AVI CHAI concluded its general grant making on December 31, 2019.

Jewish Day School Census – A Roundup of Reactions

Posted by: Deborah Fishman

December 2, 2014

Last month, AVI CHAI issued our fourth census of Jewish day schools, conducted by Dr. Marvin Schick. The censuses have been conducted at four-year intervals, beginning with the 1998-99 school year. Please visit here to read more about the census, and you can access the full census here.
Some of the major census findings were:

  • There is an overall increase in day school enrollment – by 70,000 students in the last 15 years. Most of that growth is in the Chassidic and Yeshiva World schools, which have grown by nearly 110% and 60% respectively.
  • In the non-Orthodox sector, Community school enrollment has increased, whereas enrollment has declined in non-Orthodox schools overall. Non-Orthodox enrollment now constitutes 13% of all day school enrollment, a decrease from 20% as reported in 1998-99.
  • Small school size is a consistent feature of the Jewish day school world. In each of the four censuses, approximately 40% of day schools have fewer than 100 students.
  • New York and New Jersey are, to a great extent, the center of the day school world, with enrollment growing by 47,000 or 45% in New York and by nearly 21,000 or 16% in New Jersey between 1998 and 2013.

There has been a flurry of commentary responding to the census release. Here is a sampling of some of the responses:

  • Dr. Jon Mitzmacher, Executive Director of the Schechter Day School Network, wrote “Reflections on the Census: Size Matters.” Reflecting on the finding regarding small school size, he discussed their challenges regarding financial sustainability. He urged the day school community to use its collective efforts to address the burning questions of: “What if we have great schools and people still don’t want to come?  What if the permanent costs for sustaining excellent small Jewish day schools cannot be supported by the communities who need them most?”
  • Harry Maryles on the Jewish Press blog, “Jewish Education and Moderation Is the Key” reinforced that “In my view the reason for Orthodox growth in America is clear: Jewish education.” Drawing on the census data, he posited that “Moderate Charedim are therefore the wave of the future,” since they offer good preparation for secular careers and interacting with the larger American population while maintaining a high birth rate and high level of Jewish education.
  • Shmuel Rosner wrote in “Rosner’s Domain” of the Jewish Journal, “What should be done about the (Orthodox) rise and (non-Orthodox) decline of Jewish day schools?” He identified four reactions to the census findings: “Oy vey!”, “Who cares?”, “We need reform,” and “Only the Orthodox will survive.” He cautioned that “all of [the reactions] fall into the common trap of assuming that what we see today is a good predictor of an unknown future,” whereas it is impossible to know what other trends will impact us in the coming years.
  • Steve Freedman, Head of School at Hillel Day School, a Community school in Metropolitan Detroit, wrote a blog post, “Is Anybody There?” It reacted to the day school survey as well as a recent Mosaic article by Dr. Jack Wertheimer and Dr. Steven M. Cohen which reflected on the declining non-Orthodox demographics found in last year’s Pew Forum survey and opined, “American Jews now stand on the precipice of a demographic cliff, and the choice before them is simple: either fall off, or turn around.” Freedman reflected on the potential power of Jewish day school to help American Jews “turn around,” but noted, “Day schools work. But not enough Jewish children are attending them. The Jewish community has largely failed to convince families that day schools are necessary for a strong Jewish future… The question is how viable will the non-Orthodox community be in another generation?”
  • In another take on the day school census and Wertheimer and Cohen’s Mosaic article, J.J Goldberg wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward: “More Dire Signs of Liberal Jewry’s Demise.” He pointed out that even as Wertheimer and Cohen advise that Jewish day school education and other intensive Jewish educational experiences could potentially positively impact the non-Orthodox population, the census shows that this impact may be limited by the decline in non-Orthodox day school enrollment (outside of Community schools). Goldberg concluded that “Judaism probably isn’t at risk, but the worldly, liberal Jewry that emerged from the Enlightenment could be.”

Clearly the census has raised a number of issues of interest to our community and its future. We would once again like to express our heartfelt gratitude to Dr. Marvin Schick for his careful and important work in conducting this census. It is of great value to the Jewish day school field and broader community, as is evident from the conversations it has sparked. We hope it will continue to inspire reflection, understanding, and action on behalf of Jewish day school education in North America.

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