Taking from the Poor to Pay for Day Schools is Not the Way to Improve Jewish Education

by Daniel Avraham ben David Kalmen v’Sara

A recent article in the Forward, by Jerome A. Chanes, discusses the perennial issue of why we must focus our Jewish education efforts on day schools and how to make them affordable. “The system, at least with respect to the most prominent prescription for the [Jewish] future – education – is broken. Jewish parents find themselves increasingly caught between rising day school tuitions and declining real-dollar income. Teachers’ salaries in many Jewish day schools are disgraceful. And because in tough economic times, schools cannot afford to alienate anyone, day schools are increasingly parent-driven – not necessarily a good thing. Add to these a rather flaccid commitment on the part of federations to Jewish education. The system is collapsing.” He worries that, “The Hebrew-based charter school represents a further erosion of the classic text-based Jewish curriculum… The charter schools take this erosion to a new, dangerous, level by separating Hebrew learning from Judaism completely.” He concludes that charter schools are a distraction and only reallocation of more Federation funds towards day schools will fix the broken system.

Dr. Chanes put forth an almost identical solution in a 2009 article for The NY Jewish Week. He hadn’t happened upon the Charter school bogeyman yet, but he did detail which priorities federations need to shift. He urges that federations spend more money subsidizing day school tuition and less money on gyms, immigrant aid, child care for those in need, and poverty programs. He rationalizes this by noting most of the poverty related federation programs spend a lot of money on non-Jews, and, “most analysts agree that Jewish poverty is, in 2009, not the pressing issue for the community.”

Dr. Chanes is not the only opinionator preaching the doom of Jewish peoplehood that can only be avoided if we massively increase donations to day schools. I’m highlighting him because he’s one of the only ones brave enough – at least in 2009 – to say what charitable causes he considers less important than day schools. I (and a few millennia of Jewish ethical principles) might differ with his funding priorities. It’s also questionable if the UJA-Federation of NY, with annual grants of $167 million is even big enough to meaningfully subsidize the 93,000 day school children just in NYC. I’m also doubtful federations would receive their current levels of donations if they followed his suggestions. Still, I give Dr. Chanes credit for being willing to propose where the money should come from.

My bigger concern is that the basic solution for improving Jewish education woes through massive increases in subsidies to day schools, proposed by Dr. Chanes and others, ignores the greater problem we face in giving the next generation the education they need to live Jewish lives. In discussing the importance of day schools in The NY Jewish Week, Chanes notes that almost 30% of Jewish children in the NY area study in a day school or yeshiva. Even taking that number at face value, in the US region with probably the greatest proportion of Jewish day school attendees, over 70% of Jewish children don’t attend them! Many don’t receive any formal Jewish education. And there’s no evidence that any remotely realistic reallocation of Jewish philanthropy towards day school tuition subsidies will shift these percentages by a useful amount. For example, a 2001 report from the AVI CHAI Foundation by Jack Wertheimer notes that, assuming a $10,000 cost per student, it would require an extra $1 billion a year to support a 50% increase US day school enrollment. An article in the Forward – in the very same issue as Dr. Chanes’ article – details how a $65 million effort by the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education has helped created new day schools and improved quality, but did little to increase the total number of children actually attending.

Many day schools provide a quality secular education paired with more hours devoted to Judaics than any other option. The children who attend them are given the skills, and frequently the desire, to be vital and active members of our communities. Day schools have unquestionably earned the Jewish community’s intellectual and financial support. However, a narrow focus on supporting day schools as the primary means to educate future Jews shortchanges the educational needs of the vast majority of Jewish children.

We need to find ways to bring more children into formal Jewish education, starting at young ages. We need to work together to improve the quality of Jewish education for children in all forms of educational programs. We need to innovate, document, and evaluate new models of Jewish education to increase the quality and content of Jewish education for children inside and outside day schools.

New models like Hebrew language charter schools paired with afterschool education in Judaics (Dr. Chanes seems to have forgotten to mention the afterschool Judaics component in his Forward article), might be a good fit for some families and communities, but not others. Programs like Kesher and Edah are trying to take the daily afterschool hours, when many families need childcare, and use them for Jewish education. I’m part of an effort to set up a similar program, currently called WMAJA, on the Maryland/ D.C. border. I described my vision in a bit more detail in an article for CJ Magazine. These afterschool programs won’t be the right fit for every Jewish family, but they do have the advantage of being mostly self-supporting (after the start-up years), and they can give children who aren’t in day schools – for a variety of reasons – more Jewish education than they’re currently getting.

I won’t pretend that I can detail the perfect direction for Jewish education in a single blog post or ever. However, I hope to continue using this space to delve into some of these topics in greater depth. I’ll try to bring in a bit of Jewish education history (never that good), our current status (not so bad), and possible improvements. I also plan to write about my own program-creation efforts and how these relate to the bigger picture. There are probably some other topics I’ll touch on as appropriate.

Daniel Avraham is an active volunteer in his local Jewish community. He is working with a team of parents and leaders from multiple synagogue to create a Jewish aftercare program called WMAJA.

This article first appeared on Jewschool.