View from America: If you build it, will they come?

The cure that day schools offer for saving the Jewish future is, for many American Jews, worse than the disease of assimilation.

jewish kids 88 (photo credit: )
jewish kids 88
(photo credit: )
Six years ago, riding the wave of expansion of Jewish day-school enrollment around the country, the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School, named after the parents of financier Ron Perelman, opened a branch in Bucks county, Pennsylvania, north of Philadelphia. With the general population of the once-pastoral county swelled by those leaving Philadelphia and its inner ring of suburbs as well as neighboring central New Jersey, Bucks was growing. Pastures were rapidly being turned into "McMansion" home developments. And with the number of middle and upper-middle-class Jews moving there rising fast as well, the idea of founding a day school affiliated with Conservative Judaism and the Solomon Schechter school movement made sense. But last week, after a bitterly contested marathon meeting, the board of the Perelman schools voted to "consolidate" the Bucks branch with another branch located in the inner suburbs. For parents and teachers, the decision was a tragedy. To them, the small school that operated on the second floor of a Conservative synagogue in the town of Richboro, was a "jewel" with a "family atmosphere." But to the school's board, the Bucks branch was a noble experiment that failed. After years of heavy financial losses that were impacting their other schools, only 33 children were enrolled in Bucks. It was, in their opinion, no longer viable. The question of whether or not that vote was premature or long overdue is a sore one for those personally involved. But to the rest of us, this move ought to inspire some hard thinking about the future of Jewish education in this country. WITH POPULATION studies showing a decline in both terms of absolute numbers and the rate of affiliation on the part of American Jews, a consensus has emerged that sees the day-school movement as the community's best investment in its future. While other factors such as family observance, synagogue membership, trips to Israel and Jewish summer camps influence the chances that children will choose to remain part of the community, day-school education has emerged as the most crucial tool in the battle for the Jewish future in the United States. By placing instruction in Jewish studies and fluency in Hebrew at the center of the curriculum, while not slighting secular subjects, the day schools are creating the core of a new Jewishly literate generation. The greatest impediment for many has been the high cost of tuition. With the price of even a spot in kindergarten reaching five figures (and prices far higher in places like New York) the number of families able to make that kind of financial sacrifice is not unlimited. As a result, many children who might otherwise have gotten such an education went elsewhere. But the closing of the Bucks county school ought to force day-school advocates to realize that other factors may also be limiting enrollment. In this case, a donation from a generous local family paid for a significant reduction in tuition for all new students. This sort of initiative has been successful in other places where it was tried. But while this plan resulted in annual savings of more than $3,000 per student, it was not enough to significantly increase enrollment at the Bucks school. It may well be that the small enrollment at Bucks Perelman was the result of other forces. Day-school attendance in the Greater Philadelphia area is significantly lower than the national average. The local culture largely embraces private schools - such as "Friends" schools run by the Quakers whose populations are heavily Jewish - but there is no similar entrenched acceptance of Jewish schools. Still, there's no getting around the fact that for many of those who moved into Bucks (and other places like it), there is another more compelling reason they aren't putting their kids in day schools: They just don't believe in them. Market surveys of communities around the country consistently show the same results: The majority of American Jews think immersing their kids in Jewish culture, language and religion is exactly what they don't want. For this large slice of American Jewry, the cure that day schools offer for saving the Jewish future is worse than the disease of assimilation. FOR THEM, the value of "diversity" trumps any other consideration. To the typically liberal American Jew, choosing a "parochial" Jewish education over a secular one is unthinkable. They believe day schools will isolate their children. Others seem to view the possibility of kids embracing a more observant lifestyle than their parents with more horror than the possibility of children abandoning their Jewish identity altogether, even though the latter is the more prevalent pattern. The truth is, short of moving to an ultra-Orthodox enclave such as Monsey, N.Y., there is no escaping the flood of non-Jewish cultural influences on children, even with a day school. The notion that day-school students miss out on the American experience is nonsense. But the knowledge that the majority are not getting a comprehensive Jewish education does factor into the numbers who will fall away from the community in the future. Day school is no guarantee of Jewish grandchildren. However, it does increase the odds in your favor. Nevertheless, after peaking at the end of the 1990s, statistics show that day-school enrollment seems to have flattened out, creating problems for many established schools. And that brings us back to the end of Perelman's Bucks venture. This will not be the last attempt to create a day school in Bucks. Though the odds are against them, the Bucks Perelman parents are exploring restarting the school on their own. And a "traditional" day school - the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley, which is Orthodox in orientation - continues to operate, even recently moving into a new building. But for the vast majority of Jews who are not Orthodox, such a program isn't an option. Community planners in Philadelphia are also mulling schemes that will make day schools even more affordable. Marketing plans to bring the message to a broader audience are also being mooted. As much as containing costs is still vital, it is this latter point that is going to have be be emphasized. Starting a school in a place where one is needed isn't enough. The example of Bucks County shows that if you build it, they won't necessarily come. The key ingredient for success rests on convincing more Jews that, although costly, day schools are consistent with their values and vital to their Jewish future. Nevertheless, objective observers must ponder, if a popular day school program such as Perelman cannot be sustained in a place where the Jewish population is growing, the consequences for the community are ominous. Though many of us would prefer to spin the news in a different manner, this is a problem we ignore at our peril. The writer is executive editor of the Jewish Exponent in Philadelphia.