W(H)ither the Jewish Federation

The data are in and the results are clear: Jewish day schools make a difference.

By Barbara Davis

Smellovision and Odorama didn’t do it; 3D and 4DX aren’t doing it. The great movie-going demographic just isn’t going to the multiplex like they used to. Books are no longer printed; ebooks are replacing them. Drone cameras capture your most precious moments from marriage proposals to births, and perhaps other moments that you don’t want immortalized. Cars drive themselves and Siri will fly your plane. Why would we expect Jewish organizations to be exempt from these radical changes? The Jewish Federation movement is a product of a time and place that no longer exists. So what is its role in the present and the future?

Historian Edward Shapiro identified two broad themes in the history of American Jewry: “One is the rapid social and economic mobility of American Jews. By the 1980s, American Jewry was the nation’s only major ethnic group without a significant working class component.” The second is the adaptation of Jews to unprecedented affluence and freedom. “Values, ideologies and identities forged under conditions of deprivation and discrimination in Europe and the immigrant ghettos of America” now exist within a different context. “As the disabilities of being Jewish lessened, the external pressures on Jews to identify in any significant way as Jews and to associate with the Jewish community also weakened.”

Rabbi Sid Schwartz wrote that the Jewish baby boomer generation, born after World War II, had “a vastly different psyche than the generation of Jews who built the Jewish organizational structure” that existed until the end of the 20th century. The new generation, he wrote, “does not respond viscerally to appeals based on the Holocaust or the State of Israel; they do not defer automatically to religious or communal authority figures; they do not derive their sense of place in American society primarily based on their Jewish connections.” The same could be said of their offspring, in spades.

So at the beginning of the 21st century, the Jewish community in America has to confront a question that had been at the heart of their experience since arriving in the New World: are they American Jews or Jewish Americans? Or had they, in the melting pot of American life, become just Americans?

And where does this leave the Federations? A review of the mission statements of Federations from around the country reveals that their priorities have historically been synagogues, central agencies for Jewish education, JCCs, Hillels, youth movements, adult education and summer camps. Perhaps the precarious state in which the Federation movement finds itself today is attributable to the glaring question: Where’s the beef?

Jewish day schools have been notably absent from the Federation agenda. A 1995 study by Steven Cohen which found that “all forms of Jewish education, except Sunday school, are associated with higher levels of Jewish identity” and that “the putative effects of day school, including non-Orthodox day schools, are especially pronounced,” was largely ignored. A 1997 study by PEJE found that “on average, local federations provide approximately 5% of the funds needed to educate each child in day school.” It is only recently that notice of the impact and importance of Jewish day schools in the Jewish community of the 21st century has been taken by the Federation world.

The time has come for Federations to take day school education off the back burner, to champion it, to support it, to see it for what it is: the guarantor of a Jewish future. The old “dual enrollment” model of public school plus Hebrew school is no longer valid for the Jewish community of the 21st century. If we are to have a future, it must be one founded upon the advantages, both educational and social, that day schools offer. Synagogues are no longer the most important institutions for socializing the young into the Jewish community (not enough people belong), nor are JCCs (not enough Jews belong) or Jewish camps (not enough time is spent there). The best and most effective model for imparting Jewish values, Jewish content and Jewish spirituality to the young are day schools, with their day to day immersion in Jewish thought, history, ethics, prayer, Hebrew language and Torah. The data are in and the results are clear: Jewish day schools make a difference; their graduates are more involved Jewishly than any other cohort; their commitment to Jewish life is stronger and their influence on the larger Jewish community is greater.

It is time that the Federation movement recognized and acted upon the need to sustain, support and champion Jewish day schools. Because, as Peter Beinart wrote in a recent book review, “When American Jews were more ghettoized, Jewish continuity did not require Jewish learning. Today, when Jewish continuity is a choice, it does.”

Barbara Davis is a member of the Board of Directors of RAVSAK, the Jewish Community Day School Network and editor of “HaYidion.”