“Day schools are critical to building highly committed and Judaically competent youngsters,” said Steven Cohen, director of the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner. “The day school kids go on to be disproportionately active in Hillel, Jewish studies, independent minyanim, Jewish learning and [they have] higher rates of in-marriage.” (“Major Effort To Promote Day Schools Shows Mixed Results” By Debra Nussbaum Cohen, The Jewish Daily Forward, June 15, 2011, www.forward.com/articles/138723/#ixzz1SaDA7p7F)
The 1990 National Jewish Population Study showed unprecedented rates of assimilation and intermarriage. Other studies showed a positive correlation between a Jewish day school education and future Jewish choices. The Partnership for Jewish Education (PEJE) was born in 1997 to establish Jewish day schools and provide professional training to their staffs.
For the next ten years, there was considerable growth in the number of Jewish day schools and modest growth in the non-Orthodox community’s attendance at the schools. Then came the recession, and many Jewish philanthropists began to question where they were putting their dollars. They reasoned that Orthodox children were going to the schools anyway, but the growth in other sectors of the Jewish community in terms of day school attendance was flat. They also found other avenues for their contributions, including Jewish camping and Birthright, which were much less expensive. According to the article in The Jewish Daily Forward, contributions to the Foundation for Jewish Camp totaled more than $18 million and the Birthright Israel Foundation received $71 million in donations, while PEJE took in $2.3 million in 2009.
Are we comparing apples and oranges, or must we settle for something less than ideal? Are other forms of Jewish engagement for youngsters working well enough, or do we have to take a hard look at our priorities? By the way, what would be wrong with making day school education available to more Orthodox families, especially when everybody’s wallets are thinner than they used to be? Similarly, what would be wrong with using some funds to promote Jewish day school education to other families who might not have considered it?
Certainly a10-day trip to Israel cannot compare with many years of Jewish day school education, but a trip to Israel does amazing things to kindle one’s love of Judaism and sense of connection to it. Jewish camping works its own magic, and many people active in the Jewish community today cite their camp experience as a seminal moment in their connection to Judaism. Some forms of Jewish engagement work better for a given family’s lifestyle and budget than others. The organized Jewish community and individual families cannot spend money they do not have until the economy improves, even if they agree that funding day schools is the best route to Jewish continuity.
Until somebody “lifts the debt ceiling” on funding for Jewish causes or until priorities become focused on day schools, it is important to look at the whole package of Jewish education. Orange County boasts two award-winning day schools, an innovative Bureau of Jewish Education, a number of synagogue-based religious schools that are taking new approaches to education and many Jewish preschools, three of which are completely new. College students and young professionals are going on Birthright trips and other trips to Israel. Many synagogues have day camps, and Jewish Federation & Family Services provides assistance in sending children to overnight camps. The Jewish Community Center provides three different camps, plus points of entry to Jewish connection for all ages.
We should remember one more thing. The responsibility for starting and continuing Jewish education is in the home. If parents lack the commitment to make it happen or keep it happening in a way that is meaningful to their children, the children will sense it. If parents fail to set an example by obtaining or continuing their own Jewish education, the children will not see it as a priority.
As a community, we have to assume the responsibility for providing good alternatives in Jewish education, maintaining their quality, making sure our children are motivated to do attain more than the minimal level and continually set a good example for them. Achieving a good Jewish education is a lifelong endeavor and a lifelong responsibility for everybody.