Hebrew school blues

Census: Hebrew school enrollment plummeted over 40% from 2006 to 2019

Jewish Education Project director calls for major investment to improve schools ‘to give these kids what they deserve’

Supplementary Hebrew school enrollment in the United States decreased by over 40% from 2006 to 2019 and the total number of Hebrew schools dropped by more than a quarter during the same period, according to a new study released on Wednesday by The Jewish Education Project.

These drops coincide with similar decreases in synagogue attendance and synagogue closures and the rise of so-called “Jews of no religion,” TJEP’s director, David Bryfman, told eJewishPhilanthropy ahead of the report’s release. The percentage of Jews who identify as being of “no religion” rose from 7% in 2012 to 27% in 2020, according to Pew surveys.

At the same time, the new census found that supplementary schools – also known as Hebrew schools or Sunday schools – are still the most significant way that non-Orthodox American Jewish children receive their Jewish educations, despite the fact that “hating on Hebrew school has been fashionable at least since Philip Roth published his short story ‘The Conversion of the Jews’ in 1958,” Arielle Levites of the Collaborative for Applied Studies in Jewish Education wrote in the forward of the report.

“They are still the largest place where the most number of non-Orthodox kids are getting their primary form of Jewish education,” Bryfman said. “As a community, that’s a responsibility for us. We cannot ignore it and keep saying, ‘Well, we heard it’s bad, it used to suck, it’s still going to suck.’ We have to say to ourselves, ‘No, that’s where the kids are, that’s where the Jews want to be, and therefore it’s our obligation, our responsibility to fund and resource them adequately to do that work.”

In addition to releasing the full 53-page census, which was conducted in partnership with Rosov Consulting, TJEP also released a condensed report on the findings. Bryfman said the report was a “call to action,” encouraging educators to focus their efforts around six “design principles”: elevating cultural identities; adding value to a family’s life; affirming diverse people and families; putting family at the center; prioritizing caring and purposeful relationships; and redefining the role of teacher and learner.

Bryfman said the census was also meant to serve as a wake-up call for Jewish philanthropists and community organizations.

“We believe that it is incumbent upon the Jewish philanthropic world to begin to reconsider the importance and primacy of the place where the largest number of non-Orthodox Jewish kids still continue to get their primary form of Jewish education,” he said. “And there’s a strong call in this report, whether it’s implicit or explicit, for federations and foundations and individual philanthropists to start investing in the change necessary to give these kids what they deserve.”

Due to the census’ scope, it does not take into account the likely considerable effects that the COVID-19 pandemic has likely had on supplementary school enrollment or school closures, but is still meant to be reflective of broad trends in the Jewish communal world.

The census conducted by TJEP continued the work of a similar survey conducted by Jack Wertheimer for the now-defunct Avi Chai Foundation in 2008. The TJEP census gathered data through questionnaires sent to supplementary schools from October 2021 to October 2022. TJEP and Rosov Consulting then evaluated the data, comparing it to the 2006-2007 census conducted by Wertheimer.

To simplify the process, they defined a “supplementary school” as programs that “enroll groups of children by age cohort for synchronous in-person learning.” The authors of the census found that the number of students enrolled in these supplementary schools dropped from 230,000 in the 2006-2007 school year down to 135,087 students in the 2019-2020 school year, a 41% decrease. (Unlike the Avi Chai census, which only looked at the U.S., the TJEP report also surveyed Canadian schools, finding that they had an additional 5,641 students).

The number of supplementary schools in the U.S. decreased from 2,000 in 2006-2007 to 1,398 in 2019-2020 (plus another 60 schools in Canada).

Alongside the substantial decreases in overall school enrollment, the census did find growth in a few areas, notably the rise of Chabad-run supplementary schools. The survey found that 10% of students were enrolled in a Chabad supplementary school in 2019-2020, compared to 4% in 2006-2007. (While Chabad schools have seen significant growth, the Reform movement still teaches the majority of students – 52% – in its supplementary schools.)

Bryfman said that TJEP considered Chabad’s successes as the organization developed its six design principles, specifically the movement’s focus on involving the families of students in activities.

“One of the things Chabad is really good at is developing relationships between the kids, the teachers and their families,” Bryfman said. “And if there’s one message that I want to take from all of this to share, it’s that Hebrew school should not be transactional, that it’s not a one-directional way of just telling students what they need to know and need to be able to do in order to be good Jews. It’s about establishing strong positive relationships within the whole school community.”

Indeed, families and the importance of them are the focus in five of TJEP’s six design principles.

According to Bryfman, the census and the report have two distinct but linked goals: strengthen the existing supplementary school programs for the students currently attending them and attract more students for them.

Bryfman said he hopes that doing the former will also accomplish the latter.

“Maybe it’s naive or it’s optimistic, but I believe that better quality Jewish education will attract and retain more young people and their families,” he said. “If we invest more in increasing the quality of these places, both in traditional and non-traditional settings, as a result of that, the quantity should improve.”

Susan Holzman Wachsstock, chief program officer of TJEP, said that in addition to strengthening the existing models for supplementary education, the Jewish community should also focus on innovating new “non-traditional” programs, like the Jewish Kids Groups’ after-school care model.

“Our work and the call to action… is really designed to support, elevate, expand what is out there, and try to help create a variety of new doorways and new entry points into Jewish education for the elementary- and middle school-age communities,” Holzman Wachsstock told eJP. 

“It can look like Jewish Kids Groups (after-school programs), it can look like a program at a JCC, it can look like a totally independent program for children from interfaith homes or for Israelis. It can look like lots of different things,” she continued. “It can look like camp. We’re not coming forward and saying that there’s one approach or one solution. We’re coming forward and saying there must be multiple solutions that bring rich content, meaningful educational experiences to children and families in 2023.”