As Pew Study Raises Concerns, Invest In Jewish Day Schools
Wed, 01/15/2014

This Opinion piece was written by the following: Dr. Scott Goldberg, vice provost for teaching and learning at Yeshiva University; Amy Katz, executive director of PEJE; Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK; Jon Mitzmacher, executive director of the Schechter Day School Network; and Jane West Walsh, executive director of PARDES.

The Pew Research Center set off alarm bells this past fall with the release of its “A Portrait of Jewish Americans” survey, which showed that Jewish Americans are losing their Jewish identity — religious observance, denominational affiliation, and the desire to marry other Jews — at a shockingly high rate.

The survey prompted a clarion call from the organized Jewish world for more investment in Jewish early childhood education, Jewish camping and Birthright Israel. While all of those are certainly worthy initiatives and deserve more attention, lost was the call for more investment in the one long-term initiative that we as a Jewish community know works almost without fail — Jewish day schools.

We understand why day schools may have gotten short shrift.

Of all of the models for inspiring young Jews to become engaged adult Jews, day schools require the greatest commitment and cost from parents, philanthropists and the children themselves.

Day school is not a quick and easy fix. It is a comprehensive answer to the Jewish continuity and vitality question.

Nearly a quarter million Jewish schoolchildren are enrolled in day schools, according to the most recent relevant census. Those students are afforded a unique experience that combines authentic Jewish literacy and engagement with Jewish sacred texts — ancient to modern — with a robust secular education that prepares them to compete in the college arena.

This educational synthesis teaches students that Judaism is not just about ritual and history, but that Jewish literacy is an engine that drives productive citizenship, peoplehood, spiritual meaning, ethical living and intellectualism.

The mix works, according to the 2006-2007 Brandeis University study, “The Impact of Day School: A Comparative Analysis of Jewish College Students.” That report surveyed 3300 Jewish college students who are alumni of day schools and found that day school students enter college more likely to be involved in Jewish campus life than those who did not. They are more likely to enroll in Jewish classes, join Jewish clubs on campus and maintain holiday observance in the face of intense social pressure. They also express a stronger sense of civic responsibility, a greater commitment to the Jewish community, and become far more likely to pursue Jewish communal careers.

While engagement among non-day school alumni tends to wane as they become adults, the day school student actually stays committed, according to the 1998 Charles Shahar study, “The Jewish High School Experience”; that report showed that graduates of Jewish high schools were significantly more likely to attend synagogue and observe Jewish rituals, more inclined to donate to Jewish causes and volunteer for Jewish organizations, and more inclined to consider moving to Israel.

And every study over the past 20 years shows that day school alumni marry Jews at a significantly rate than do their non-day school peers: upwards of 80 percent of adults with six or more years of day school and more than 90 percent who attended day school for seven to 12 years are in-married.

Effective day schools, however, cannot be only  about preserving numbers. They should function as communities of learners engaged in creative thinking and living that is rooted in Jewish thought and philosophy. Students need to see people throughout their school engaged with their ancestry, who passionately live, discuss, research and happily practice, authentic Judaism.

We have spent the better part of the last several decades building a network of schools that can compete academically with the private and public schools that parents consider.

The results have been astounding. We know that day school students are accepted at Ivy League and top tier colleges on par with or at a higher rate than their counterparts at other top independent schools.

As mainstream schools grapple with a revolution in education that is seeing schools rapidly move into the digital age, adopt new technology and new techniques for evaluating student and teacher performance, day schools must continue to work with American and Israeli partners to create state-of-the-art digital labs and figure out ways to not just keep up, but to push towards and embrace, what is on the cutting edge, 

Day schools must make sure that for parents the academic choice between day schools and other schools a no-brainer — especially as the price of tuition approaches what those parents may have paid for college. That’s why we also need to continue to work to make the affordability question as easy to answer as possible by creating more efficient models and inspiring broader philanthropic support for tuition relief.

For all of us, day schools are an investment in the future.

In the end, this isn’t about just preserving the identity of individual Jews. The Jewish day school is about strengthening Jewish communities — because Jewish day schools can function as core pillars of the Jewish communities they serve, places where ideas are shared and relationships made. They can help foster a sense of togetherness among Jewish families.

They can be hubs for Jewish continuity, conduits to other Jewish agencies, synagogues and camps, and ultimately the mechanisms that will create the identified and engaged Jews who will support programs such as Birthright Israel for those young people that fall outside of day school reach.

editor@jewishweek.org