On Jewish Education…

Posted on September 14, 2009


Over at Jewlicious.com, “themiddle” wrote an interesting piece about Jewish day schools. Having enrolled a 6th grader in Tarbut V’Torah (TVT) last year, I’ve jumped into the day school experience a bit later than many. Themiddle’s post very accurately reflects what we’ve seen, experienced, and questioned.

Focusing on only a part of themiddle’s post:  few Jewish families in Long Beach (where we live) send their kids to Jewish day schools.  The only two schools within a 30 minute drive are the Hebrew Academy and TVT. A third school closed its doors at the end of the last school year due to finances.  I’ve often wondered why more parents don’t send their kids to Jewish schools.  The answer, as themiddle notes, is in part due to finances. In our community, it may also be in part because TVT is a 30 minute drive, and the Chabad run school, no matter how good it is, is…well…a Chabad run school.

So in our community, only those who are very committed to Jewish education  or those who have specific requirements for their children’s education, will seek out one of the two options.  Generally speaking, only those that can then afford to pay the price of admission do so.  I had a hunch that there were more people in our part of town willing to look at TVT as an option, and bet that one of the main reasons people were not exploring the very solid education at TVT is that they did not know it existed.  Fifteen families showed up to a parlor meeting we hosted on TVT’s behalf–their largest parlor meeting ever (I’m told.)  Several families enrolled this year. Ah…themiddle is right!  His suggestion#6:  Getting the word out in collaboration with other organizations works!

Themiddle goes on to make other recommendations about community organization of Jewish day schools.  He is right, but I think there is more to the story than he discusses.  He is dead right that Federation dollars need to be reallocated.  Many of the overseas needs have shifted, and the domestic Jewish communities are, in many cases, in trouble.  Our own institutions including JCCs and synagogues are hurting, and our infrastructure is aging as quickly as the generation who built most of it.

With declining dollars and increased needs, we must rethink how we meet our Jewish children’s educational needs.  This goes beyond the day school and secular education and crosses into how synagogues educate children.  As themiddle notes for day schools, competing synagogues and their religious schools have redundant infrastructure.  Is there any reason other than politics and proprietary membership lists that synagogues could not share resources?  How often are vast sanctuaries fully filled?  Could systems, software, and even teachers share responsibilities across organizations?

I’ve encouraged our local Jewish Federation and JCC to step back and reevaluate their mission based upon the current needs of the community.  No organization is thinking broadly about the “cradle to grave” needs of our Jewish community in detail.  There is no organized method of recruiting Jewish families as they move to the community or have children and helping guide them from one station in life to the next.  In our community, neither of our large early childhood education programs makes an earnest effort to involve parents in educational and volunteer efforts specifically designed to keep them in the fold “for life”.  As such, many families who walk in the door with young children, walk out when they enroll their children in public kindergarden.  Others exit post-bar mitzvah.  The parents and their dollars go with them.

So I say to themiddle, you are right, AND we need to think more broadly.  Not only do we need to involve more people and organizations in the management and marketing of our day schools, but we need to have a more cohesive approach to providing for the needs of  educating all Jewish families.  We will never (barring some future nationwide rise in anti-semitism in the US) enroll most Jewish kids in day schools.  So we must make after school programs attractive, affordable, and convenient.

Most after school Religious School programs exist today as they existed a generation or two ago, but with fewer hours a year available given the proliferation of other extra curricular activities including sports. Religious education needs to be fun for and relevant to kids.  It needs to incorporate “modern” technologies from the web, ipods, and cell phones.  But most synagogues are too small and many educational systems too entrenched to do it on their own.  Federation leadership:  this is one of those times you should be scratching your head saying “hey…an opportunity to build future donors!”

Themiddle’s suggestion #13 is something I also agree with completely.  We need to do a better job of crossing Jewish denominations. We seem to have built very high walls between different denominations and movements to the point where fear and misinformation are common.  I’ve met Orthodox people who, after attending a Bat Mitzvah of a relative are astounded that a Conservative synagogue says the same prayers in roughly the same fashion as does their own congregation.  I’ve met members of Reform congregations who are simply unaware of the basic practices of Kashrut and who have a fear of their child becoming too Jewish if they expand their Jewish knowledge base.  I know many members of Conservative congregations who have no idea what the Hebrew prayers they recite really mean.  Perhaps economics will drive us together to rethink and rebuild.  I won’t hold my breath.

Meanwhile…I thank those families who have contributed to TVT, the Hebrew Academy, and  the countless other Jewish day schools.  While all funds make a difference,  I especially thank those (See suggestion#4) who really wrote the big checks, donated buildings, land, and otherwise had a significant impact.  You’ve made it possible for our son and many others to be educated in a Jewish environment and get a solid secular education as well.  I hope he appreciates it as much as we do.  I suspect we won’t know for many years.

A note to non-Jewish readers: this is an odd topic.  It may seem somewhat racist or exclusive to seek to educate Jewish kids in Jewish schools. I’ve written a companion primer on being a Jewish kid in public schools and why some parents choose Jewish day schools.