The Weight We Bear and the Significance We Offer: The Power of Jewish Day Schools in Small Communities

By Lynn Raviv

It is not because you are the most numerous of peoples that the LORD set His heart on you and chose you – indeed, you are the smallest of peoples… Deuteronomy 7:7

The viability of Jewish day schools has justly been a frequent topic on eJewishPhilanthropy, especially recently. The articles were in response to the difficult situation we are in with COVID-19. I share those concerns for all day schools, but in particular, I want to sound out the role played by Jewish day schools in small communities as it serves as a gauge of the vitality of Jewish communities in North America. And I also am reflecting on the present situation for it has only exacerbated the challenges we continue to face, hoping that plight might take priority as part of the ongoing conversations regarding the state of all Jewish communities. For that reason, local community Jewish leadership and national Jewish leadership, foundations and individuals, please “listen to our voice!

As a group, Jewish day schools in small communities are important in seeding the future of Judaism. A few years ago, I attended a gathering of 18 Jewish day schools from small communities. I took an inventory of the enrollments in those 18 schools. The aggregate number exceeded 1,000 students! One thousand young people who have the extraordinary experience of spending many hours of the day becoming knowledgeable and passionate about who they are as Jews, an experience that is preparing each of them to contribute to their Jewish heritage in the future.

We are in small communities. However, our schools are not “small,” as they are referred to many times. We are a formidable and dynamic force, and a critical player in strengthening Jewish identity and continuity throughout North America. There are over 100 schools throughout the U.S. and Canada with enrollments fewer than 300, many under 100. But the value proposition of these schools is not the number of students enrolled. Instead it is measured in the experience that has prepared the alumni to make positive impacts in their respective communities, both Jewish and the extended community and, in addition, the further impact that many of the alumni have and are making on the larger Jewish community, here and abroad.

As a group, Jewish day schools in small communities are not the tallest trees in the forest. Yet an important fact is that peripheral, smaller, and even marginal trees are essential parts of the ecosystem, providing the diversity needed for overall health and sustainability. “Small” is an inaccurate moniker, for nothing we do is truly small. We educate thousands of students who will one day take their places among all Jewish day school alumni in the leadership positions of our People.

Our curricula, our goals, and our graduates are no different from those of the “bigger” schools. We offer our students an environment where they are fully immersed in both Judaic and secular studies, positioning them to connect meaningfully with Jewish texts, the Hebrew language and the artifacts of Jewish civilization, in order to engage with the values and beliefs that our Torah teaches, as well as achieving success in the secular world. Our programs are as progressive and productive as the ones in the “bigger” schools. The very fact of our demographics forces us to be strong academic institutions, at the top of our game, because we have so many competitors.

Together, the day schools in small communities’ network loom large. We are a dynamic network seeding other communities. Our alumni can be counted among those who care deeply about the future of our People and who are making a difference in Jewish life. We accomplish this mission even though Jewish day schools in small communities face tremendous obstacles to stay viable. We have a smaller base from which to recruit students. We have a smaller donor base. Hiring experienced and exceptional faculty, especially Judaic and Hebrew instructors, is challenging.

Yet what would a small Jewish community look like without its day school? What kind of rabbinic presence would we be able to maintain? What will happen to our synagogues without a strong rabbinical presence? What will happen to the Jewish population of our small cities? If those small communities die out because there is not a day school, and then no synagogues, what will be the impact on the larger Jewish community and even the larger secular community? Jews are among the most generous benefactors of the arts, hospitals, universities, and other major community endeavors. If large metropolitan areas are the only places that Jews people live, and smaller communities no longer have a Jewish presence, the richness of Jewish life and experience, its variety and flavor, will be diminished.

As strong Jewish institutions, we advocate to push our agenda to identify ourselves to make known the weight that we bear and the significance that we offer. We cannot cede all Jewish life in America to the big coastal cities. American Jews have always lived meaningful Jewish lives even when vastly outnumbered by their non-Jewish neighbors. Day schools in these communities were and are the key. We need to make our presence, our history and our success known to the world community.

The Talmud tells us that a town without schoolchildren is doomed to destruction. We cannot allow 100+ Jewish towns to be destroyed because we think only in terms of profit and loss or big and small. Jewish education is about prophets, not profit. Jewish education is about making a big difference even in a small environment. As part of the whole of the Jewish day school institution, we make our case and continue to make our mark on the Jewish future.

We, the network of Jewish day schools in small communities, strive to remain a force in Jewish life. We cannot do it without the support of local and national community partners. In 2017, Rosov Consulting published a richly researched “Thought and Action” paper for the Jewish Education and Engagement Office of The Jewish Federations of North America. It sought to answer the questions, “What does the day school landscape look like? In what ways might local Federations, central agencies and JFNA contribute to the well-being of this field?” The result was a playbook identifying ways that these agencies and other organizations, foundations and individuals can contribute to the ongoing vitality of these institutions.

To the local and national Jewish leaderships and others, hear our voice. What suggestions made by Rosov resonate for you? What contributions make sense for your organization to consider? How can you use your voice to make the case for Jewish day school education?

Validate our mission for the sake of Jewish education. Acknowledge the plight of Jewish day schools in small communities along with their sister larger schools as we navigate through these rough waters. Help us continue the important work we have the privilege and responsibility to carry out. We share in the mission and goals of all Jewish education institutions. We are a formidable and dynamic force, and a critical player in strengthening Jewish identity and continuity throughout North America.

Lynn W. Raviv is a founding member and past president of RAVSAK, a former director of the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School in Birmingham, Alabama, and an executive coach for Jewish day school administrators.