The new face of Jewish education?

The yearly, growing cost of Jewish education is causing declining enrollment in many Jewish schools.

school children teacher  (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
school children teacher
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Some friends of mine lost their jobs recently. They were not only friends, but a few of them have also been my children's teachers. Good people, wonderful teachers who helped impart important Jewish and secular values at our Hebrew day school. As far as I am aware, no one lost their job due to incompetence or other negative reasons. What I have been told is that the school is facing a drop in enrollment, and therefore budgetary concerns are forcing cuts across the board. I don't need to ask for an explanation about why my children's school is facing an enrollment decrease. I know. For many, the main reason is the yearly, growing cost of a Jewish day school education. Some American Jewish communities have raised money for endowments or reduced tuition programs where families pay reasonable percentages of their income toward Jewish education. Unfortunately this has, of yet, not happened in our area of Florida. The cost of our son's kindergarten tuition at the David Posnack Hebrew Day School in August 2000 was around $6,000. Parents of incoming kindergartners this coming fall will pay nearly double that amount. Add several other children into the picture and many families sadly opt out of such an expensive educational scenario. Sometimes they make an almost equally difficult decision and have to choose which of their children they can afford to send, and which they cannot. There are many Jewish families in south Florida with broken hearts. Our local Jewish community and Federation are failing in what should be their mission to help raise money to support Jewish day school education. TO GIVE THEM a bit of credit, I know that their failure isn't completely due to lack of effort. They try, but a lot of the blame falls on the community who just don't give. I have debated this problem with knowledgeable friends, who say that the giving mentality has deteriorated with younger Jewish generations. Those that could afford to help, just don't give like their parents once did. There are of course caring Jewish souls who open their wallets and hearts, but they are obviously in the minority. Another reason students are being pulled not only out of our day school, but also other local schools, is because of a new public charter school, slated to open in August, which is being touted as "America's First English-Hebrew Charter School." On the Ben Gamla Charter School (BGCS) Web site, the school is described as intending to "provide a strong academic program in a warm and nurturing environment. In addition to the traditional curriculum of language arts, mathematics, social studies and science, BGCS will provide specials classes in physical education, Hebrew language, art and music." For free. And guess what? Since opening their enrollment in mid-May, the response has been overwhelming. Eight hundred people have attempted to register their children. For its first year in existence Ben Gamla was supposed to be kindergarten through third grade. Now they are trying to extend through eighth grade. Existing day schools certainly have a right to be nervous. An American public school education is required to have a distinct separation of church and state. While BGCS is touting itself as a secular entity, teaching Hebrew as well as Jewish history and culture, the school claims it will not include religious studies. In deference to its status as a public school, Torah and prayer will not be taught, but students will supposedly be allowed to form their own minyans. DEBATE IS RAGING in our community and over charter schools in general. Among those I have talked to, opinion is divided. On the pro side, many people think that it is wonderful for some sort of free, Jewish education to be provided. I compare it to the state education system in Israel. On the con side, people worry that this will set the stage for extremists from all religious spectrums to set up institutions with potential radical elements taught in the guise of a public school entity. Some say that such things are already are in existence, so why debate? Why shouldn't Jewish kids get some sort of free Hebrew (whisper "Jewish") education? I understand that a meeting recently took place that included heads of local (and competing) day schools, yeshivas, Jewish federation bigwigs and other community leaders. Presumably they debated their own futures in light of this new charter school. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall of that room. If Ben Gamla turns out to be successful, then the American Jewish community has no right to complain. On the contrary, concerned American Jews should feel ashamed that they never came up with a viable solution first, offering an affordable educational option to anyone interested. I, for one, say kol hakavod to the Ben Gamla people. And I will be watching carefully to see if it might be an option for my own children. I am certainly not sure if it is the ideal answer to the problem of Universal Jewish Education. But at least it might be an answer. And for right now, the only answer. The writer, an American-Israeli citizen, is a former journalist, currently teaches media education and works in public relations. She lives in Hollywood, Florida.