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Monday, December 16, 2013

Addressing PEW through Jewish Education

From what I can determine my extended family is similar to about 90% of American Jewish families as cousins progressed from committed Jews to relatively affluent, fairly assimilated and Jewishly-uninformed.

When I was in my teens my own family, which had been on the right-wing of the Conservative  movement, moved to a religious neighborhood where my brothers, and then my mother, took to Orthodoxy like a fish to water. My father was an easy-going person and didn't mind one way or another and I had found zionism and was planning my life in Israel.

Most of my cousins however went the way of the majority of America's Jews. Once-a-week synagogue attendance and a general nod to kashruth and holidays gave way to twice-a-year synagogue attendance and fond memories of chicken soup with knadalich. Today my extended family is a model for the latest PEW report which reported that 70% of non-Orthodox American Jews marry non-Jews.

Additional research does demonstrate that Jewish children who attend a Jewish day school through the 12th grade are more likely to remain connected to the Jewish community, marry a Jewish partner and raise their own children as Jewish.

So why aren't more resources being allocated to day school educations for Jewish kids? Without even looking at the statistics, I can state with absolute certainty that many families who would otherwise send their children to a day school don't because they can't afford the day school tuition. But there are other things going on there as well.

My cousin, a nice, bright 13-year-old was turned down for her city's Jewish high school. No reason given, though her mother thinks that it's because she got a "D" on her report card and the school, which promotes itself by advertising how many of its students got into the best universities, didn't want to take a chance with the girl.

So that's one of the biggest issues with the non-Ultra-Orthodox schools. They're preparing the kids for Ivy League colleges from the first grade which triples the tuition costs and creates a non-welcoming atmosphere for anyone who isn't going to measure up to their standards.

I also wonder what's going on with the rabbis and cantors. Why aren't they inspiring their congregants to set aside the Hawaii vacation or the new 4-wheel drive and use it to send their kids to the local day school? Are they unable to influence their congregations? Unwilling? Uninterested? Does the subject ever come up?

Having griped enough, I do have to point out the amazing initiatives that are, in fact, being put into action in the American Jewish community.

Increasing numbers of Jewish Federations are supporting their community's day schools. This support isn't across the board -- they support Boards of Jewish Education-affiliated schools, which generally don't include the Haredi schools. Still, it's something.

Jewish day schools are collaborating, rather than competing (not always, but more and more) to bolster each other, share ideas and increase everyone's piece of the pie. One informal collaborative tool that I use for my online teaching activities is the JedLab group in which teachers of different types of schools and streams of Judaism work together and advance Jewish education for everyone's common good.

A number of philanthropists are supporting their local day schools, either through the Federation or directly. These donors have determined that their visions of a strong Jewish community can be best served by a Jewish day school education and they're prepared to put their money on strengthening the schools in any way possible. In addition to the cash flow (always welcome) the support speaks volumes about how many of America's biggest Jewish philanthropists see their community's future.

Several organizations, including the Steinhardt and Grinspoon foundations, the Helen Dillar Foundation and the Milken Family Foundation have created Jewish educator awards. These awards are meant to inspire highly effective Jewish educators and the teachers who work with them to continue to serve as examples for their students, the students' families and their communities. Milken Jewish Educator Award recipients receive $15,000, Grinspoon-Steinhardt awardees receive $1000 and Helen Dillar awards carry a prize of $10,000 for the educator and $2,500 for the educator’s institution.

1 comment:

Jane Gassner said...

I also wonder what's going on with the rabbis and cantors. Why aren't they inspiring their congregants to set aside the Hawaii vacation or the new 4-wheel drive and use it to send their kids to the local day school? Are they unable to influence their congregations? Unwilling? Uninterested? Does the subject ever come up?

I would say that all appeals for a change in spending habits are aimed at synagogue's building fund or something in Israel.