Jewish Day School Education – A More Inclusive Model?

by Daniel S. Horwitz

This past week while in Beijing, I had one of those conversations that as a rabbi you dream about. Ben – a 26 year old resident of the local Moishe House who is a Toronto native and works at the Canadian Embassy – and I spent almost 3 hours over dinner discussing the ins and outs of the organized (and not so organized) Jewish community, Israel, and the future of the Jewish people.

Both he and I are products of Jewish day schools, and a healthy portion of our conversation focused on some of the issues inherent to day school education, with a particular emphasis on tuition figures. It’s no secret that the cost of Jewish private schooling (which we both value and want to provide for our children in the future) is skyrocketing so quickly that it may be impossible for those of us who value it most to afford it for our children. The data is pretty clear that a Day School education is one of the most significant, and also one of the (if not the) most impactful investments a parent can make in ensuring the Jewish identity development and communal affiliation of one’s child in the future.

In brainstorming ideas for how to make non-Orthodox Jewish Day School education more affordable (recognizing that cost is only one of a number of factors that parents consider when deciding whether or not to send their children to private school), we came across one that has taken root in some day schools across the country, but has not been adopted en masse by the organized Jewish community.

What if Jewish Day Schools were to follow the lead of Catholic schools and open their doors to both Jews and non-Jews?

For years Catholic schools have functioned as private schools open to those wanting to learn and willing to pay. In fact, they make up the largest non-governmental school system in the world, and include religious education as a core subject in their curriculum. The inclusion of religious education is one of the core reasons that Jewish parents choose to send their children to private Jewish day schools. I want my children to learn about the joy of Jewish holidays and Shabbat, how to daven in a traditional fashion, to be confident Hebrew speakers, and to form meaningful friendships with other Jewish children so that they’ll feel comfortable and welcomed into any Jewish community in the world as adults. I also want to avoid taking a second job in order to afford it.

It’s no secret that to be Jewish is in vogue right now, and while there may be some stereotypes in play as it relates to Jews and intellect, and while those stereotypes may in reality be damaging and unacceptable, there is without a doubt the opportunity to capitalize on them. Reports have surfaced of South Korean mothers reading the Talmud to their elementary school aged children, as doing so might result in their children “also be[ing] geniuses.” In China recently, a cartoon came out that explained “why Jews are so smart.” And in the USA, we toe a fine line between celebrating our accomplishments and being concerned about the potential of accompanying malice from others.

Perhaps it’s time to celebrate our accomplishments, and to use that celebration to attract non-Jewish families who are willing to pay full-freight (which can help subsidize tuition for Jewish students in need) to our Day Schools.

What are we afraid of? Intermarriage? Most young Jewish adults go on to pursue higher education after high school, with the overwhelming majority attending secular universities and then entering the “real world,” where they have the opportunity to date and fall in love with whomever they want. Plus, due to receiving better financial aid packages, this kind of admissions strategy would result in more Jewish students attending Jewish Day School, which has proven the be the strongest indicator of in-marriage.

Are we afraid that large-scale Jewish donors will cease to contribute to our Day Schools as a result of some of their funds potentially subsidizing the educations of non-Jewish students? It hasn’t stopped Jewish Vocational Services, Jewish Family Services and Jewish Community Centers from being major Federation beneficiaries around the country, despite a significant portion of those being served not being Jewish. Is / how / why should education be different?

Are we afraid that non-Jews will value a Jewish education so much more than Jews do that the student body might be majority non-Jewish? If so, that’s a sad commentary on the value we as a community place on Jewish education.

Are we so concerned that having non-Jewish classmates as children will result in our kids abandoning the Tribe, despite an environment filled to the brim with the joys of being Jewish, that we’re unwilling to explore creative ways to make Day School education more affordable for young Jewish families?

I recognize that for some this idea will be a bigger leap than for others, as we have a number of non-Orthodox Jewish Day Schools that don’t even admit those who affiliate as Jewish and/or are recognized as Jewish by major movements! And yet, there are already a large number of Jewish Day schools that allow non-Jews to enroll their children in nursery school and kindergarten programs, and a few that actually allow non-Jews to enroll at any grade level.

On a broad scale, what kind of message of insularity are we sending? How many enemies are we making? How many more Jewish children might attend a Jewish Day School if given a bit more financial aid; or, if you prefer, what would the positive communal benefits be if the most committed of our young Jewish families had a few more dollars in their pockets to donate / use towards youth groups, Jewish summer camps, etc.?

Our Day Schools should be joyful and rigorous – places where all students receive a top-notch education that prepares them to walk in the world as literate and proud Jews. To be competitive in the marketplace, both the Jewish and secular academics need to be excellent (the perceived lack of excellence in secular subjects is why many have sent their children to other private schools). I know of a large number of Jewish professionals and lay leaders who are products of Catholic school educations. Is it so unimaginable to envision a world in which non-Jews are the product of Jewish schooling?

Daniel S. Horwitz is the Rabbi and Director of Immersive Learning at Moishe House.