Jewish education in America is facing a crisis.
Ever since the economic meltdown in 2008, publication after publication, from venerable weekly newspaper to personal blog, has declared that the sky is falling, and that day school tuition has reached the point of unaffordability for the average Jewish family. Jewish communities across America finally are doing some soul-searching about their communal priorities and fund allotments in a desperate attempt to keep yeshivah day school a viable educational option for the next generation of students.
But how much are the day schools actually worth?
I say this as a graduate of venerable and prestigious day schools. I got a decent education in both Judaic and secular studies, learned basic textual skills that opened the corpus of Judaism to me, and was exposed to many modes of Jewish thought by various rebbeim. But I also was naturally inclined toward Judaic studies and would use my leisure time to read up on Jewish history and the like. How much of my knowledge of and investment in Judaism came from my educational environment, and how much came from my own personality?
This might sound arrogant, but the truth is that most of the intelligent, knowledgeable products of day schools with whom I’m acquainted are intellectually curious people by nature. They are the people who will make the best of poor educational offerings, learning what they can and picking up the rest on their own. And I know many day school graduates who are practically Jewishly illiterate. They have weak textual skills, little knowledge of Jewish history or sacred books, and little practical halachic knowledge. Worst of all, they have no real love of Judaism, and so Judaism has no value for them.
And there are many Orthodox students who did not attend day schools and yet value Judaism and have a good level of Jewish knowledge, whether from summer camps, after-school programs, their home environment, or somewhere else.
It seems that the students with the most potential will end up with the knowledge and skills they need to be involved members of the Jewish community, with or without the influence of their schools. So what purpose do the day schools serve?
I see two. The first is that they keep our children in a (supposedly) safe, Orthodox-only environment. If the majority of their social interaction is within the Jewish community, then Orthodox children are less likely to form meaningful bonds with anyone outside the Orthodox community who might cause them to stray. The second is that we want our children to know Judaism. If they are to be committed Jews as adults, the thinking goes, they must be given the skills to understand Judaism as children. This means teaching them Bible, Talmud, Jewish history, and other subjects, and teaching secular studies from within an overall framework of Jewish thought and values.
On both counts the schools seem to be failing. In terms of keeping children in an environment where they will be safe from outside influences, the non-charedi Orthodox do this only to a limited extent. While they do not interact much in person with the outside world, at least in the New York area, they certainly absorb much of the surrounding culture, and this dampers the effect of an Orthodox-only social milieu. There is also something to be said for the “forbidden fruit effect” – by treating the world beyond the Orthodox community as a threat, the community incites in its children a curiosity to see what’s so bad. Children who go off to college are not equipped to deal with meeting people who lead fundamentally different lives. They have never bolstered the foundations of their own belief, so it turns out to be easily toppled.
In terms of how students are educated, the failures of the day schools are apparent to anyone who has been through one. Teachers are more concerned with students toeing the establishment line than they are with students growing at a pace appropriate to them, and as a result many students are turned off from Orthodoxy by their school experience. Even the students who do succeed in school often emerge with a technical knowledge of Judaism but no appreciation for it. Halachah alone will not make someone a passionate believer, and many day schools are weak in their curricula for Bible and Jewish thought – when curricula exist.
In the end, my argument comes down to this: according to an Avi Chai survey by Amy L. Sales and Leonard Saxe, “Particularism in the University: Realities and Opportunities for Jewish Life on Campus,” and to Jonathan Ament in “American Jewish Religious Denominations,” somewhere between a quarter and nearly half of Orthodox Students entering college are no longer Orthodox by the time they graduate. (“For example, one-quarter of the students who come to college as Orthodox Jews report that they have changed their denominational identity while at college. About half of these chose Conservative Judaism,” Sales and Saxe write. Ament, meanwhile, adds, “For example, the table indicates that among those who were raised Orthodox, 42% are still Orthodoxâ€¦”)
If we are paying $10,000 to $20,000 per year for our children’s Jewish educations, and this is the result, then how are we not wasting our money? I hate to label tzedakah -charity – as ba’al tashchis – wastefulness – but what is the use of demanding such a huge expenditure from Orthodox households if it isn’t going to be worthwhile?
Perhaps if parents didn’t pay so much for schools, they wouldn’t think that the responsibility to educate their children in Judaism rested only on the schools. Perhaps if they didn’t have to work so hard to pay tuition, they would have time to properly model a Jewish lifestyle for their children. And then, perhaps, the Orthodox attrition rate wouldn’t be so high.
The community finally may have started asking how it can make day school tuition low enough to be affordable, but perhaps the more pressing question is whether or not we should be paying for day school in the first place. Jewish education is an investment in the future, and as things stand now, it would seem that it isn’t a very safe one.