Jewish identity on parade - opinion

Given the data, our charge should be obvious: to increase the number of non-Orthodox children enrolled in Jewish day schools.

 YOUTH ARE among the masses taking part in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City last Sunday. (photo credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)
YOUTH ARE among the masses taking part in the Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City last Sunday.
(photo credit: Amr Alfiky/Reuters)

When I was a toddler, my parents took me to see the Salute to Israel Parade, known colloquially as the Israel Day Parade, on New York’s Fifth Avenue. We arrived in Manhattan late, and as we scrambled to catch up to the parade, my stroller tipped over and my face hit the pavement. My panicked parents rushed their bloodied firstborn child to the emergency room, only to be reassured that it was just a cut on my lip and I was fine. I got a foam jigsaw puzzle to make up for my troubles.

This past Sunday, several decades after that unfortunate incident, my mother and I had what a psychologist might call a corrective emotional experience, attending the very same parade – now called Celebrate Israel – on a cloudy but temperate day in New York. Having politely declined at least one invitation to ride on a float, we sat in the grandstand at 69th Street and joined the cheering crowds as tens of thousands of marchers streamed past. On and on they came: Jewish day schools, synagogues, communal organizations, alongside state and local officials and visiting Israeli dignitaries, all waving Israeli flags and dancing exuberantly to Israeli and Jewish music. It was an outpouring of love so joyous and unalloyed that I was still smiling hours after I left.

The next day, backstage at The Jerusalem Post’s Annual Conference in Manhattan’s stunning Gotham Hall, I chatted with many of the high-level speakers – both American and Israeli – who had participated in the parade the day before and each one noted how deeply moving it was. Several mentioned it in their remarks on stage.

Sitting on the sidelines the day of the parade, I was struck by several observations. One was how heavily Jewish it was; the overwhelming majority of marchers were members of the city’s massive Jewish community, which is larger than that of any other city in the world (yes, including in Israel). Another was how many of the participants were schoolchildren; the median age appeared to be somewhere around Bar and Bat Mitzvah age and many of the groups marching represented New York’s array of Jewish day schools. Finally, it was striking to note how many of the schools, synagogues, organizations, and individuals participating in the parade were Orthodox.

NONE OF this is new. The parade was the brainchild of Haim Zohar, an Israeli diplomat serving at the Israeli consulate in New York in the 1960s, who partnered with several local Jewish leaders to bring his idea to fruition. All of the communal leaders involved in the project – Alvin Schiff, Charles Bick and Ted Comet – were Orthodox; Schiff headed the Board of Jewish Education’s Day School Department and went on to help create the March of the Living. The first iteration of the parade took place in 1964 and featured students from the Modern Orthodox Manhattan Day School on the Upper West Side. The parade in its now-familiar format took place for the first time in 1965 and featured several thousand marchers from New York’s Orthodox, Conservative and Reform communities, as well as representatives of the city’s Irish and Italian populations. In 1967, the parade took place several days before the Six Day War and drew 250,000 marchers and hundreds of thousands of supporters eager to show their solidarity with the beleaguered Jewish state.

 Noa Tishby is seen marching as part of Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City on June 4, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Noa Tishby is seen marching as part of Celebrate Israel Parade in New York City on June 4, 2023. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

In the decades since, the parade has become a cornerstone of the New York Jewish community’s support for Israel and it is today the city’s most visible annual expression of Jewish identity and pride.

The clear overrepresentation of Orthodox day school children in the parade, though, bears further examination. While more than a decade has passed since the last comprehensive study of New York’s Jewish population, the figures from that study – conducted by UJA-Federation of New York – indicated that Orthodox Jews made up approximately a third of all Jews in the area – about three times their proportion within the broader American Jewish population. Perhaps even more strikingly, 61% of the area’s Jewish children were Orthodox. Given demographic trends, it is reasonable to assume that both figures have since increased.

A 2020 report by the AVI CHAI Foundation found that 292,172 students were enrolled in Jewish day schools across America in the 2018-2019 school year – an increase of 14.7% compared to 2013-2014. The number of day schools had also risen significantly, from 676 in 1998-1999 to 906 today – a 34% increase.

