From Downsizing to Increasing

With the Yamim Nora’im ahead, Jewish minds are focused on teshuvah and emotions linked to the days of awe. Yet, for hundreds of thousands of us, the seasonal focus is shared by another theme: the return to school.

While that tends to promote excitement, for some, the matter is fraught with anxiety over the issue of overcrowding. However, it is the flip side of that coin that catches our focus here, for there is great irony involved. In our day schools, yeshivos, chadarim and Bais Yaakovs, the so-called “problem” associated with enrollment in truth represents unprecedented educational prosperity, with so many of our Torah mosdos being strapped for space and saddled with increasing demands for placement. That scenario, which reflects a virtual blessing within Yahadus haTorah, is that which in some places generates waiting-list situations.

Consider, though, that others must be envious!

A Jewish Week article by Julie Wiener back in January caught the attention of many readers in its description of how all educational organizations in so-called “liberal” Jewish circles are undergoing downsizing, merging and restructuring, all of which are unmistakably calling out a sad message of decreasing need.

Early this year, the board of JESNA (the Jewish Education Service of North America), already downsized in the past few years, announced its plan to merge with the Jewish Education Project of N.Y. — itself the product of a 2010 merger.

Shortly before that, PELIE (the Partnership for Effective Learning and Innovative Education), a group that promotes innovations in congregational schools, announced that it was closing shop — at least for several months.

JECEI, a program devoted to the improvement of Jewish preschools, closed down in 2011, unable to recruit the funding needed to sustain it financially.

Both the Reform and Reconstructionist movements have either laid off dozens of long-time educational staffers, or completely eliminated the educational wings of their operations.

PEJE (the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) has reduced its operating budget to half of what it once was (from $6.3 to $3.2 million) over the past couple of years, while CAJE (the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and was replaced by a much smaller volunteer-based group.

A variety of explanations have been offered for what appears to be a dismal shrinkage of the support systems for non-Torah Jewish schooling. The recession is cited, as is the decentralization of educational organizations, a trend that favors smaller localized groups that have emerged of late over the large national ones, such as those mentioned above.

“Indeed, money has been hard to come by lately. It hasn’t helped matters that the Jewish Federations of North America, JESNA’s largest single donor, is itself struggling to prove its worth,” Wiener wrote.

At the end of the day, however, the core of the issue lies undeniably in commitment to Jewish education in general. According to the Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, released by the Avi Chai Foundation for the years 2008–2009, “Five out of six day school students in the United States are in Orthodox schools.”

According to the report, the Conservative movement’s day school system experienced a 25 percent decrease in enrollment during the decade prior, while, “Overall, enrollment in non-Orthodox schools [was] down 2.5% since 2003–04.”

In Brooklyn, Lakewood, Monsey and many other centers of Torah-committed Jewish populations, parents and children stand in line to secure acceptance into their schools of choice, mosdos that are bursting at the proverbial seams. With compassion, social responsibility, constructive intervention and, of course, the continuing guidance of our manhigim the enrollment problems will somehow get solved.

The real problem is situated elsewhere. Even in major Jewish areas, for schools serving a Judaically less-committed demographic, the struggle to keep the doors open is on the rise. Torah Umesorah, the premier umbrella organization for Torah schools in North America, has been expanding its activities and initiating new departments over the past six years, while its parallels in the non-frum spheres of Jewish education are undergoing cuts, closures and downsizing.

That being said, the purpose of these lines is by no means to trumpet a flourish of triumphalism; indeed, we ought to empathize with the anguish of others. The purpose is for readers to derive a bit of chizuk at this crucial season — from the lesson that history has taught us repeatedly: “Jewish continuity,” which, according to Ms. Wiener, is what Jewish educational initiatives are all intended to preserve, is the exclusive turf of Torah and Jewish commitment to it.


 

Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Klein is the Director of Publications and Communications for Torah Umesorah.