The last time a major nationwide survey of American Jewry was conducted was in the year 2000. The National Jewish Population Survey conducted by the Jewish Federations of North America demonstrated some startling statistics that turned on its head prior assumptions about the Jewish religious community. Whereas, in the previous generation Conservative Judaism was the most dynamic and largest voice in the denominational Jewish spectrum, Orthodoxy in the 2000s had transformed into the fastest growing Jewish movement in America.
In the previous generation, Orthodox Jews were a small minority of the American Jewish demographic and many assumed the entire movement would either disappear or continue on its path towards numerical irrelevancy. In the 2000s the Orthodox Jewish population had skyrocketed to such an extent that among people between the ages of 18-34, the next generation of Jewish leadership, Orthodoxy represented 34 percent of that population. Orthodox Judaism, as of 2000, held a greater percentage of young adults more so than any other denomination in Judaism in existence. The only other grouping to outpace that number were those who identified as unaffiliated.
The Orthodox Jewish community has a lot to be thankful for. It is a thriving and beautiful community of young and old, marrieds and singles, working professionals and retirees and people from all walks of life and backgrounds. In 2010 I wrote about the success of the Orthodox Community for the magazine First Things and much of what I wrote there still holds true two years later. Yet, there is one issue that threatens to undermine the entire system. This is the issue of the affordability of the day school system.
Rabbi Steven Weil, Executive Vice President of the Orthodox Union, recently spoke compellingly on this issue to members of the Harvard Jewish community at Harvard Hillel. He presented the stark reality that a couple earning a salary of $200,000 living in a New Jersey suburb in a modest home could expect to be asking for financial aid and living paycheck by paycheck once they have more than two children in the day school system. The day schools are not significantly overcharging when they put tuition at $24-25,000 a year per child. it costs a significant sum of money to maintain a school building, pay for teacher and administrative compensation, school supplies and the myriad of other expenses educational institutions must shoulder. In addition, day schools work very hard to maintain a policy of never turning any child away because of financial constraints so the additional monetary burden of tuition discounts and waivers adds to the difficulties the schools face.
There are many things that we must be doing as a community to address this challenge. The severity of this challenge cannot be overstated. As Rabbi Weil said during his lecture, "A sophisticated Jewish life requires a sophisticated Jewish education." One option that must not be seriously considered is a reduction in the quality of our Jewish education. The curriculum must remain intensive and comprehensive. The pedagogical methods must be able to take advantage of the latest cutting edge advances in student focused learning, digital engagement and other tools. A watered down education could do worse than the opposite of producing a sophisticated adult; it could very well produce a cynical, disconnected adult who is equipped with the most basic and simplistic of a Jewish education.
There are policy actions that could be taken and there are legislative actions that could be taken to help alleviate this issue. There are also ways in which we can look to reduce costs for some aspects of the functioning of a school. Perhaps some schools could explore a shared health insurance plan that could cut costs for both the institutions and the employees?
In addition, at the most fundamental level, what is called for is deep engagement of the entire community with the schools in our midst. If a community is composed of singles, young couples, families, empty nesters and retirees then we need all five sectors of the population contributing to the schools. All too often, as Rabbi Weil pointed out, the only segment that contributes are the parents themselves and with the financial burden of tuition their ability to take part in charitable giving is significantly reduced. It is understandable that people who do not have children in school or people who just recently finished their parental educational duties or even people enjoying retirement would not place the local day school near the top of their philanthropic priorities. This is understandable but it is wrong. Without strong schools we risk the decline of the vitality, strength, depth and future of our community.
While communal organizations engage in the legislative and policy route, let us engage in the philanthropic route. If you give a certain percentage of your income to charity annually, pledge now to allocate a portion of that to your local day school. There are few centers for Jewish thriving that are as essential as the school and the synagogue. The time has come to appreciate the essential role our schools play in the continuity of the community and to comprehend the precarious situation they find themselves in. The Jewish future of tomorrow depends on the success of our schools today. We simply cannot afford to ignore that truth any longer.