Is Anybody There?

image for blogFor non-Orthodox Jewish day schools, this has been a month of troubling news. First, the new Avi Chai Foundation census reported that enrollment is flat or declining. Then, a reexamination of the Pew Study concluded that American Jews no longer constitute a great community. Fewer non-Orthodox Jews are marrying, and those who are marrying are less likely to marry Jews, have a Jewish home or provide their few number of children with a Jewish education. Other articles came to the same dismal conclusion.

Riv-Ellen Prell, a professor at the University of Minnesota, put the analyses in historical context. These shifts have been unfolding for over 50 years, she wrote in an article titled, “The Unimportance of Jewish Difference.”

“And we have now arrived at a time when in-marriage appear[s] parochial, the post-modern embrace of self-invention…has undermined traditional forms of authority… [and] younger Jews have rejected the importance of Jewish difference,” she wrote.

Jack Wertheimer and Steve Cohen, who reexamined the Pew Study, suggest that the current situation can be reversed, and so do I. It begins with education. Again and again, they point out, and a multitude of studies show, that the Jewish adults most engaged in Jewish life — who are most likely to in-marry and who are most likely to support Jewish institutions — had a strong Jewish education. The data is unequivocal – day school education for nine years or more ranks the most effective followed by a combined experience of seven years of supplementary Jewish education and Jewish summer camping. The less exposure, the less Jewish engagement.

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. How many Jewish communal professionals and federation leaders end up sending their children to a Jewish day school over another “elite” private school or public school? How often do our rabbis across the spectrum strongly advocate from the pulpit and meet individually with families to encourage them to choose Jewish day schools?

In most Jewish day schools, there is a financial assistance program in place and in many schools ample tuition assistance, including at Hillel. And yet, most non-Orthodox day schools have been unable to grow enrollment. It is not simply a cost issue; it is a values and priority issue, something many people are uncomfortable speaking about.  Parents make big investments for many things in their lives, but a day school education is often not one of them.  Leaders need to lead by example. If more of our Jewish communal leaders sent their children to day school, along with advocating the essential need for these schools, perhaps more families would send their children.

While it is true there are many successful programs that engage Jewish children and families, the data and evidence are compelling.  All Jewish institutions – synagogues, temples, federations – must advocate for Jewish day school education. Future membership, regardless of denomination, and future philanthropy to Jewish causes will increasingly depend on day school graduates, who are already disproportionately represented among leaders in the community.

I am an optimist by nature, and this is not the first time that the demise of the Jewish community has been predicted. The question is how viable will the non-Orthodox community be in another generation?  As Cohen and Wertheimer have pointed out, the response by our rabbis and Jewish leaders has been tepid at best. In the award winning musical, 1776, John Adams stands alone in the empty chamber on the eve of the vote for independence and asks, “Is anybody there? Does anybody care?” And now, we have to ask that of ourselves if non-Orthodox Judaism will thrive for the next generation.


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