational opportunities.

Marvin Schick, the author of the Avi Chai Foundation’s Census of Jewish Day Schools (the “Avi Chai Surveys”), which has been published every five years since 2000, has noted that Jewish day schools tend to be small. Schick posits that, by U.S. educational standards, schools that enroll 350 students or less are considered small.[23] 80% of all Jewish day schools in the United States enroll no more than 350 students and 96% enroll less than 1,000 students.[24] According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average number of students in all primary schools, middle schools and high schools in the United States are 446, 595 and 752, respectively.[25] In New York and New Jersey, school sizes are even greater.[26]

A larger and more diverse pool of students can be expected to demand a broader array of classes. Schools with a broader financial base—all taxpayers versus some day school parents—can afford to fulfill those demands. Our community has recognized public schools’ advantage in the realm of special education. Indeed, Jewish day schools have been criticized for shutting out children with special needs and directing them to their local public schools, on the basis that public schools’ extensive resources make them better equipped to educate such children than private schools.[27] This beckons the question—if it is acceptable to send special needs children to public schools, why is it not acceptable to send non-special needs children to public schools?

Today’s yeshiva day schools offer a solid array of electives that students can take—advanced biology, chemistry, mathematics, languages. Public schools offer all of those courses and more. Teaneck High School, whose course handbook is 95 pages long, for example, offers courses which include advanced world literature, women’s literature, journalism, law and criminal justice, 19 different math classes, computer science and animation (including apps for tablets and iPhones), zoology, marine biology, engineering, anatomy, culinary arts, theatre, accounting and marketing.[28] And that is just a small sampling. And, as communal institutions, public schools not only cater to children—they also offer communal programming that is available to all of us. Teaneck’s public schools, for example, offer communal classes, including adult classes, in dancing, yoga, musical instruction, art, first aid and CPR.[29]

It would be impossible for any private school, given its limited financial support base, to replicate what public schools offer and still remain viable as a communal model. Elite private schools that do, such as Dalton ($44,640 per year, K-12)[30] and The Trinity School in Manhattan ($47,405, K-12)[31] are out of reach for all but the wealthiest of parents. Indeed, as a private school, in relative terms, when one considers what yeshiva day schools do offer and the fact that Jewish day schools’ academic performance and college placement rivals that of schools like Dalton and Trinity, yeshiva day schools are remarkably inexpensive.

What is expensive and unsustainable is having a private school model be the communal standard. We cannot expect our institutions to simultaneously maintain the academic excellence, variety and exclusivity of elite private schools with the affordability, availability and educational opportunity of public schools.

Hebrew Schools Reconsidered

Some may argue that this proposal is simply a clone of the “Hebrew School” or “Talmud Torah” model, where children enrolled in public schools and obtained their Jewish education through Jewish supplemental schools. Indeed, they would say that it was the widely-perceived failure of that model that prompted the surge in Jewish day schools over the past quarter century. Let us address why neither is true.

The only similarity between a part-day model and a supplemental school model is that both involve children attending public school. Substantively, the two models could not be more different. And I would contend that Hebrew Schools failed miserably on substance.

The most fundamental substantive difference between the supplemental school model and the part-day model is what each seeks to accomplish. A part-day option is meant to allow students to obtain a Jewish education cost-effectively, while supplemental schools were designed to enable students to integrate into American society while maintaining some Jewish identity.

The supplemental school model’s roots are in the early days of the 20th century, when the American Jewish community was largely that of immigrants in a foreign land, who were wary of practices that would hinder their integration into the land. In an article about the American Day School movement in Tradition, Professor William Brickman, quotes Alexander Dushkin, an early proponent of the supplemental school model, who in 1918 warned that the traditional Yeshiva model “‘is fraught with danger for America and the American Jew’, since it aimed ‘to subject the Jewish child completely to Jewish influences…’ and the resultant sectarianism ‘…may undermine the spirit of tolerance which is among America’s proudest aims.’”[32]

The supplemental school model was a rejection of an “old world” system. As Emanuel Gamoran, another early-day proponent of the supplemental school model cited by Brickman, put it in 1924, “‘Efforts have been made to transplant some of the education institutions of Eastern Europe, the Heder, the Yeshiva, the Eastern-European Talmud Torah. All these attempts have failed. The new conditions required new means…In America or any other free country it is neither possible, nor in the opinion of the writer, desirable, to have that kind of a distinctive Jewish school system that will take upon itself the complete responsibility for the education of the child.”[33]

The aim of Jewish supplemental schools was not to produce knowledgeable Jews through rigorous study of Jewish sources and concepts but, as Peter Beinart put it: “to inculcate sufficient Jewish identity to prevent intermarriage.”[34]

Such a modest goal demanded only a basic Jewish education (or so proponents of supplemental schools thought). By Yeshiva day school standards (the same standard to which a part-day option would adhere), Jewish supplemental schools’ Jewish education was, frankly, pathetic. As one study put it: “Students in some congregations attend supplementary religious school one day per week, called Sunday School. Other students…attend approximately six hours per week, one and one-half hours on two days after “regular” school and three hours on Sunday morning. Much of the focus of supplementary school education is on preparing youth for the bar or bat mitzvah at the age of thirteen. Hence, enrollment often declines after [that] age.”[35]

