Can We Attract the Majority of American Jews to Day Schools?

If our goal is to attract the majority of American Jews, we need to market Jewish day school and its value using the best methods and practices that have been successful in other industries.

via Shutterstock
via Shutterstock

By Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Ed.D.

Over the past few weeks, Michael Steinhardt has delivered two speeches that could spark a national Jewish conversation about the value of Jewish day schools and how to attract more families to this option for their children’s education.

First, let’s review some important statistics. Whether we take the 3% figure Steinhardt cites in his talks or the approximately 20% that Professor Steven Cohen says is reflective of the most recent Pew study, the vast majority of American Jews do not choose Jewish day school education. If we look internationally, the picture is quite different. Every other country with a sizeable Jewish population sends a much larger proportion of their school-aged children to day schools. In many countries, the default option is for Jewish day school. The low rates of participation in the United States represent an aberration and are the source of Steinhardt’s focus.

At the same time, there is overwhelming evidence that day schools are among the most effective forms of Jewish education, along with summer camp and an Israel experience. Day school graduates have been shown to be more Jewishly engaged, disproportionately involved in Jewish leadership roles, more likely to raise their children Jewishly, and less likely to engage in negative social behaviors in college than their Jewish public-school and private-independent school peers. There are also studies that suggest that the families of Jewish day school students benefit Jewishly from the school communities that they initially explored for their children and ultimately chose and continue to choose for their own Jewish involvement.

So why, as Steinhardt asks, given the evidence of its efficacy, are the majority of Jewish families in the United States not choosing Jewish day schools? Steinhardt’s proposal is that in order to make day schools relevant and attractive to the majority of American Jews, the curriculum must be altered to offer an integrated model of education and to inspire students with the “innovative spirit and an intelligence of creativity” that led to the founding of and which still animates the State of Israel. Specifically, he would suggest that schools emphasize the accomplishments of Jews in the non-Jewish world as a way of showing students and their families not only the ability of Jews to make an impact on the secular world, but to draw upon the pride American Jews say they have despite their lack of engagement in Jewish life. While other Jewish educators and I might have a different vision of what particular approach constitutes an integrated curriculum, I agree with Steinhardt that the percentage of American Jews not sending their children to Jewish day schools represents both a crisis and an opportunity, and that an integrated model of education holds the potential to address this challenge.

Steinhardt’s proposal to integrate general and Jewish subjects is not new. Since the French Revolution, when Jews gained rights through individual citizenship rather than by communal affiliation, both elite and common Jews began to rethink their relationship to the secular world. Jewish schools dating to the mid 1600’s in England taught mathematics and English reading and writing, in addition to religious studies. In 1782, Neftali Hertz Weisel, an advocate for Jewish cultural and ideological change during the Enlightenment, wrote that Jewish schools should teach both Torat Ha-adam (general wisdom) and Torat Ha-shem (Jewish wisdom) as a way for Jews to gain the knowledge, morals, and behaviors needed for participation in the greater society. At the time this was a radical proposition. Today, most schools beyond the Haredi world subscribe to at least some type of curricular approach that attempts to integrate Jewish and general studies. The historian Jonathan Sarna has suggested that Jewish day schools serve as the “primary setting where American Jews confront the most fundamental question of Jewish life: how to live in two worlds at once, how to be both American and Jewish, part of the larger society and apart from it.” Many educators and Jewish educational thinkers have written about approaches to integration.

Historically, the vast majority of American Jews during the 20th century opted for public school as a vehicle for rapid enculturation. This was the case even with some of the leaders and most influential personalities within the field of Jewish education. Samson Benderly, who in 1910 became the director of the first bureau of Jewish education in New York, was a passionate advocate for public education and ascribed to the “Protestant model” of education. He believed that morality, universal values, patriotism, civics, and critical skills should all be taught in state-funded public schools to a mixed body of religiously diverse students. Religious education and practice was to be mastered by members of each faith in separate denominationally sponsored supplementary schools.

Jewish day schools were founded in the United States because a large number of American Jews became convinced that Jewish identity in contemporary society was not automatic, and they realized that students needed a certain type of education to nurture their Jewish identity. Supplementary schools (as they used to be called) did not adequately embrace the complexity of Jewish life in an open, democratic society. Jewish day schools were meant to negotiate the relationship of American Jewish education to American Jewish life. In the mid 1950’s Rabbi Simon Greenberg advocated that an integrated education was essential to the future vitality of Judaism within America.

So, when Steinhardt calls for a curriculum that is relevant to students’ lives as a way of engaging more Jewish students in the endeavor of Jewish day schools, he is walking in the historical footsteps of many American Jewish leaders and educators.

I want to turn briefly to what might characterize a Jewish day school education that would be attractive to a larger group of American Jews. The first quality is educational excellence. Large numbers of non-affiliated and less engaged American Jews already pay high tuition for the education they want. Some observers believe that there may be as many Jewish students in private-independent schools as there are in Jewish day schools. While the most committed American Jews may be willing to subscribe for a lesser general education product in exchange for the Jewish aspects of a school, the day school field as a whole must meet or exceed the educational quality found in the best public and private independent schools. Our schools must be well rounded with a full range of extra-curricular activities; arts and athletics; programs that include all student learners; and innovative programs in STEM, robotics, gaming, and other 21st century educational initiatives.

Second, Jewish schools need to highlight the Jewish aspects of their programs that provide students with an advantage over their peers in other types of schools. The values that Jewish day schools can foster in their students must be front and center. In many communities, day schools are already perceived as being exceptional in providing their students a moral and ethical grounding to lead purpose-driven lives. Emphasizing this quality and the life-long value it affords students beyond any other high-quality public or private-independent school can be the core of a relevant education. Knowing what it means to be a good and moral person, understanding the contemporary value of 3,000 years of Jewish wisdom, and being able to apply this knowledge to the world are values and skills at which Jewish day schools excel. The second advantage Jewish schools have is that the skills of traditional Jewish education (the critical study of texts, relentless questioning, collaborative study, and analytical reasoning) are the exact 21st century skills that other schools now tout as cutting-edge and innovative. These have been deeply embedded in Jewish education for centuries.

Third, Jewish day schools need to create environments that value community. If we are going to attract the vast majority of American Jews who are not currently engaged Jewishly, we have to show the parents of our potential students why being part of our communities can be an essential component in supporting the growth of their families. Jewish day schools should seek to be the hub for Jewish education both for the families who have chosen this form of education and for the larger Jewish community. One example might be in providing Israel education, another area of day school expertise, to the larger community.

Jewish day schools also need to formulate their vision in a clear and concise manner, and market it together with the larger Jewish community. Many families who have not been exposed to Jewish day schools often view our learning communities as homogeneous, narrow, and parochial, when nothing could be farther from the truth. If our goal is to attract the majority of American Jews, we need to market Jewish day school and its value using the best methods and practices that have been successful in other industries.

Last, Jewish day schools are expensive, and we have to address this issue head-on. If excellence, Jewish values and skills, vibrant community, and vision and marketing are essential to attract the majority of American Jews who are not currently choosing day schools, making Jewish day schools affordable to the widest number of families needs to be a national communal priority. If our community could significantly increase the percentage of American Jews who attend Jewish day schools, we would see a transformative effect on the next generation of United States Jewry and a profound reverberation across the Jewish world and in Israel.

Rabbi Mitchel Malkus, Ed.D., is Head of School, Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville, Maryland.