If we can all share the common belief that we want a strong, vibrant Jewish community for the next generation and we understand that our community is strengthened by our diversity and knowledge, then we must take bold action.
by Bil Zarch
Recently, I’ve been thinking a lot about the affordability of Jewish day schools. As a matter of fact, I’ve lost a bit of sleep over it. I am committed to sending my young children to a Jewish day school. Even before hired to head one, I swayed my wife, an ardent public school supporter, to see the overwhelming benefits of a Jewish day school education. I wholeheartedly believe that Jewish day schools are one way to ensure Jewish continuity. I believe that we may have taken a thing or two for granted about who are families are today versus who they were a generation or two ago. Today, in non-Orthodox communities, the all-too-real concern is that not many people share my conviction in choosing a Jewish day school for their children. This doesn’t mean that they can’t be convinced or that they won’t be swayed once they walk through the door, but the reality is that we are starting the process with many young parents in the defensive position. Jewish day schools are amazing breeding grounds for leaders. Graduate after graduate become eloquent and passionate groundbreakers in both Jewish and secular societies; they serve as role models not only in their high aspirations for success, but more importantly in their beliefs and values. Their sense of purpose is strong, and many of them credit their Jewish day school education for paving the way to their achievements and successes. I would be overjoyed to see my own children follow the path of many of these young people.
Before addressing affordability, I want to delve a bit into the point of view of my peers, Jewish parents. The concept of a cohort is probably the single most important recruiting tool we have for any educational institution. At the Jewish day schools and supplementary programs with which I have been involved, including Prozdor Hebrew High School at Hebrew College in Boston, Lander-Grinspoon Academy in Northampton, MA and Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore, our strongest recruiting tool was indisputably the “mommy (or daddy) brigade,” which is defined as those happy parents who tell others why they love the school and how their children are flourishing; these parents are without a doubt our strongest, most influential, unpaid recruiters.
For argument’s sake, let’s agree that the Jewish day school movement began to enjoy a real cachet starting in the late 80’s, throughout the 90’s and into the first part of the 2000’s. During that time, one of the rarely spoken about elements of success in Jewish day schools was the parent body cohort that was incredibly committed to Jewish life and living. There was a strong desire and commitment for a Jewish education. The word cohort is the important feature of that statement. Please understand that I am not suggesting that today’s parents aren’t as committed to Jewish life and living as those from several years back. Instead, from my focused experience in Jewish education, I can qualitatively say that there has been an attitudinal shift in how my generation parents Jewishly. Just look at how different the landscape of Jewish life is; it would be virtually impossible for us to go back to what once was nor am I recommending to do so.
Choice is abundant. Who doesn’t appreciate changing things up every once and a while? I sure do. We hop from shul to shul checking out what feels right without any sense of obligation. We meet at a bar to talk about Jewish life with a young rabbi. Some of us connect more powerfully to food and enjoy pop-up Shabbat festivities where the menu rivals any new, hip downtown restaurant. Jewish life is not what it was when we were kids. Did we expect that it would be? This generation wants to be part of a society where everything moves at laser-fast speed and looks sleek. Some of my peers feel a strong impulse to give their children almost every choice possible, including what school to attend; though most of us would never dream of asking our children which physician they prefer, when it comes to schooling, inhibitions are sometimes thrown out the window.
In the end, it simply comes down to one fact; the Jewish future is the entire Jewish community’s responsibility. Our communal leadership needs to see affordability of Jewish life as an adaptive problem as opposed to a technical one. In their book Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading, Ronald Heifitz and Marty Linsky challenge readers to think about technical versus adaptive problems stating, “They cannot be solved by someone who provides answers from on high. We call these adaptive challenges because they require experiments, new discoveries, and adjustments from numerous places in the organization or community.” We have poured lots of money and resources into our communal organizations; yet, in some cases, we are lagging woefully behind. There are a number of Jewish organizations (including day schools) that have had the good fortune of being benefactors of generous philanthropists. We should applaud, laud, and learn. What made them attractive to those families? How do we move from the technical to the adaptive?
For a moment, let’s go back to those families that sent their Kindergarteners to a Jewish day school in 2001. Back then Kindergarten tuition was $8,190 at my current school. We had more students who wanted to come than we could even accommodate. A person could manage to pay tuition in the vicinity of $800 a month per child while still saving money for living and retirement. Today, thirteen years later, some of us ask families to pay double or triple that to send their children to a Jewish day school while salaries have not doubled or tripled in that same time period. While I acknowledge that Jewish day schools in certain urban centers get a high-asking price and have wait-lists, I maintain that even these schools will eventually hit a ceiling that will shatter.
So, what’s my adaptive solution? First, we need to communicate our message effectively; we must convey it in a meaningful and relevant way to a generation that doesn’t see it the same way it has been traditionally understood. If Jewish day schools are a communal responsibility (as opposed to supplementary schools, which are usually housed at a synagogue), then I implore us to debate the merits of a yearly minimal day school tax to be assessed on every member of a synagogue, Federation, JCC, or other Jewish organization in our communities. It would have to be carefully orchestrated with exacting precision, but imagine the message it would send to our children. This would not be considered a donation rather a tax to be shared by all the communities’ day schools. I would even consider the option of having this money go into a super fund generating significant endowment dollars for our schools. While in Northampton, I lived through a highly contentious override for the public schools (which passed); the next year I received a detailed report from the public schools explaining what the money was spent on. I couldn’t argue its validity and appreciated having the opportunity to read the district’s priorities.
We should and can learn a lot from other faith-based educational institutions. For instance, the Archdiocese system is an interesting model for us to explore deeply. They have been able to get the greater community, many of whom do not send their children to affiliated Catholics schools, to globally support their system of schools.
In the end, you may or may not send your children to a Jewish day school. You may be an ardent supporter of public schools, which I strongly believe in as well. You may not even have children. Regardless, if we can all share the common belief that we want a strong, vibrant Jewish community for the next generation and we understand that our community is strengthened by our diversity and knowledge, then we must take bold action.
Is my idea realistic? Maybe, maybe not. But if it continues to flame the debate about what is the communal responsibility for Jewish day schools, then it also serves an important purpose. Maybe someone else will take my idea and tweak it. What do you think? What is the community’s responsibility?
Bil Zarch is Head of School, Krieger Schechter Day School in Baltimore.