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What Price Jewish Education?

May 17, 2007 By:
Jonathan S. Tobin
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For those who have been promoting the idea that Jewish communities must cease talking about the importance of day school education and start funding it adequately, the news late last month out of New Jersey was long overdue.

The Metrowest federation announced the launch on April 29 of a $50-million campaign that will seek to increase enrollment and academic excellence at the three Jewish day schools that serve their Northern New Jersey region.

According to the New Jersey Jewish News, 11 local families are already putting up $13.5 million toward the campaign, whose purpose will be to supplement current inadequate levels of funding for scholarships to the schools.

The plan is specifically aimed at helping middle-class families who may be too well off to qualify for current scholarship programs whose function is to help only those on the bottom of the economic ladder.

A Proven Equation
Past experiments such as one in the 1990s in Seattle and the experience of one of the participating New Jersey schools, has shown that if tuitions are offered at a significant discount from the $10,000 to $25,000 that is routinely charged at schools around the country, then enrollment increases.

In that sense, New Jersey is no different from that of any other community. The exorbitant tuition fees charged by day schools can create a situation where quality Jewish education is the province of only the very well off who can afford any price and the relatively poor who are eligible for scholarships. Everybody who doesn't fit into either category has to shoulder the burden of paying sky-high prices. In particular, families with two, or three, or more kids in the system are asked to make enormous sacrifices.

While studies show that most Orthodox families will choose day schools no matter what the price, the vast majority of American Jews who are not Orthodox must be wooed by the day school movement. Unfortunately, the sticker shock created by the school's price tags are often enough to deter many parents.

The losers in that transaction are not just the children who will not get the immersion in Jewish heritage, values and Hebrew that only day schools can give them. An even bigger loser is the community as a whole.

That's because it has been proven over and over again that day schools do the best job in producing adult Jews who consider themselves part of the Jewish people. Such people stand out from the vast majority of American Jews, most of whom are functional illiterates when it comes to the vast treasure that makes up Jewish identity.

Day schools are not the only possible positive factor. Being raised in a home where Judaism is a priority and not a marginal burden is obviously a prerequisite. Summer camps and trips to Israel are also influential. Nor should we discount the effect of a really good supplemental synagogue school.

But excellent Hebrew schools are still the exception, not the rule. There's no doubt that day schools remain the best investment that American Jewry can make and that their students will form the core of the community of the future.

But after we sing the praises of the New Jersey plan, observers must still wonder if it will succeed. Elsewhere, such efforts have been announced before, only to fall short of their goals because of the lack of public support.

Most troubling is the fact that a large portion of American Jewry is still uninterested in day schools at any price. As essays in an interesting collection edited by Jack Wertheimer on the question, Family Matters: Jewish Education in an Age of Choice, published by Brandeis University Press, point out, those of us who are more concerned with being "ghettoized" and cut off from the rest of society are unlikely to choose a day school.

That is a largely unfounded fear. Outside of tiny ultra-Orthodox enclaves, it is impossible to isolate Jewish kids from mainstream secular culture. A far greater danger is the fact that most Jewish baby boomers are Jewishly ignorant and are raising children who know little more than their parents.

This widespread lack of acceptance of the importance of day schools is one reason why the decision of the Metrowest federation to make them a priority is crucial.

For generations, fundraising groups such as federations have given Jewish education short shrift. It is only in the last couple of decades that this has begun to change. As such, one of the prime virtues of the New Jersey effort is the symbolic effect of having a federation and its leading funders say that day schools aren't merely a good thing that deserve funding along with other worthy causes but the community's No. 1 priority.

Setting An Example
The example of local leaders and federations making such a statement can have a double effect.

On the one hand, it can set an example for philanthropists who have hitherto not directed their efforts toward education or often even sent their own children to day schools. But as crucial as it is that we create a system in which the best Jewish education is readily affordable for everyone rather than just the rich or the poor, it is also vital to send a message to the public that these schools aren't merely the preserve of the most religious among us but are a lifeline to a Jewish future and are literally for everyone.

While it is obvious that the New Jersey initiative ought to be replicated around the country, the question of whether it can or will be is open to debate.

For example, here in Philadelphia, discussions about a similar sort of plan, which would have as its goal the creation of an endowment that would effectively lower local day school tuitions across the board, have been under way for some time. But it is, at this moment, far from clear that such an announcement would be followed by sufficient donations that would transform it from a much needed dream into reality. What is lacking is not the plan but the money.

There have been some recent signs of progress on this front. Earlier this spring, Leonard Barrack, a local attorney and the man nominated to lead the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia starting in September of this year, announced a $5 million gift from his family to the Akiba Hebrew Academy (which will be renamed after Barrack's late brother), a non-denominational middle and high school, to increase scholarships and academic excellence.

But if this act is to have a community-wide impact, it must be followed by similar efforts by others for all the local day schools. A commitment on the part of a broad coalition of philanthropists to a community-wide plan similar to that announced in New Jersey isn't an option; it's an imperative.

The question here, as is the case throughout the country, is who will step up and set such a campaign in motion? The answer to that is to be found not only among the wealthy but in whether American Jews in general begin to lift their voices to make it clear that the time for delay is long past.  

 

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