What about the teachers at these supplemental schools? As Brickman put it, “too often, the teachers selected lacked basic knowledge of the subject matter which they were called upon to teach as well as the pedagogical process.”[36] Indeed, one study of Jewish educators in supplementary schools in three Jewish communities in the United States found that “close to 80 percent of the teachers…have neither a degree in Jewish studies nor certification as Jewish educators.”[37] Indeed, a fair number of the teachers at such schools were not even Jewish.[38]

The Jewish education offered at today’s Orthodox Jewish day schools, which aim to produce educated Jews rather than merely in-married Jews, is outstanding. Such schools feature dynamic teachers that have spent years of advanced Jewish study at seminaries in Israel and in the United States. Teachers who also tend to hold advanced degrees in education or specific Jewish subjects from American and Israeli graduate schools, such as Teachers College at Columbia University, Yeshiva University’s Bernard Revel and Azrieli Graduate Schools and Machon Herzog in Israel. And the noted[39] disparity between the knowledge and commitment of yeshiva day school students and Jewish supplemental school students reflects the disparity in the quality of education these institutions offer.

The National Jewish Population Survey published in 1990[40] (the “1990 NJPS Survey”), which showed shocking rates of intermarriage among American Jews, is considered to have been the communal wake-up call that the supplemental school model was a failure.[41] And from the shock of that study, many in our community drew the conclusion that public schools, rather than the supplemental schools, were to blame for that failure.

I submit that the correct conclusion is actually the opposite. Not that public schools are Jewish “kryptonite” and that any Jewish association with public schools is bad, but that the lack of educational quality doomed supplemental schools from the start. The correct conclusion is that it is critically important to ensure that as many Jewish children as possible receive the type of Jewish education that our yeshiva day schools offer. Creating an affordable part-day option achieves that goal; a package-deal that fewer and fewer parents can afford makes the problem worse.

American Jewry has matured greatly since the times and circumstances that birthed supplemental schools. We are no longer immigrants in a foreign country who are afraid of being different. We have Jewish schools that offer an education that we can be proud of and which produce graduates who will in turn be proud Jews.

Deep down, our community knows that to be true. Indeed, while it is true that yeshiva day schools have grown dramatically in the United States in the years following the 1990 NJPS Survey’s results, it is wrong to interpret that growth, as some have suggested, as a communal rejection of the part-day model. I would respectfully submit that a closer examination of the statistics leads to a very different conclusion.

In the fourth and latest installment of the Avi Chai Survey, published in October 2014, Schick noted a 37% increase in enrollment in Jewish day schools since the first Avi Chai Survey was published in 1998.[42] Schick is quick to point out, however, that while “[t]his is an impressive rate of growth,…just about all of it is attributable to increased enrollment in [Ultra-Orthodox] schools.”[43] Indeed, students in the “Chassidic and Yeshiva World sectors…now comprise more than 60% of all day school enrollment.”[44]

Given that fact, is the modern growth of day schools attributable to Jews rejecting a part-day model? Or is it merely a demographic result of the skyrocketing birth rate of ultra-Orthodox Jews who would never even consider a part-day model in the first place? The answer is starkly clear. By Schick’s count, enrollment at yeshiva and chassidic schools went from 86,702 students in 1998 to 157,621 students in 2013, an 82% increase. During that same time, enrollment at Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox day schools went from 47,469 students in 1998 to 46,137 students in 2013, a 3% decrease.[45] The statistics, in short, do not show a flight of students from supplemental schools to day schools in the years following the study. It shows today’s Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox schools struggling to maintain enrollment numbers that they had in 1998.

Our community does not reject the notion of a choice. A choice has simply not been offered to our community. Were we to give our community a choice between a part-day program and an all-day program, in the final analysis, more children will choose yeshiva day schools for all of the reasons this piece describes. And, if the Hebrew school experience has taught us anything, it is that yeshiva day school is where the American Jewish future lies.

A Personal Request

These were not easy pieces to write. First, as is hopefully evident, they required a considerable amount of research, thought and care. Second and, relatedly, they required a considerable amount of time — a precious commodity for someone already struggling to be the best father, husband, son and professional he can be. Finally, they entailed the risk of being highly criticized. As the first piece accumulated more Facebook shares and provoked more discussion than I imagined it would, that risk became very real.

I share this not to pat myself on the back or to try to preclude critics from criticizing what I write, but to illustrate how important this issue is. It is worth the effort. It is worth the risk. I would genuinely encourage those who would criticize what I have written or who think that they have a better solution than what I have proposed — and I am sure there are those of you who do — to join the conversation. Do our community the service of speaking up and sharing your thoughts. This is an issue that is larger and more important than any one of us and which requires the participation of all of us.

After the first piece was published, there were those who criticized me for complaining without offering a solution. Although I wish those people had read the piece more closely (I expressly stated that I would propose a solution in a following piece), I share their sentiment. Complaints without a solution get us nowhere as a community. So in this piece, I have proposed mine. Let those who have a better solution propose theirs. Let us have a communal discussion informed by the alternatives and, most importantly, let us take action to effectuate what we collectively think is best.

