Jewish day schools are in the news. Some of the attention comes in the form of negative publicity about health risks that schools in the more insular sectors of Orthodoxy have taken to keep classes in session during the COVID-19 pandemic. On a more positive note, day schools with a more modern orientation have received praise for doing an unusually good job of helping their students get through the spring lockdowns—and, where possible, for how rigorously they planned and executed reopening the current school year. Their efforts seem more successful than those of many public and nonsectarian private schools. These achievements have not been lost on parents, including some who had not enrolled their children in the past but over the summer showed new interest. Why day schools have done well and what parents are seeing when they give them a second look is a story that can be understood only in the context of their significant, yet largely unremarked, educational transformation over the past two decades.
Numbering some 427 separate institutions, modern Jewish day schools range ideologically from the Modern Orthodox to those affiliated with the Conservative and Reform movements. They also include pluralistic community schools that are committed to exposing their students to the spectrum of Jewish viewpoints, including secular Jewish identification. All regard the inclusion of a robust general-studies education as nonnegotiable; all identify positively with Zionism and Israel; and it seems that all are affiliated with Prizmah: the Center for Jewish Day Schools, the umbrella organization offering support services and training programs for administrators, boards, and teachers. (In all three of these ways, they differ from the more insular Orthodox yeshivas, and therefore we’ve excluded the latter from this discussion).
Despite their ideological differences, Jewish day schools share two additional common characteristics. They offer a mix of Jewish and general-studies classes; and with few exceptions, they enroll only students being raised as Jews. Advocates of day schools neither lack concern about the academic excellence of general-studies offerings, nor are they indifferent to how well students will be prepared to function as adults in the wider society. But they also ask themselves an entirely different question: What is the most efficacious way to prepare the next generations to participate actively in, if not lead, Jewish institutions? No other educational vehicle offers comparable opportunities to immerse young students in intensive study of the Hebrew language, the classics of Jewish sacred literature, the rituals of Judaism, and the history and disparate cultures of the Jews. Day schools, advocates contend, represent the best hope for nurturing a knowledgeable generation committed to Jewish life.
Convincing non-Orthodox families to invest in a day-school education for their children has proven a tougher sell. It seemed for a brief period around the turn of the current century that the case for a day-school education was gaining traction in some non-Orthodox circles. But as a newly released Avi Chai Foundation census of Jewish day schools reveals, that may have been illusory. Over the two decades from 1998 to 2018–19, the number of non-Orthodox day schools in the United States dropped from 158 to 134. Student enrollment in these schools declined by 17 percent, despite the overall growth of the Jewish population during the same period.
Yet new evidence is emerging during the COVID-19 crisis of a modest though perceptible reversal in the fortunes of non-Orthodox day schools. Enrollments have risen in many of them; some, in fact, now have waiting lists. The influx of new students is largely due to transfers arriving from public schools, and in smaller numbers from nonsectarian private schools. It has taken the terrible COVID-19 crisis to draw attention to the many ways day schools have transformed themselves over the past two decades.
For the first time in 20 years, enrollments at non-Orthodox day schools are up in many parts of the country. The word on the street is that these schools generally have done superbly during the crisis. But there still is great uncertainty as to whether parents of newly enrolled children will abandon these schools once the pandemic passes or will choose to keep their children in day schools and perhaps even persuade others in their social networks to consider that form of education for their children. The head of a community day school spoke optimistically of the newcomers, telling us “they are ours to lose.” He may be right, but the responsibility for retaining newly enrolled students does not fall only on day schools. Seizing this moment of opportunity requires action from the wider American Jewish community.
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