BUT JEWISH day school enrollment is not reflective of American Jewish demographics – in fact, it is almost its mirror image. While Orthodox Jews make up roughly 10% of the American Jewish community, their children represent more than 85% of Jewish day school students. Enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools – including Reform, Solomon Schechter (Conservative), and community schools – represents roughly 10.5% of the total number of students in Jewish day schools in America, despite the fact that nearly nine in 10 American Jews don’t identify as Orthodox. And while the numbers of both Orthodox schools and their students have been steadily increasing, the numbers of both non-Orthodox schools and students enrolled therein have been gradually declining.

That’s a problem.

The importance of Jewish day school education

Day school attendance alone may not determine students’ long-term commitment to Jewish life, but it is a helpful indication thereof. A 2007 survey of Jewish college students conducted by Brandeis University on behalf of the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education found a remarkable correlation between day school attendance and involvement in Jewish life in college. While more than 70% of Jewish college students who were raised Orthodox and attended a Jewish day school and more than 50% of non-Orthodox students who had attended at least six years of Jewish day school said they participated in informal Jewish celebrations with friends, fewer than 35% of students who had no day school education reported having done so. While 74% of Orthodox day school graduates and 51% of non-Orthodox students with at least six years of Jewish day school education said they attended Jewish religious services at least once a month, that number plummeted to 20% for those who had no day school education.

A 2021 survey of Jewish lay and professional leaders commissioned by Keren Keshet found that a striking 45% of those between the ages of 25 and 34 had attended a Jewish day school between kindergarten and eighth grade – double the 22% of leaders over 65 who had done so. This appears to reflect the expansion of Jewish educational opportunities reflected in the overall increase in the number of Jewish day schools in recent decades. In total, roughly a third of all lay and professional leaders surveyed had attended a Jewish day school from K-8 and 23% had attended a Jewish high school, making day school – along with Jewish overnight camp – one of the immersive Jewish educational experiences most closely linked with future Jewish leadership.

BARBARA SHEKLIN Davis is a Jewish educator with over fifty years’ experience. The former head of the Syracuse Hebrew Day School, a community day school in upstate New York, she also led a Jewish supplementary school (or Hebrew school) for a decade. In a 2017 article for eJewish Philanthropy, she described an informal survey she conducted among students at both schools. 

When asked how they feel about being Jewish, 76% of the supplementary students gave one-word answers (“fine,” “okay,” “good”) and the rest gave answers that could best be described as lukewarm. Two-thirds of the day school students, though, answered expansively, offering answers like, “I feel normal,” “I am very proud of being Jewish,” and “Great – it is awesome to be Jewish.”

“It is clear that the day school, in addition to teaching Hebrew and customs and Bible, gives its students something else: a very positive sense of themselves as Jews,” Davis wrote.

Noting that levels of Jewish religiosity – as measured by synagogue attendance – were roughly identical in both groups of students surveyed, Davis dismissed the suggestion that the day school students were more confident in their Judaism because their families are more observant.

“It is my personal feeling, based upon readings, my own experiences, and my observations as head of two schools, that the choice is clear,” she concluded. “In each and every case, the day school offers the best option, the best hope we have to raise the knowledgeable, secure Jewish young people who will continue our tradition and keep alive the spirit and values that inspire the Judaism that we cherish.”

GIVEN THE data, our charge should be obvious: to increase the number of non-Orthodox children enrolled in Jewish day schools.

We should applaud and encourage communal and philanthropic efforts to subsidize day school tuition – one of the primary obstacles families face in deciding whether to send their children to a Jewish day school – and make a robust Jewish education accessible to as many Jewish families as possible. We should also seek to address concerns that a dual curriculum, such as that offered by Jewish day schools, has a detrimental effect on college admissions by pointing to the large numbers of day school graduates who go on to study at some of the best schools in America and find gainful employment further down the line. Finally, we should welcome the Israeli Diaspora Affairs and Combating Antisemitism Ministry’s recent announcement that it will invest an unprecedented NIS 150 million in a new project to increase the number of students enrolled in Jewish day schools and train more teachers and principals to educate them across North America.

Uplifting and inspiring as Sunday’s parade was, it also offered a call to action. I know I’ll be back on Fifth Avenue, and I hope that when I am, I’ll see more and more non-Orthodox day school students dancing, singing, and celebrating their Jewish identities alongside their Orthodox peers.