Confronting the Realities of the Pew Report: Abrams Academy Goes on the Offensive

photo courtesy Abrams Hebrew Academy
photo courtesy Abrams Hebrew Academy

by Harry Bloom

In the wake of the Pew Charitable Trusts’ “Portrait of Jewish Americans,” many anxious Jewish communal leaders are reexamining their priorities as they bob in the currents of uncertainty. The report sketches a somber picture of declining affinity with the Jewish religion and Israel, particularly among younger people. Sadly, even among those people who consider themselves to be Jewish, more than 50 percent say that being Jewish is mainly a matter of ancestry and culture; two-thirds say that one need not believe God to be Jewish.

Some look at Pew and say we need to lower our expectations relative to Jewish program intensity and anticipated outcomes, and follow where people seem to be heading anyway. In this environment, the formidable challenge of convincing families to spend tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to Jewish day schools can feel like an impossible task. Thus, Jewish day school – the expensive intervention that Jewish communal research has shown to be the most reliable guarantor of Jewish affinity – seems to be the most out-of-reach program of all.

Which was precisely the way things seemed until recently in Yardley, Pennsylvania.

Rabbi Ira Budow, Head of School of Yardley’s Abrams Hebrew Academy, experienced the Pew Report before there was a Pew Report. Abrams – which describes itself as an independent, co-educational Community Hebrew Day School that embraces Jewish families from all backgrounds and fosters scholarship and intellectual curiosity, love of learning, and a commitment to Judaism and to the State of Israel – is located out of the mainstream Jewish population centers of Philadelphia. Enrollment declined from 286 in 2007-2008 to a low of 166 in 2010-2011, mirroring the declining affinity with organized Judaism, exacerbated by the financial crisis, described in the Pew Report.

Rabbi Budow did some soul-searching and decided that Abrams needed a new strategy, one that would reach those Jews who considered themselves Jewish but wouldn’t normally send their children to JDS unless it offered the Best of Both Worlds: a standout Jewish studies program and a standout general studies program (ideally, one that combined those two into a competitive advantage). He decided to invest in quality faculty and curriculum and to do so in a manner that would attract Jews with an affinity for cultural Judaism and a love of Israel. In fact, benchmarking studies validate that relative to national peers, Abrams spends more per student in faculty compensation.

Rabbi Budow has a three-pronged strategy and is single-mindedly pursuing it. As a result, enrollment has reversed a four-year decline, experienced two consecutive years of growth, and stands now at 180 students – still far from its peak, but headed in the right direction. And not just by chance.

  1. First, Rabbi Budow runs a lean school from the standpoints of educational and non-educational administration and facility expenses, while investing in faculty compensation and curriculum. Abrams’ middle school tuition is a relatively affordable $12,766.
  2. Second, Abrams makes strategic investments in areas that are of importance to parents. Philadelphia Federation research indicated that parents valued strength in science and math as a prime indicator of General Studies quality. Rabbi Budow secured a significant grant to hire a superb Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) teacher whose work touches every student in the school; and created a groundbreaking STEM curricular partnership with the Technion in Israel – for which he secured an additional $45,000 in funding. The Technion is tied for seventh place with three other American universities in Bloomberg’s new university ranking of top colleges for tech CEOs. (Technion is the only university outside the United States placed in the top 10.) The school has a strong reputation for combining STEM education and entrepreneurship and recently launched well-received high school programs for American day school students.
  3. Third, Rabbi Budow is a consummate marketer and promoter of his school’s excellence and has identified target market segments for particular cultivation. One is the Russian Jewish community, which tremendously values STEM and Zionism.

Rabbi Budow markets the program tirelessly, and, as a result, one-fourth of the school’s now-growing enrollment is drawn from the Russian Jewish community. Abrams brandishes probably the most impactful marketing tool I’ve ever seen in a Jewish day school: a large room festooned with Israeli flags and other Israeli memorabilia and adorned with STEM-related educational materials, computers, and video-conferencing capabilities that literally bring Israeli high tech into Abrams, for each and every student – and each and every parent and prospective donor – who enters the room. That is marketing. A prospective parent entering this room might well feel as if he or she has stepped temporarily on Israeli soil into a place that offers American students access to the best of science, technology, engineering, and math, and to red-hot Israeli “startup nation” culture. The result: Jewish pride and a desire to enroll one’s children.

Abrams Academy’s conscious strategy – which is focused on delivering a high-quality educational product that melds Jewish and secular studies, at an affordable price, supported by outstanding marketing – presents a positive response to the real challenges of the Pew Report. It isn’t a cure-all, but it is worthy of study and emulation.

Abrams’ lessons for interested schools:

  1. Research less-well-penetrated market segments in your community.
  2. Identify educational programming that will draw them to your Jewish day school.
  3. Pitch donors on capacity-building funding to enable you to fund your new program.
  4. Make your school tours truly memorable. Work to elicit positive feelings from prospective parents. Make them feel that day school is a decision they can be proud of, a sacrifice that is truly worthwhile.

Dr. Harry Bloom is Strategy Manager, Day School Sustainability at PEJE.

cross-posted at Blog