Despite Jewish day schools’ many successes in the U.S., all is not well with the day-school movement.
On many levels, Jewish day schools are flourishing in the United States. Notwithstanding our nation’s many good public school systems, high-quality private school opportunities and a history of integrating immigrants, Jewish day schools have successfully offered an alternative that seeks to balance Jewish knowledge and culture with quality secular education and an involvement in and appreciation of the wider world. But despite its many successes, all is not well with the day-school movement.
First, high-quality Jewish day-school education doesn’t come cheap. And with the exception of haredi Orthodox day schools, Jewish day-school enrollment is flat or declining.
In an effort to stanch the flow of students and money to other private schools, five prominent national day-school organizations representing 375 Reform, Conservative, modern Orthodox and nondenominational schools — where, collectively, 100,000 students are enrolled — announced last week that they will combine into a single umbrella association. (This association of the Jewish Community Day School Network, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, Yeshiva University School Partnership, the Schechter Day School Network and Day Schools of Reform Judaism does not include Torah U’Mesorah and other haredi yeshiva day school associations, which account for the remaining 125,000 Jewish school-age children who are enrolled in those schools.)
The merged organization will advocate for the day school movement and provide professional training and other services in the hope of saving as much as $1 million in efficiencies. In a larger sense, the new umbrella organization will demonstrate Jewish unity by emphasizing the commonality these Jewish schools share. After all, there are no theological controversies in pedagogy, professional training, special needs students, fundraising, networking and IT support.
Some might be concerned that in the merging and streamlining of the various (and sometimes conflicting) religious philosophies of the constituent schools and their associations, the defining character of each of the respective Jewish streams will get lost. We trust that those building the new organization are keeping those concerns in mind. But at the end of the day, we all win when all Jewish schools, no matter their affiliation, improve their functionality, increase their enrollments and strengthen their bottom lines. That was one of the significant takeaways from the latest round of Pew analyses — which made clear that so many things correlate with attending a Jewish day school, from identification with Israel to synagogue attendance and Jewish generational continuity. Indeed, in light of that long-known reality, it’s a wonder that it has taken this long for the kind of communal support to materialize to make this new umbrella organization possible.
So far, the initiative is going by the placeholder name “NewOrg.” But it might just signify a new horizon ahead. We look forward to NewOrg contributing to a flourishing day school world.