More Dire Signs of Liberal Jewry's Demise: Writing on the Wall at Non-Orthodox Jewish Day Schools

November 14, 2014

Source: Jewish Daily Forward


There’s a pair of new studies just out that sheds important light on the future of Judaism in America. One paints an alarming picture of a population headed for precipitous decline, but offers hope that certain measures can turn things around. The other suggests that the most hopeful measure actually might not offer much hope at all.


The first study is a reanalysis of the data in last year’s Pew Forum survey, the much-discussed “Portrait of Jewish Americans”. The authors are two leading scholars of American Jewish life, historian Jack Wertheimer and sociologist Steven M. Cohen. Their findings, published in the online journal Mosaic, focus mainly on worrisome family patterns of non-Orthodox Jews. Fewer marry, those who marry have fewer children and those with children give them less Jewish education. The likely result — the signs are already visible — is that each successively younger age cohort is smaller than the one before, less Jewishly attached and less likely in turn to give their children a strong sense of Jewish identity.


“If Pew tells us anything,” Wertheimer and Cohen write, “it is this: judged by their ability to retain the allegiance of their young, foster a commitment to the group life of Jews at home and abroad, or even meet the elementary needs of survival, American Jews, whatever stories they continue to tell about themselves, no longer constitute a great community.”


Their solution: First of all, get more kids into Jewish day schools, which are depicted as the one sure fix for dissolving Jewish identity. They call it “tragic that day schools at every level have become largely the preserve of Orthodox Jews, with only small percentages of others choosing an immersive Jewish education for their children.” They call on community leaders to “persuade more Jewish parents” to put their children in day schools. They urge easing school costs through philanthropic dollars and “by fighting for — rather than against — tax credits” for tuition. For teenagers and kids “whose parents are unable, or unwilling, to send them to day schools,” they urge greater support for summer camps, Israel trips and youth groups, as well as more Jewish programs on college campuses.


The authors don’t mention it, but tens of millions of philanthropic dollars have already been spent to expand day schooling over the past quarter-century, since the famous 1990 Jewish population survey raised the alarm over intermarriage. Here’s where our second study comes in. Published October 30, it shows how effectively day schooling is solving the problem. The answer: not so much.


The study, “A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2013-2014”, shows that day schools are booming, but the growth is entirely within the ultra-Orthodox or Haredi community. Modern Orthodox schools are just holding their own. Non-Orthodox schools are declining, despite gobs of philanthropic money. The Jews they’re supposed to save apparently don’t want to be saved.


In other words, non-Orthodox day schools — Solomon Schechter schools of Conservative Judaism, non-denominational community schools and Reform movement schools — have lost 3,062 students in the past 15 years, just over 8% of their enrollment. The Schechter schools in particular have seen a catastrophic decline, dropping from 63 schools with 17,563 students in 1998 to 39 schools with 9,718 students in 2013. Community schools have regained some of that ground but not all of it, growing from about 15,000 to 20,000 students.


Orthodox day schools have grown in the same period from 518 schools with 147,436 students in 1998 to 712 schools with 220,914 students in 2013. But that’s not the whole story. Modern and Centrist Orthodoxy, both of which operate co-ed schools that prepare their students for college, have barely held their own; they’ve dropped from 47,000 students to 46,000 and gone from 26% to 18% of the total day school population. By contrast, the two Haredi streams, Hasidic and so-called Yeshivish schools — known for extreme gender separation, distinctive clothing and devoting most of their school days to religious studies — have experienced explosive growth. The streams of Judaism that are bursting at the seams are growing through high birthrates and strict self-segregation from everyone else.


If the findings are to be believed, though, we could be at a historic turning point. Judaism probably isn’t at risk, but the worldly, liberal Jewry that emerged from the Enlightenment could be. The modern Jewish civilization that produced Freud and Einstein, Roth and Bellow, Dear Abby and Hannah Arendt, Sarah Bernhardt, Estee Lauder, Golda Meir and the Marx Brothers could turn out to be nothing more than a blip in history, a pause in the eternal saga of the Talmud and the ghetto.


Read more at The Jewish Daily Forward.

Updated: Nov. 19, 2014