By Tamar Snyder
Earlier this year, several Jewish day schools in the northern New Jersey and Manhattan areas announced that they would be starting the 2015-2016 year on September 8 because Labor Day falls late this year. I quickly did some math and discovered that this meant my children would be off for 17 days during the summer, without camp or school. To put things in perspective, the average American employee is entitled to only 16 days of paid leave each year, including holidays.
Scrambling to arrange child care is always a Herculean task for dual-income working parents, but this year it will be even tougher. My husband, who works in the corporate world, barely gets enough vacation days to cover all the Jewish holidays. I am lucky enough to work in the Jewish not-for-profit world, where I have most Jewish holidays off, and am grateful for the flexibility my employer provides. Many friends of mine have it worse; both spouses work in jobs that are far less flexible. Finding quality child care is difficult and expensive. Many parents are left with the undesirable choice of taking several unpaid days off (if their employers allow it) or paying more than their daily take-home pay for child care that often covers fewer hours than the typical workday (think 9 a.m. – 4 p.m.).
The school start date is just emblematic of the struggles that working parents face in their quest to provide their children with high-quality Jewish education while also pursuing the dual careers that enable them to pay that hefty tuition bill. Given this shifting reality for two income parents (let alone the challenges that single parents face), why do many Jewish day schools come across as indifferent to their needs?
The good news is that things are starting to change, albeit slowly. Here are a handful of examples of ways in which some Jewish day schools are listening to and responding to the very real challenges faced by working parents.
Longer School Day
A small but growing number of Jewish day schools are beginning to open their doors as early as 7 a.m. and provide a variety of aftercare options that extend as late as 6 p.m. to accommodate working parents while also providing enriching educational opportunities for their students.
Even small tweaks can make a difference. A parent at the Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore told me that the school opens up the gym at 7:30 a.m. (classes start at 8:15 a.m.) for the younger children, who are supervised for no extra charge. “I can drop my kindergartener off early and get to work, and he gets to run around and play before sitting all day,” she said.
Use the Weekend
A growing number of Jewish day schools have changed their calendar so that siddur and Bible parties are held Sundays as opposed to midweek during working hours. This allows parents to enjoy these milestone events without having to take time off from work. Similarly, many schools offer Sunday hours for parent-teacher conferences, in addition to weeknight appointments, so that parents don’t need to leave work early to attend.
Last year, Yeshivat Noam, in Paramus, New Jersey, began livestreaming many of its programs, such as graduations, siddur parties and the third-grade Hanukkah show. Not only is this helpful for parents who are away on business trips or stuck at the office, but it also enables grandparents and other relatives who live far away to share in the celebration.
Fewer Days Off
After accounting for Jewish holidays, winter break and snow days, most Jewish day schools don’t meet the 180 days of school that are required of public schools in states like New York and New Jersey. Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which will begin school September 1, has school on almost every eve of Jewish holidays until noon or 1:30 p.m. (many Jewish day schools are off the entire day before a Jewish holiday). The students have school on Hanukkah and on the Chol Hamoed Sukkot, the intermediate days between Sukkot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah, and end the school year late in June, right before camp begins.
This past year, the school offered an extra hour of aftercare from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m. at no additional cost, and was surprised by the large number of families taking advantage of this option. “We are trying to work with families to provide aftercare and before-care, but it is truly an issue of cost,” said Ruth Gafni, head of school, adding that next year the school will likely have to charge for this program. “The children have to be supervised and supervised well, and there is a cost to that.”
Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, head of school at Yavneh Academy, in Paramus, believes that it is important to recognize and acknowledge the growing reality in our community of two parents working significant hours outside the home. “This trend developed years ago and has intensified in recent years,” he noted. Yavneh’s afterschool homework club has grown in popularity each year, and the school plans on introducing an after-care program next year for early childhood students. The program will end at 6 p.m.
The school, in conjunction with its board of directors, recently convened a working parents subcommittee to ensure that the concerns of working parents are an important part of future conversations and decisions. “The topic of accommodating working families is not a one-time conversation; rather, it is a conversation that will need to be revisited and reanalyzed from time to time.”
These changes are encouraging, but there is a lot more than can be done. I encourage heads of schools and principals, lay leaders and parents at Jewish day school to consider incorporating the suggestions mentioned above and brainstorming additional ideas. Convene a working parents group at your day school and bring the conversation about the realities facing working parents to the forefront. Doing so is in the best interest of our families, our children and ultimately the sustainability of the schools themselves.
Tamar Snyder is the Associate Director of Strategic Initiatives and Communications at Jewish Communal Fund (New York).