Jewish Day Schools were also “seriously underfunded,” according to the first comprehensive study of day school finances commissioned by the AVI CHAI Foundation in the school year 1995-1996. And if proper investments were not made in improving school facilities, faculty salaries, Judaic and secular programming options, and the like, “most American Jews may never consider this form of education, and even when they do, will not elect it.” A flurry of activity on the part of philanthropists, foundations, federations, and organizations to improve and build day schools, in addition to high fertility rates among Orthodox Jews, resulted in significant growth in enrollment, as noted by a series of studies conducted by Marvin Schick for AVI CHAI over the following decades. In 1998-1999, there were one hundred eighty-five thousand students attending 670 day schools, which represented an increase of twenty thousand to twenty-five thousand students since the early 1990s and twenty percent growth in non-Orthodox schools; by 2008-2009, there were more than eight hundred Jewish day schools in the United States, matriculating 228,174 students, which represented an enrollment increase of twenty-five percent over 1998-1999, including five percent growth in non-Orthodox schools (the greatest increase being in community day schools, which accounted for roughly nine percent of day school students, followed by almost six percent in Solomon Schechter schools, and two percent in Reform schools).
Despite these successes, a sense of foreboding about day school finances persisted into the early 2000s, spurred by underlying weaknesses across numerous institutions: low enrollments, a paucity of endowments, budget deficits, and this all in the context of what the historian Jack Wertheimer has described as “the high cost of Jewish living.” While the devastating economic events of 2008 exacerbated these problems and catapulted them into a crisis, it was a crisis that had been brewing for years and one that several observers saw on the horizon.
The most recent statistics suggest Orthodox and community day school enrollments had small to non-existent growth 2012-2013 relative to the previous year. But, declines continue to be seen in Reform and Conservative institutions, and there is concern about the financial impact on families who remain in the system and the viability of smaller schools. The oft-repeated joke, already circulating in the 1990s, that day school tuition was one of the most effective forms of contraception in Jewish families, is met today with more of a wince than a chuckle in some Jewish circles. Rabbis Aryeh Klapper and Yitzchok Adlerstein have recently made the argument quite seriously for different parts of the Orthodox community.
The NYU economist Paul Romer, among others, has observed “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste,” and the organized Jewish community has taken note. With the very real threat looming overhead that day schools could become “financially prohibitive to the masses,” foundations, federations, research institutes, and day schools have mobilized in unprecedented fashion. They are focusing not simply on promoting day schools and offering short-term solutions to tuition shortfalls, but on creating structural changes that will sustain these institutions in the long run. Many of their ideas will bear fruit—if at all—several years from now; the question remains how lower-and middle-income families and schools on the edge will fare in the interim.
Read the entire article in the Jewish Review of Books.