The High Cost of Jewish Continuity: Affording a Jewish Day School Education

Politz Day School via FaceBook

By Alisha Abboudi

Population surveys and demographic studies of the past thirty years show that effective Jewish education is the single best vehicle to ensure Jewish continuity – the idea that Judaism’s values and heritage will continue to pass from generation to generation by those identifying as Jewish, regardless of denomination. As the great Talmudist Adin Steinsaltz said, “a Jew is not someone whose grandparents are Jewish but someone who wants his or her grandchildren to be Jewish.” Yet Jewish day school enrollment in America is among the lowest in the world. It comes as no surprise that according to the 2013 Pew Research Study, “A Portrait of Jewish Americans,” that of the 7.2 million Americans who have at least one Jewish parent, 2.1 million don’t identify as Jews.

The good news: population surveys and demographic studies have identified Jewish education as the key to Jewish continuity. The bad news? Just as many studies have shown that mounting day school tuition costs are not sustainable. Combined with a low value proposition, high tuition has made day school the least likely choice for most American Jews. In some areas, day school tuition can be as high as $30,000 per child, while in states with a lower cost of living the price tag may be “only” $10,000 or $15,000 per child. This all begs the question: how can the Jewish community continue paying for Jewish education?

Let’s look back to 1990. A “continuity crisis” had engulfed the Jewish community, with reports of waning affiliation, especially among the young. The National Jewish Population Survey shocked the Jewish community with its claim that roughly half of American Jews intermarried. In response, the organized Jewish community mobilized on several fronts. Jewish learning moved to the forefront of the communal agenda as leaders viewed day schools as American Jewry’s best hope. Day schools were no longer solely the province of Orthodox families or those who sought an alternative to public school; they were for any family who cared deeply about raising Jewish children. But by 1995, day schools were “seriously underfunded,” according to a comprehensive study of day school finances commissioned by the AVI CHAI Foundation. A flurry of activity to improve and build day schools (in addition to high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews), resulted in significant enrollment growth. By 2008, there were more than 800 Jewish day schools in the United States, matriculating over 225,000 students – an increase of 25% over 10 years.

Yet a sense of foreboding persisted. Despite enrollment growth, day school attendance in America was still too low. While the devastating economic events of 2008 rocked Jewish day schools nationwide, the crisis had been brewing for years. The inconsistent historic positions that Jewish Federations have held regarding funding Jewish education played their own roles. The Federation movement’s contribution of 12.5% of national day school budgets in the mid-1990s (today constituting today just 5% of total giving) has set the tone for keeping Jewish education on the philanthropic backburner.

Regardless of size or denomination, all day schools today share ongoing financial worries. Most experience shortfalls due to the added expenses of a dual curriculum, longer school day, larger faculty, security expenses, and higher administrative costs, to name just a few. But what has largely fueled the tuition crisis is the need for scholarships due to the challenging economy.

So, what happens now? With the very real threats facing day schools, communal organizations have mobilized once again, with an eye on creating viable and long-term structural changes. Several interventions have recently emerged: a focus on enrollment growth, tuition pricing and middle income affordability initiatives, fundraising and endowment building, advocacy for government funding, cost cutting via school collaborations and communal funding initiatives, and new education models such as blended learning.

While compelling arguments can be made for all of these initiatives, I firmly believe that a focus on securing government funding should be at the forefront. At the very least, we should be having a more intentional and meaningful conversation within the greater Jewish community regarding public funding for private schools. The Orthodox Union’s Teach Advocacy Network has suggested that if we rely solely on philanthropy and endowments, the funds needed to sustain Jewish day schools dwarf by far the current endowments of all U.S. Jewish Federations.

It has become increasingly clear that financial viability cannot depend on annual tuition increases, nor can schools afford to neglect implementing best practices to increase enrollment and decrease attrition. Jewish day schools will survive only if they can tap new revenue sources. To that end, Politz Day School is excited to welcome Maury Litwack, Executive Director of the OU’s Teach Advocacy Network, to speak to our community on Sunday, January 7 about the OU’s enormous success working with federal and state policymakers to secure $515 million in government funding for Jewish Schools, synagogues, and other nonpublic entities across the United States.

Let’s commit to seeking a solution to the Jewish Day School affordability crisis by joining together on January 7, if for no other reason than to jumpstart the conversation. A solution can and must be found to keep day schools not only open but accessible to middle income families and those who are ambivalent about their Judaism. Otherwise, this effective, transformative, and necessary tool in perpetuating Jewish continuity will only be available to the most dedicated or most wealthy families.

Alisha Abboudi, MSNPM, is Director of Philanthropy at Politz Day School, Cherry Hill, NJ.