Jewish day schools are finding growth while encountering new risks to their identity and survival, according to a recent report.
Among the several gains registered in the last 20 years for the Jewish community in America, the growth of Jewish day schools stands near the head of the list. In one generation, enrollment has gone from less than 20,000 in the l940s to some 200,000 pupils in some 700 schools across the country today, writes Jack Wertheimer in Commentary magazine (December).
Overall, the percentage of time given directly to Jewish studies within these schools has risen to around 40 percent, with the figure being close to two-thirds in New York. While enrollment continues as always to be the highest in the Orthodox schools, the number of students in Reform, Conservative and interdenominational schools has risen an impressive 20 percent.
Undergirding this rise has been the “grassroots character” of support and the stress on both American and Jewish identity. However, a major crisis now faces these schools involving both finances and ideology. As with public education, Jewish day schools are facing huge deficits in financing. As the new day schools have added more time for Jewish subjects to their curricula, they have had to employ more teachers. As they reach out to the larger Jewish communities, especially the families unable to afford tuition, they have found a diminishing amount of funding for these programs.
The ideological crisis, emerges from the long standing reluctance of the organized Jewish community to contribute more to day schools, partly out of the fear of recreating a Jewish ghetto mentality, writes Wertheimer. The philanthropic community also fears the rise of government assistance to support the general-studies education offered by religious schools, especially the controversial program of vouchers. It’s argued that to allow public funds to be given to religious schools, in this case the Jewish schools, brings on the risk of government regulation of their schools.
This ideological conflict is a major threat to the future of these schools, he adds. The Jewish community must take the opportunities it has today to strengthen Jewish learning, without compromising the student’s loyalty to their American identity. Unless these schools can find ways to continue their proven ability to instill in them a love of all things Jewish, the rate of intermarriage with those outside the Jewish community will continue to escalate, and Jewish day schools will be populated only by the most highly dedicated and the wealthiest.
(Commentary, 165 E. 56th St., New York, NY 10022)
— By Erling Jorstad