By Seth Goldsweig
Anyone closely following current events in Toronto’s Jewish day school world likely came across an exciting recent article. According to the article (More Students Applying to Jewish High School in Toronto), many more elementary Jewish day school students are applying to TanenbaumCHAT, Toronto’s Jewish community high school, this year (85% of elementary day school graduates) than just a few years ago (57% of day school graduates in 2017). It appears that a recent decrease in the price of tuition – made possible by generous contributions from several philanthropic donors – has had a very positive impact on school enrolment. This is cause for tremendous optimism for the future state of Jewish day school education in Toronto, especially at the high school level. However, as with most stories, the data can also tell us a different narrative. In the 2009-2010 school year there were just over 1450 students studying at TanenbaumCHAT, spread out over two campuses. Since then, they closed one of their campuses, and this year there are 1017 students at the school. While the school is in a much healthier place financially, in a mere 10 years about 435 fewer students are taking part in Toronto’s community high school Jewish day school experience. So are we looking at a story of promise or one of loss?
This same two-sided story can be told about many of the non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Toronto. A number have closed campuses, resulting in fewer overall students, but their remaining campuses are significantly more financially sustainable for the long-term. In the 2009-2010 school year there were 5954 students enrolled in non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Toronto. Currently, the number stands at 4656 students. While the schools appear to be in a better place financially, there are 1298 fewer students in the school system, a decrease of 22% since 2009. Again, are we looking at a happy story of more financially sustainable schools or a sad tale of fewer students learning in Jewish day schools?
While pursuing a doctorate in educational leadership, I focused my dissertation research on leadership perspectives on the financial sustainability of the non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Toronto. Like many other communities, leaders in Toronto are concerned about the financial sustainability of the Jewish day school system. There are three ideas from my study that I will share in this article: the importance of perceived value and commitment, collaboration, and the need for adaptive solutions.
First let’s look at the issue of perceived value. School leaders identified the two major issues of Jewish day school sustainability as affordability and perceived value. This is not surprising as the academic and editorial literature identified these two topics as the main issues facing the future success of non-Orthodox Jewish day school education in North America. During my research, I read the available literature and synthesized a list of 32 sustainability strategies that have been implemented by schools across North America. The list is available here. Most of the strategies relate to affordability and cutting costs. Only five are directly related to increasing the perceived value and another four could be indirectly related to improving perceived value. This means that the remaining 23 strategies focused on affordability.
I would argue that the current efforts towards Jewish day school sustainability mostly focusing on cost and affordability have not solved the crisis. There have been several success stories across North America, but the overall picture still has fewer schools and fewer students every year (Rosov, 2017). We need a different approach. I believe it is time to tackle this idea of increasing the level of perceived value for families that are on the fence with greater ferocity. There are many studies and articles that can be used to to highlight greater student success in university by day school graduates, the long-term value of Jewish day school, and the impact on Jewish identity formation, to name a few. It’s a start, but we need more empirical and anecdotal evidence, word of mouth, and positive publicity that can be used to convince families that the value of Jewish day school education is worth the cost. We also need to work harder at appealing to families to consider Jewish day school that may not be considering it at all. There are many families in Toronto, and elsewhere, where affordability is not an issue but they have not been convinced of the value of Jewish day school and are sending their children to other private schools.
The second idea to consider is collaboration. Throughout the questionnaire and interviews in my study, there was much talk of the need to solve the issue collaboratively as a community. Each school working on its own may be good for the one school, but not as good for the long-term sustainability of the whole Jewish day school system. Due to its complex nature and far-reaching impact, the only effective way to solve the Jewish day school sustainability crisis involves schools working together. In Toronto, the heads of all the Jewish day schools – Orthodox and non-Orthodox – meet monthly to discuss issues and share best practices. The Toronto Jewish Federation (UJA) is currently working on securing funding for a multimillion dollar endowment to support middle-income families with tuition assistance for all schools. All of these are examples of communal collaboration. There is reason to be hopeful as the enrollment at the community high school is steadily increasing. However, the high school in Toronto will only continue to thrive if the elementary schools are also flourishing. The elementary schools also need the full support of the community. It is in everyone’s best interest to work together.
Finally, I suggest that the time has come for adaptive solutions. In his book, Leadership Without Easy Answers, Ronald Heifetz talks about the difference between technical and adaptive problems. Some “problems are technical in the sense that we know already how to respond to them” (1994, Pg. 71). Solutions for technical problems already exist. The issue can be identified and there is a known solution to solve the problem. Other problems are adaptive problems “that demand innovation and learning” (Pg. 8). There do not yet exist clear solutions to adaptive problems. More innovation and learning must occur in order to determine a new solution to this problem.
The solution to the long-term financial sustainability of Jewish day school is not a technical one. If it was, then we would have already found the answer. The solution will require out-of-the-box thinking and bold ideas as we work to create something that has yet to be even imagined. Many of the leaders that answered my survey and others that I interviewed acknowledged that the issue is too complex to solve it alone. The solution will be best achieved when working collaboratively, not in separate silos, to innovate new adaptive solutions.
The challenge of Jewish day school financial sustainability is an adaptive problem that has no clear solution. It will take new learning and fresh ideas to solve the issue, and a recognition that the community must work together to improve the perceived value and ensure the viability of Jewish day school education.
Seth Goldsweig is an administrator at The Leo Baeck Day School in Toronto, Canada. His PhD dissertation in Educational Leadership from Lesley University and Hebrew College is on the leadership perspectives of the financial sustainability of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in Toronto.
Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Rosov Consulting (2017). Challenges and opportunities on the Jewish day school landscape:
A thought and action paper for Jewish federations. The Jewish Education Engagement Office of The Jewish Federations of North America. Retrieved from: