The Man Behind Birthright Turns His Attention Toward Day Schools as the Next Frontier in Building Jewish Identity

Michael Steinhardt wants to change the way we think about day school education.

Michael Steinhardt, the billionaire financier who nearly singlehandedly changed the way the Jewish community thinks about the value of an Israel experience for Jewish youth, now wants the professionals, lay leaders and institutions in our midst to have another transformative conversation. This time, he wants to change the way we think about day school education.
For him, the same falling attendance rates and decreasing budgets that have led the non-haredi Orthodox day school movements to unite behind the banner of an as yet unnamed organization are emblematic of a divide that grows larger with each passing year.
“Less than 10 percent of non-Orthodox children go to day schools,” he said during an interview last week. “Therefore, it would seem to me that proponents of day schools should be reflecting on how to expand day school education to a much wider group of people.”
Steinhardt will be bringing his message of inspired prodding to Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy at the school’s 14th annual gala March 9 as its keynote speaker. What he recognizes in the Bryn Mawr institution is success in areas where other non-Orthodox day schools have come up short.
“Barrack is indeed a very successful institution and stands out in the world of non-Orthodox day schools,” he said. “But the community writ large should reflect upon the fact that the great majority of non-Orthodox young people don’t attend day schools and ask why that is.”
Don’t think of Steinhardt, whose philanthropic causes include Hillel at the University of Pennsylvania and the Birthright Israel program he cofounded in 2005, as a full-throated defender of Orthodox life and halachic interpretations of Jewish life. He’s known somewhat as an atheist, and doesn’t shy away from identifying what he says are shortcomings in haredi Orthodox education, such as a lack of focus on secular subjects and little appreciation for the contributions of non-religious Jews to Jewish and world history. Still, he admires a near 100-percent commitment in Orthodox communities to send children to day school.
“That is a major point — and one that has not been given sufficient due by the community per se,” he explained. “The day school attendance in the Orthodox world is reflective of a set of values that exist in that world that do not writ large exist in the non-Orthodox world. The fact is that day school education, with almost no exception, is religious education in part. And a meaningful portion of the non-Orthodox diaspora is not interested in its children getting the nature of religious education that any day school offers.
“You can talk about the cost” of day school education “from here to forever,” he added, “but that’s missing the point.”
At Barrack, where a full 55 percent of students identify as Conservative compared to the 15 to 20 percent who identify as Orthodox, Chief Operating Officer Alex Stroker noted that the school, which is egalitarian in nature and has invested heavily in science and technology education, continues to draw students from families who have never before considered Jewish day school as an educational option.
“This year, we expect between 15 and 20 percent of our new students to come from outside the day school system,” said Stroker. “We have been increasingly successful with this target. We also have high levels of retention; these families feel that day school is superior to their previous schooling and enjoy the support and rhythm of Jewish life at our school.
“The perception we are attempting to create seems to resonate with the community at large,” he added. “Our academics are stellar; our SAT scores and college admissions rival any other private school. We continue to invest and upgrade our Jewish studies program, and continue to invest in other value-added curricular and extracurricular activities.”
Steinhardt acknowledges Barrack’s appeal as a winning one, but argues that without a redefinition of communal values, the future looks bleak. In his interview, he noted that religious life across the Western world is on the decline and is becoming further and further decentralized. “In order for a non-Orthodox institution such as a day school to work, it has to capture an unusual combination of religious and secular qualities,” he said, but “with the exception of the evangelical world in the United States, attendance in most religious institutions is in decline.”
So should schools become more secular to become attractive to an increasingly secularized population? Should the community embrace the kind of religious fervor and dedication that typifies the Orthodox embrace of day schools? For now, Steinhardt, who is working on a book on the history of the post-Enlightenment Jewish world, isn’t saying. But he’s determined to lead the discussion. At the end of the day, Jewish education is the prime determinant of Jewish continuity, he emphasizes.
“The fact is,” he said, “day-school graduates from places like Barrack are much better-educated Jews than their peers who don’t have a day school education.”
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