Are Day Schools Necessary?

Photo credit: Pamela Wells

By Barbara Sheklin Davis

The news is heartbreaking: day schools in the United States and Canada are being closed due to low enrollment. It is time we wake up to the realities of Jewish life in North America, and change what we are doing. The fact is that a day school is the most important and effective institution we have to enable our Jewish children to maintain the kind of dual lifestyle as Jewish Americans that we all desire.

Notice, please, that I said “most important and effective.” I didn’t say “only” nor did I say that a day school replaces the family or the synagogue, nor did I say that it carried a 100% guarantee. Frankly, I am somewhat tired of hearing about day school graduates who are not practicing Jews. A day school education, like an Ivy League education, or a medical school education, does not automatically guarantee that the graduate will be a terrific Jew, a huge success, or a competent healer. But focusing on the failures should not be an excuse for ignoring the tremendous possibilities and opportunities that a day school offers.

The day school movement suffers from a lot of ignorance about what it is and what it does, and clearly not all schools are alike. Since I am neither a sociologist nor a national expert, I will focus only on two schools that I know best: a day school that I headed for twenty-five years and a supplementary school that I headed for ten. First, the national research: In a study of “Far-Reaching Effects of Extensive Jewish Day School Attendance,” Alvin Schiff and Maerelyn Schneider surveyed 20-40 year olds who attended day schools. They found that 89% had gone to Israel, compared to 15% of their non-day school peers, that their level of Sabbath and kashrut observance and Jewish organizational involvement is dramatically higher than that of typical American Jews of this age group, and that whereas the majority of Jews who married between 1985 and 1990 married non-Jews, only 4.5 percent of Jewish day school graduates are intermarried.

Now on to some specifics. I gave a survey to 21 children in the 4th through 7th grades at my supplementary school and 35 children in the 4th through 6th grades at my day school. The results were interesting, especially in what they reveal about that most critical of issues for Jewish elementary age children: their self-image and self-esteem as Jews.

Since the survey was completed in April, I asked the children if they had a seder. 95% of the Hebrew School children did, as did all of the Day School children. But when I asked them whether they celebrated Christmas the results were different: while only 6% (2 students) at the Day School celebrate that holiday, 48% of Hebrew School children celebrate it. A similarly significant disparity showed up when the children were asked whether they had a lot of Jewish friends. Only 10% of the Hebrew School children answered affirmatively, while 94% of the Day School children said they did. Clearly the children in the Hebrew School live in a much more Christian environment both in school and out of school than those of the Day School, although the neighborhoods they live in are virtually identical.

This probably also influenced how they responded when asked how they felt about being Jewish. 76% of the supplementary school students said it was fine, okay or good. The other responses were: “I think I am special and different.” “I like being Jewish, but sometimes I get teased.” “I don’t mind being Jewish, but I hate Hebrew School and Temple.” “Being Jewish is good; it makes you different by having a language.” “Pretty good, I like knowing another language.” “Pretty good, because it’s what me and my family want.”

The responses from the Day School were different and overall were more positive. Even the one-word answers (O.K., good, great, excellent, happy) were more emphatic. But where three quarters of the supplementary school children answered the question in one word, two thirds of the day school children answered expansively. Their responses were also qualitatively different:

“I feel normal.”
“I like being unique and special.”
“I like our differences.”
“I feel lucky and appreciative.”
“I like the religion very much.”
“I feel very happy.”
“I feel very good.”
“I don’t feel any different than anyone else.”
“I am very proud of being Jewish.”
“I feel very proud.”
“I love the religion – not many people are Jewish – that’s what I like about it. I’m proud to have a Jewish star necklace.”
“I love the religion.”
“I like being Jewish.”
“I think being Jewish is fun.”
“Great – it is awesome to be Jewish.”

It is clear that the day school, in addition to teaching Hebrew and customs and Bible, gives its students something else: a very positive sense of themselves as Jews. Rather than feeling different, isolated and strange, they feel proud, special and good about their Jewish identity. Their Jewish heritage matters to them; it is part of who they are and what they are. And this factor is probably what accounts for the striking differences in the answers to the question about intermarriage. While 19% of Hebrew School children felt it was important to marry a Jewish person, 81% did not. But at the Day School, 74% felt it was important to marry a Jewish person and only 26% did not.

One of the questions that suggests itself is whether the children at the Day School are more confident in their Judaism because their families are more observant or committed. Although the decision to send a child to the Day School is clearly an indication that the parents value a Jewish education, personal observation would suggest that it is not the primary reason most children are sent there. I therefore asked the children in both schools whether their families were “religious.”

This question was the most difficult one in the survey for them. The concept of “religious” was foreign to them, and in neither school did the children feel it applied to them. When a more specific question about frequency of synagogue attendance was answered, the results were interesting. Only one Day School child claimed to attend synagogue daily, 8 said they went weekly, 6 said they went once a month and 21 (60%) went on holidays only. Of the Hebrew School students, two said they never went to synagogue; 2 said they went weekly; 4 said once or twice a month and 13 (62%) went on holidays only. So it would seem that the religiosity of the families as measured by synagogue attendance in both cases is approximately the same, and does not account for the significant differences in the ways the children feel about being Jewish.

This finding reflects national research. In “Fortifying and Restoring Jewish Behavior: the interaction of home and school,” Schiff and Schneider concluded that “family values alone will not ensure continuity. A comprehensive, enduring Jewish education program is critical for continuance of Jewish identity for the generations to come. It strengthens their Jewish observance patterns, encourages involvement in Jewish communal activity and engenders strong feeling against intermarriage.” They go on to state that “Jewish day school education helps graduates retain Jewish attitudes and behaviors experienced during their upbringing. It reduces the negative attitudes about Jewish behavior, Jewish identity, and Jewish life they may have acquired in the larger environment. And Jewish education motivates graduates to be positively inclined toward Jewish values and observances.”

It is my personal feeling, based upon readings, my own experiences, and my observations as head of two schools, that the choice is clear. Whether the measure is number of hours devoted to Jewish study, depth of knowledge acquired, positive self-image as a Jew, familiarity and fluency in prayer, understanding of Hebrew, regular experience of Jewish ritual and custom, feeling oneself part of community – in each and every case, the Day School offers the best option, the best hope we have to raise the knowledgeable, secure Jewish young people who will continue our tradition and keep alive the spirit and values that inspire the Judaism that we cherish.

Barbara Sheklin Davis has headed a Jewish Day School, a supplementary school and a community high school. She served on the board of RAVSAK, is editor at large of HaYidion, and recently published 100 Jewish Things to Do Before You Die (Pelican).