The Jewish Day School Conundrum

Most people would acknowledge the importance of the Jewish day school in providing the foundations for continuity and sustainability of the Jewish people. And yet, in many cities, the sustainability of the Jewish day school itself is at risk.

Melbourne, Australia is a shining light in the world of Jewish day schools. A small community of about 60,000 in a city of over four million, it boasts eight schools – from ultra-Orthodox to Bundist and everything in between – and a penetration rate of more than 50%. Campuses are large and fitted out with magnificent halls, swimming pools, and performing arts facilities.

Yet even here, the rising cost of private school education poses huge risks for the future, and the schools are collectively considering options to reduce the cost to parents.

When considering the sustainability of any business or organisation, it comes down to two simple things – revenue and expenses – and therefore options to either increase revenue or decrease expenses. The initiatives presented by Harry Bloom on this site fall broadly within these straight parameters. Schools have high fixed costs (mostly salaries) and low marginal costs per student (there is often room in any given class for an extra few students). The cost cutting is really on the edges – group buying, shared services, and such. Revenue increases can come from broader and smarter fundraising, but depending on the community capacity, that can have limits.

The most exciting way to boost revenue presented was establishing linkages with Israeli universities to create leading edge curriculums in desirable subjects. This has the dual positive of increasing enrollment, and making an explicit link to a “sister” institution in Israel. Assuming a school has extra capacity, it is far better to find twenty extra students than to obtain the equivalent additional revenue through fundraising.

This is only the tip of the iceberg.

Jewish schools are already existing, and expensive, community infrastructure. Right now, they have direct contact with the students who attend. However, there is so much “adjacent space” to the market they currently serve: parents, past students, friends of these who don’t or didn’t attend the school, people who live nearby (and don’t attend). Why not leverage and extend the schools into “community hubs” – centres that facilitate multiple ways that the community can engage with their Jewishness.

These schools should be partnering with community organizations that can use their infrastructure to deliver programs without a huge incremental cost: shul services, Shabbat meals, and post-school youth activities are just a few that come to mind.

Here’s a great example of this in action: in Melbourne, JewishCare is the largest provider of aged and community care to the Jewish community, with an annual budget of around USD $45M. They operate several aged-care residences and each one has a shul and employs a young Rabbi to do pastoral care, Kashrut supervision, and run services. These little shuls have by default become community hubs – attracting not just residents and family members who come to visit, but neighbours as well. This is a win/win/win. Residents of the home and their family members are more closely engaged with the local community, neighbours can be part of an intimate “shtiebel” and thus find additional ways to connect with their Jewishness, and JewishCare as a whole extends its reach to new stakeholders.

Recent research into the Jewish community in Australia has shown that Jewish day school education is not the panacea for reducing intermarriage that many people think. It is just one of many ways to engage with one’s Jewish identity. Youth groups, Israel, and home environment are all important contributors in establishing a Jewish identity strong enough that it can be effectively transmitted to the next generation. This is why a multifaceted approach is so important.

By combining the principles of seeking to increase revenue from Jewish schools, building multiple points of engagement to Jewishness, and maximizing the use of existing community infrastructure, the approach to the challenge of Jewish continuity is completely different.

With some collaboration and imagination, Jewish schools can do this and more on a much larger scale. Instead of being places unengaged people drive or walk past, we can use them as ways to engage a far broader base. The multiplier effect of having several ways to connect with Jewishness, and to do this using existing infrastructure is not only cost effective, but also brings benefits to the school, to the community, and enhances Jewish continuity.

David Werdiger is a director of Australian Jewish Funders, a past director and current committee member of JewishCare, a technology entrepreneur, and a writer and public speaker. You can connect with David on LinkedInFacebookTwitter, or Google+.