Demographic shift alters US-Jewish education

Decline in Conservative day schools continues as multi-denominational, inclusive model takes shape.

Rockland Jewish Academy 370 (photo credit: Courtesy Rockland Jewish Academy)
Rockland Jewish Academy 370
(photo credit: Courtesy Rockland Jewish Academy)
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,” Sherman says.
“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.”
The Jewish 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.
“We have 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 decline.”
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.”
Not all 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 area.
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 equal.
“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 Movement.
Community school growth has remained steady since 2011, their findings show, though other reports indicate minor increases in community day school enrollment.
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 sake.
“I was on the fence, I’ll be honest,” says Shara Abraham, a new RJA parent.
“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.”
Sherman says 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.
“A 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.”