Day Schools or Nothing?

by Andrew Silow-Carroll

Is it day school or nothing?

Earlier this year, at a day school conference in New Jersey, one of its organizers suggested as much.

“There is no alternative to day school,” he said. “There’s day school and there’s not day school. Day school is the most effective means of keeping the community vibrant. Other things will come along that will contribute to the perpetuity of the Jewish people, but they’re not [as good as] day school.”

Since I’m the father of three day school kids, you’d imagine that I agree with him. Our choice to send our children to day school was a statement that we didn’t consider the Jewish educational alternatives (namely, Hebrew school) as “effective” as day school.

I feel day schools gave my kids a deeper, thicker sense of Jewish culture, language, learning, and history than they would have gotten in two- or three-day-a-week supplementary school. When it comes time for them to make their own Jewish choices, I hope they will do so knowing more, feeling more, and drawing on a community upon which they’ll want to build, or against which they’ll want to rebel (if they’re going to rebel, I want them at least to know what they’re rebelling against).

And I do believe a “vibrant” community depends on members who are steeped in its lore, raised on its culture, and fluent in its languages and ritual – even if they devote themselves to transforming that ritual, which I hope my kids do.

(I understand the argument for “perpetuity” [or “continuity”] – roughly defined as making sure kids care enough about Judaism to want to at least marry a Jew and, one hopes, to live their lives as strongly identified Jews. The evidence does suggest that graduates of day schools are more likely to make these choices – although there’s debate over whether correlation implies causation. Still, I find “continuity” a rather soulless and biological goal, perpetuity without mission or meaning.)

But then, I had the wherewithal and commitment to indulge my Jewish ideals. The problem with “There is no alternative to day school” is that it doesn’t account for those who lack the means, the zeal, or both. The recession has shown the vulnerability of an educational model that relies on affluence and commitment for its success. Even the committed can’t swing the tuition. I sometimes joke that day schools are the subprime mortgages of Jewish life: They were highly promoted by our leaders and decision-makers, sold to middle income families, and sustainable only when the economy was flying high.

“There is no alternative to day school” is problematic because there must be an alternative – simply put, outside of Orthodoxy, the majority of Jewish families do not and will not choose day schools, even if they were tuition-free. In a country in which K-12 education is free, and is central to the civic fabric, is or was day school ever a viable economic model for a voluntary Jewish community – and one with such an enormous historical and emotional debt to the public education system?

Unfortunately, binary decision-making by Jewish leaders and educators in the past two decades meant the “smart money” and intellectual capital in Jewish education and philanthropy went to Jewish day schools, at the expense of supplementary schools and other alternatives. At a Limmud conference a few years back, I heard Rabbi Gordon Tucker say that the Conservative movement’s push for day school education at the expense of synagogue supplementary schools was a “massive rhetorical failure” that destroyed the religious school field for “decades to come.”

Binary thinking has also created an unfortunate divide – even competition – between day schools and Hebrew schools, between educators and the parents – and it all comes down to: “There is no alternative.” Day school proponents are seeking support for their movement from federations and other institutions, and many of these proponents explicitly or implicitly dis Hebrew schools in the process. Hebrew school parents resent that day school parents get communal or synagogue subsidies for what they consider a rarified and even elitist choice on the part of parents whom they consider indulgent or fanatical.

We need a more holistic approach to Jewish education, one that doesn’t pit one model against the other, but instead regards Jewish education as a continuum that contains a variety of viable alternatives – including summer camps, Israel trips, youth groups, and family programming. Otherwise we are creating a sort of artificial class system, with all the tensions and inequities that implies.

As a day school parent, it’s in my self-interest to support the philanthropists and institutions that are making tuition assistance a priority. I am glad for the sake of my readers that my own employer, UJC MetroWest, has spearheaded a $50 million campaign to support the three area day schools.

But if we are talking about keeping the community vibrant, it’s not enough to focus on its most expensive tool (and the one that demands the most intensive commitment on the part of Jewish families). We have to discuss whether the day school model will ever be affordable, on the personal or communal level, and support educational alternatives that can engage those families who wouldn’t send a kid to Jewish day school no matter the cost.

Andrew Silow-Carroll is the editor in chief of New Jersey Jewish News.

This post is from the series Growing Jewish Education in Challenging Times.