The NY Jewish Week recently published an article entitled “Resolving the Day School Crisis: It Takes a Mishpocha” that I found to be a bit shortsighted. In the article, writer Kim Hirsh identifies the central day school crisis as a profound inability to develop self-sustainable financial resource development. In that regard, she is correct. Most Jewish day schools “simply lurch from one fiscal crisis to the next” without ever reaping the benefits of teaching so many generations of students about tzedakah (charity).
I think Hirsh’s best point is one she skims over: that as the recession hits more and more Jewish families, day schools will be institutions that cater only to the very rich and the few students from lower income brackets that are on scholarship. The middle class will have no access, especially considering that the middle class is shrinking rapidly anyhow.
I am a product of Jewish day school–I was ‘educated’ in lackluster orthodox institutions from kindergarten through high school, and have seen those schools through times of plenty and crisis. Frankly, Hirsh fails to acknowledge that perhaps the day school model is outdated. If there is not enough funding to support these programs, perhaps the programs themselves need to change. Why continue trying to save troubled institutions, many of which are willing to sacrifice educational quality if it means retaining more students, if they will inevitably meet the same financial challenges in the next fiscal quarter?
I don’t foresee the $300 million in endowments that the UJA has proposed materializing out of the ether any time soon, at least not in full. It would be wrong not to deny Hirsh’s assertion that “day school education is essential to ensuring that Judaism survives and thrives in this country.” It is time to stop looking at intensive Jewish education as the magical key to ensuring our children embrace their heritage, and instead focus on empowering them to seek out those ideals on their own. Give them good educations at secular institutions and they will see clearly the reasons why their parents (and our parents) have thought (in folly) that day schools are the only route through which Jewish adults are shaped and made.
We need not force students to love their Judaism by trapping them in failing schools. That doesn’t work, and if anything, will make graduates resent those very values parents hoped they’d learn to love in Jewish day school. If there is anything I have grown to understand during my time at JDub, it is that you cannot force young Jews to embrace their faith. Rather, they have to do it of their own accord. They need to come to you.
What better way to do that than to try and offer them the best educations possible elsewhere, even if that means abandoning Jewish institutions that are failing? There are so many routes beyond textbooks that can engage young Jews. The community at large ought to be putting their resources into other sustainable modes of cultivating Jewish identity: after-school programs, summer programs, social justice and (of course) the arts.
Something to think about.