Day Schools Under the Palm Trees: Miami’s Jewish Day Schools

In the same way that the specialized Jewish camps have been founded and are now reaching new populations based on campers’ (and parents’) interests, day schools can do the same.

by Rabbi Arnie Samlan

When I moved to Miami from Long Island just six months ago, a Floridian colleague of mine welcomed me with this remark: “Miami is great. It’s just about 20 miles to the United States.” True enough. This is the only place in the U.S. in which, whether I’m at the synagogue or the mall, English is unlikely to be the predominant language spoken around me. Hebrew? Yeah. Spanish? Quite. Russian? Uh huh. Portuguese? Sure.

Along with unprecedented multiculturalism come festivals that celebrate each nation, culture, and language that make up the greater Miami area. And that’s just the Jewish community – when we look at the broader community, the list of nationalities and backgrounds grows.

Amidst the palm trees, Cuban coffee (amazing!), and cultures lives a large day school population. Actually, of elementary school children who are enrolled in some form of Jewish education program, a majority – about 70 percent – are in a Jewish day school, far above the national norm. What seems to be driving these outstanding numbers is a combination of parents seeking Jewish social and cultural connectedness through JDS, the strong Hebrew background of parents from Israel or Latin Jewish communities, and a solid group of traditionally observant Jews for whom day school education is a “must.”

In my short time in Miami, I’ve been impressed by the way in which schools differentiate themselves from each another. Whether they realize it or not, most of the schools are not actually competing for the same students. There is a school that is particularly responsive to the needs of Latin families, a school for the Chabad community, a school that emphasizes math and science, a school that aims to be inclusive of children with special needs, a school that defines itself as Reform, a school in which Jewish studies don’t stand alone but are integrated into the other subjects of the school day, and schools that serve particular geographic areas.

That differentiation may be exactly what Miami’s contribution to the national day school picture is. To be sustainable and to recruit students, it is not only unnecessary to be all things to all people; it is actually counterproductive. In the same way that the specialized Jewish camps have been founded and are now reaching new populations based on campers’ (and parents’) interests, day schools can do the same, identifying what sets each school apart and recruiting students based on those characteristics.

At the same time, there is work to be done here to move the day schools forward, and a community that is committed to getting things done. Together, the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education and Greater Miami Jewish Federation are working with schools to bridge the gap between the current practice of education and the 21st Century Jewish Education that we believe should be state of the art. Our colleagues at PEJE and The AVI CHAI Foundation continue to be in conversation and in partnership with us to move our schools forward both educationally and organizationally. We are blessed with passionate and smart leaders, both professionals and volunteers. Working together, we’re taking a very special Jewish day school community and propelling it forward.

Rabbi Arnie Samlan is executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Jewish Education in Miami, Florida, a subsidiary agency of the Greater Miami Jewish Federation.

This post first appeared on the PEJE blog.