How Essential is Jewish Education? COVID-19 Brings Some Clarity

By Arielle Levites and Alex Pomson

In the United States web searches for the word “essential” spiked between March 22 and March 28, 2020. The reason is not too mysterious. California announced statewide stay-at-home on March 19th. By March 30th there were similar orders in thirty states. Critical to the lockdown orders was the concept of “essential,” marking which services could continue in person. Across the country people struggled to understand the calculus by which some things closed and others remained opened.

Since the pandemic first disrupted life and work in North America, a steady stream of reports from the field have provided regular updates about “What’s going on in Jewish Education?” and how specific sectors have been coping. A recently released CASJE report, conducted by Rosov Consulting, takes a different tack. It uncovers what is happening in various sectors through the lens of human capital. As part of the “Mapping the Market” strand of CASJE’s Career Trajectories of Jewish Educators Study, this interim report conveys how the labor market in certain sectors of Jewish education has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.[1]

This focus on the labor market reveals a picture that is both familiar and fresh. It makes vivid just how inconsistent the impact of COVID-19 has been on the different sectors of Jewish education and how diverse the patterns of response have been to widely shared challenges. Still despite the diversity of the educational programs in the study, several themes emerged in looking at how COVID-19 affected Jewish education across sectors.

Special Status of Essential Programs
One key observation is the special status afforded to Jewish educational programs deemed essential and even the novelty of the very concept of essential as a framework for categorizing programs. Those sectors that provide services that people cannot do without, in particular childcare and day school education, seem to be emerging from the present moment in better shape than others. They have responded to the moment vigorously, although exactly what business models will prove sustainable for the early childhood sector is uncertain.

These two essential programs, early childhood and day school, are core providers of education (both general and Jewish) and of care for children. Without these programs, parents’ capacity to function day-to-day would be seriously impaired; children’s fundamental well-being and ongoing development would be compromised. Programs that continue to provide these basic functions through these challenging months have earned deep appreciation and gratitude; “big love,” as one interviewee put it. Stakeholder trust in and commitment to these programs may have grown as well.

Luxuries, Leisure Activities, and Nice-to-Haves
Other programs have been viewed differently. They may be perceived as luxuries, leisure activities, or nice-to-haves that enrich and enhance but can be relinquished in the near term. Some are perceived as peripheral obligations or burdens that can be discarded in stressful times – activities which may or may not be picked up again when some semblance of normalcy resumes. Those sectors whose services (in aggregate) are not perceived to reach the threshold of essential – congregational schools and local-level youth work stand out in this respect – have been severely challenged and have seen significant cuts in staff. As an example, parents who ensured their children’s attendance at in-person supplementary school may decide for now to opt-out of yet another virtual schooling program. Something similar was the case over the summer, when parents didn’t push their children to spend yet more hours on-screen to participate in “virtual camp.” Neither supplementary school nor camp were deemed essential by many.

In determining what programs are essential, one might also ask: essential to whom? As a Washington Post article offered, what is essential can be culturally determined. In Belgium, during the thick of lockdown, frites stands remained open; in France, wine stores. In Philadelphia (where Arielle lives) daycares closed and bike stores remained open in the spring; in the fall, public schools never opened but casinos did. In Israel (where Alex lives), there was consternation that falafel stands did not make the cut. This concept of essential, which took on new meaning and urgency in the pandemic, not only dictated what we could or could not do but also revealed who we were and what we prioritized.

Indeed, the word essential means not only that which is important. The word essential can also mean the innermost, elemental nature of a person or phenomenon. That which is deep-rooted, distinctive and fundamental; what lies at our core.

Audiences Determine Their Fundamental Needs
As diverse audiences for Jewish education weigh what is essential in their own lives, they also signal their sentiments about the field’s offerings through a new metric: those programs that respond to their most fundamental needs and those which are, frankly, optional. They distill programs down to what they see as the core components and central rationales and ask how necessary these programs are to them, their families and to their communities. We may not agree with all their calculations or think they are fair, but they certainly have a logic.

In a nation where leisure time for full-time employed professionals is decreasing and with younger American generations having less disposable income than previous ones, the optional may be more and more difficult to justify. Those sectors most threatened by the new calculus may need to reexamine their central rationales and better articulate their essence – and why they too are essential. 

The multi-year research project is generously funded by the William Davidson Foundation and Jim Joseph Foundation.

Arielle Levites is Managing Director of CASJE (Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education) housed at George Washington University. You can read more about CASJE’s work at

Alex Pomson is Principal and Managing Director at Rosov Consulting, a mission-driven company that works with funders and grantees to inform and improve Jewish education and engagement. For more information, visit