If we work together and confront this issue as the thoughtful community that we are, we can solve this.[46]

[1] http://www.collegedata.com/cs/data/college/college_pg01_tmpl.jhtml?schoolId=245

[2] http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/rankings/national-universities

[3] http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/yeshiva-university-2903

[4] http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/temple-university-3371

[5] http://colleges.usnews.rankingsandreviews.com/best-colleges/ohio-university-3100

[6] http://www.yu.edu/osf/tuition-fees/undergraduate/

[7] http://bursar.umd.edu/t_ug1617.php

[8] https://www.binghamton.edu/admissions/cost.html

[9] http://www.qc.cuny.edu/admissions/bursar/Pages/QCTuitionCosts.aspx

[10] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/02/03/how-congress-became-the-most-polarized-and-unproductive-its-ever-been/

[11] http://www.heritage.org/research/education-notebook/teachers-unions-block-school-choice

[12] https://www.timesofisrael.com/orthodox-union-wants-public-funds-for-nys-private-jewish-schools/

[13] https://www.ou.org/news/jewish_leadership_coalition/

[14] http://advocacy.ou.org/orthodox-union-position-paper-on-government-aid-to-jewish-day-schools/

[15] http://benporatyosef.org/life-at-bpy/elementary-school/

[16] http://www.yeshivatnoam.org/index.php/school-life

[17] http://www.jta.org/2013/12/02/news-opinion/united-states/new-initiative-seeks-to-improve-hebrew-literacy-among-american-jews

[18] http://www.aish.com/jw/s/The-Real-Jewish-Day-School-Crisis.html

[19] http://www.webmd.com/vaccines/tc/chickenpox-varicella-topic-overview

[20] Pew Study, page 11, available at http://www.pewforum.org/files/2013/10/jewish-american-full-report-for-web.pdf

[21] Id page 49.

[22] The Impact of Childhood Jewish Education on Adults’ Jewish Identity: Schooling, Israel Travel, Camping and Youth Groups (July 2004) (United Jewish Communities Report Series on the National Jewish Population Survey 2000-01), page 10.

[23] Four Avi Chai Surveys have been conducted. The first, published in 2000, is available at: http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2000/. The second, published in 2005 is available at http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2003-04-2005/. The third, published in 2009, is available at: http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2008-09-2009/. The fourth, published in 2014, is available at: http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2013-14-2014/. See second Avi Chai Survey, page 23.

[24] Id.

[25] http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2001/overview/table05.asp

[26] Id.

[27] http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/new-york/special-needs-families-fighting-jewish-day-schools

[28] http://teaneckschools.org/cms/lib2/NJ01001582/Centricity/Domain/14/THS_Course_Guide_2016-2017_Rev_033016.pdf

[29] http://teaneckschools.org/cms/lib2/NJ01001582/Centricity/domain/307/school%20year%202014-15/CourseListingSpr2016.pdf

[30] http://www.dalton.org/podium/default.aspx?t=153746

[31] http://www.trinityschoolnyc.org/Page/Admissions/Tuition–Financial-Aid

[32] William Brickman, “The American Jewish Day School Movement,” Tradition: A Journal of Orthodox Jewish Thought, Vol 9, No. ½ (Spring-Summer 1967), page 178, available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23256199?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents .

[33] Id.

[34] Peter Beinart, “The Rise of Jewish Schools,” The Atlantic (October 1999), available at: http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/1999/10/the-rise-of-jewish-schools/377816/

[35] Education Encyclopedia – StateUniversity.com : United States Jewish Education – Jewish Day Schools, Synagogue Education, Informal Education, Conclusion available at: http://education.stateuniversity.com/pages/2136/Jewish-Education-United-States.html .

[36] Brickman, Page 179.

[37] Education Encyclopedia, id.

[38] Id.

[39] See Brickman.

[40] The survey is available at: http://www.jewishdatabank.org/Studies/downloadFile.cfm?FileID=3129

[41] See Beinart, id and Sheramy, Rona “The Day School Tuition Crisis: A Short History” Jewish Review of Books (Fall 2013) available at: http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/511/the-day-school-tuition-crisis-a-short-history/?print

[42] Fourth Avi Chai Survey, page 1, available at http://avichai.org/knowledge_base/a-census-of-jewish-day-schools-in-the-united-states-2013-14-2014/.

[43] Id.

[44] Id, page 9.

[45] Id, page 10.

[46] I am indebted to many people for sharing their thoughts with me as I worked through this piece. Not all agree with me, but all were helpful to me and any errors are my own. Most importantly, I want to thank my wife, Tamar D. Warburg, whose encouragement, support, outstanding editing and insight, made these pieces possible. A mother, daughter, granddaughter and professional herself, she consistently found the time to partner with me on this project. For that, and for all else she does for me and for so many others, I dedicate this piece to her with love.

About the Author
Yigal M. Gross is an attorney who lives in Teaneck, New Jersey with his wife Tamar Warburg and their children Ella, Sara and Yonatan.