NEW YORK – After 40 years serving a community that represents the largest Jewish
population per capita in the US, Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School, the only
Conservative Jewish day school in Rockland, New York, closed its doors last year
and got the community talking.
The recession hit Gittelman hard, some
residents concluded. Others said the general studies program was just too
weak to compete. But for Alan Sherman and Andy Blau, the numbers told a
very clear and sobering story.
The two former Gittelman parents conducted
a market study and discovered that, while the demand for a conservative-oriented
school in Rockland had withered, interest in the founding of a
non-denominational school with broader appeal was substantial.
“This is a
10-year trend that started way before the recession hit,” says Blau. “It’s not
clear why the denominational schools were decreasing while the community day
schools were increasing. But it became pretty obvious to us that community
schools were bucking the trend.”
Along with other residents suddenly
discontented with their options, Sherman and Blau opened Rockland Jewish Academy
in September, a school that prides itself on its inclusiveness and a general
studies program that is treated as primary.
“The entire curriculum was
designed to be a superior school, with the Jewish education being a plus,”
“A lot of Jews just don’t want to be affiliated anymore. So
the approach we’ve taken is to be as inclusive as possible.”
community across the US has experienced an overall decline in non- Orthodox,
in-married children, as well as a weakening of religious social identities in
those contracting denominations, says Dr. Steven M. Cohen, director of the
Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner.
Cohen also notes signs of
financial struggles within American Reform and Conservative communities,
resulting from struggles in their underlying membership bases.
presumptive evidence that day schools are under the pressure of larger
demographic trends,” says Cohen.
“So the overall reservoir of potential
day school students in conservative and reform families may well be in
The raw results have been striking: a 33 percent drop in
enrollment and a 22% drop in total number of Conservative-affiliated schools over
a 15-year period.
“With some of the organizations that we spoke with, the
problems with Gittelman were clearly not unique to Gittelman,” says David
Liebergall, who put four kids through the shuttered school and helped with the
founding of RJA.
“My kids loved the school. But at the end of the
day, its problems were just much bigger than its strengths.”
conservative schools are struggling. Solomon Schechter School of Westchester
remains one of the strongest schools in the state, and consistently competes for
students with private secular counterparts. But according to a UJA-Federation
Geography Report released last week, Westchester has seen a 5% increase in its
Jewish population, and has the highest percentage of Reform-minded Jews as well
as the highest concentration of affluent Jews in the New York
Sherman approached Solomon Schechter Westchester to assist in a
consultant role in the founding of RJA.
And since then, its headmaster of
33 years, Eliot Spiegel, says he has been impressed by RJA’s progress in such a
short period of time, and expects the budding school to become Westchester’s
“How quickly the community coalesced around this school surprised
me,” says Spiegel. “Rabbis from across the spectrum are looking to this school
to stabilize the community. I don’t think we have that same kind of coalescence
in Westchester as in Rockland, and its terrific to see.”
An AVI CHAI
Foundation report out earlier this month indicates that, save for ultra-
Orthodox communities, all schools affiliated with a single Jewish denomination
have seen average annual declines, including those affiliated with the Reform
Community school growth has remained steady since 2011, their
findings show, though other reports indicate minor increases in community day
One thing is clear: With enrollment at community day
schools now double that of Conservative Solomon Schechter schools, the funding
pool for this broad-based model is proving much more stable. And the appeal
seems to be genuine, not just for Jews in search of Hebrew studies for their
children, but equally for Jews in search of community for its own
“I was on the fence, I’ll be honest,” says Shara Abraham, a new RJA
“I worried, and wondered, whether as Reform Jews we could be
comfortable in a Jewish day school setting. But for five years it was like a
full-time job trying to find a community.
And the moment we found this
place, we met grounded, caring, really passionate people.”
the he’s proud of the school’s early successes. RJA has attracted families from
every denomination, save for ultra-Orthodox, with a curriculum that teaches
Hebrew and devotes 60% of classroom time to secular studies.
pluralistic school like this perfectly reflects what’s happening in this
country, and not just to Jews,” Blau says. “A lot of people bet against us, but
this is where the future is.”