A morning of light in Jewish day school growth

Families who turned to Jewish day schools during the pandemic are staying, and the future looks bright.

A small child reads a board welcoming her to the first grade at Pola Ben-Gurion School in Jerusalem, Aug. 31, 2004. Credit: Flash90.
A small child reads a board welcoming her to the first grade at Pola Ben-Gurion School in Jerusalem, Aug. 31, 2004. Credit: Flash90.
Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools. Credit: Courtesy.
Paul Bernstein

Each day, students in Jewish day schools are welcomed with a warm greeting from teachers and administrators—“Boker tov, good morning!” Every new day of learning is a new start, a new opportunity to grow, learn and help the souls and minds of the next Jewish generation to flourish.

Starting this Sunday, Jan. 8, over 1,000 professional and lay leaders from Jewish day schools and yeshivas across North America will gather in Denver, Colorado for the first Prizmah Conference since the Covid-19 pandemic. In the four years since the field last gathered en masse, much has changed. Most notably, in the early years of the millennium, particularly after 2008, enrollment in Jewish day schools outside the Haredi sector was in decline. Some even questioned the future viability of such institutions. That decline is over.

Jewish day schools excelled during Covid. Enrollment is up across all denominations and most geographic areas. Families turned to Jewish schools that were open when so many other schools were not, and they found a high-quality education; a close, supportive, welcoming community built on meaningful relationships; schools that care deeply for and nurture the whole child; and an environment that promotes strong Jewish values. None of this magically appeared because of Covid. Our schools were at their best because of what they were before the pandemic and what they continue to be as we emerge from it.

After notable enrollment increases during the first year of the pandemic, this trend continued into 2021-2022, and according to the most recent Prizmah Enrollment Pulse Survey, which assessed enrollment trends for 2022-2023, schools are continuing to build on this positive growth trajectory. Families that transferred into Jewish day schools because of Covid have mostly stayed. A full 72% of students who enrolled due to the pandemic reenrolled for the 2022-23 academic year. Even more exciting, enrollment in preschool programs increased by 5% this year, suggesting the pipeline is strong for future students.

The high quality of Jewish day school education during Covid was not a coincidence. It followed a decade or more of investment in excellence in both secular and Judaic studies. In recent years, new investments in our schools, including community and individual school affordability, faculty excellence and new buildings and facilities have allowed day schools to compete with the best independent and public school options. Last year, 75% of day schools exceeded their fundraising goals.

The perceived value of a Jewish day school education is strong, and alumni are telling their stories through Prizmah’s #JDSalumniproud campaign, which showcases how Jewish day schools create leaders across all sectors of the economy and society. A growing portion of Jewish communal leadership is a product of our schools, and according to a recent Keren Keshet study, 62% of current community leaders send their children to a Jewish day school.

Full-time Jewish education is becoming an intentional choice among savvy parents. Now, the Jewish community and each of our schools have the opportunity to invest in and build on these recent successes. Continued enrollment growth, investments that help make day schools more affordable for families and increased appreciation of the centrality of a Jewish day school education to the future of our community are all possible in the years ahead.

As Jewish day school leaders gather in Denver this coming week, they are determined to ensure that positive trends continue and that the growth and progress seen in many schools and communities expands. The key challenges standing in the way of success are affordability and talent.

In recent years, we have seen creative and successful strategies for approaching the tuition challenge. At the school level and the communal level, most recently in places like Seattle, Toronto, San Diego and Atlanta, leaders are deeply invested in experimenting with new models. We have witnessed the impact of those models and their promulgation in schools across North America. When innovative investors and professionals share their strategies through the day school network, good ideas spread and cross-pollinate.

These investments target key segments of the population, such as middle-income families and Jewish communal professionals, for whom access to our schools may be a hurdle. I have no doubt that there are future funders out there who will be drawn to invest in proven models to make schools more affordable, while also focusing on growing school excellence. This supports a virtuous cycle, in which excellent schools generate increased enrollment, and in turn attract greater resources that allow further investment in affordability and enhanced excellence.

We know that the most important determinant of educational success is the excellence of teachers, with school leaders creating the environment in which teachers, staff and volunteers can unlock their fullest potential and inspire student learning and development. We have anecdotal evidence from school and field leaders—confirmed by CASJE Jewish educators research—that Jewish day schools have an emerging crisis when it comes to recruiting, training and retaining talented educators.

How to attract and retain talented educators will be a key issue at the Prizmah Conference. Beginning this January, Prizmah is launching a nine-month effort, in partnership with the Jewish Education Innovation Challenge (JEIC), to identify, publicize and increase investment in projects to ensure that more day school educators are in the pipeline.

We need to proclaim the value of our schools with pride and insistence. In the voices of dozens of day school and yeshiva alumni, we are already hearing about how impactful full-time Jewish education is for a lifetime. There is ample research to be conducted to demonstrate the value and impact of day schools.

By homing in on the opportunities for future growth and success of Jewish day schools, we can find a path forward that leads the whole Jewish world to a more sustainable future. When our children greet us with “boker tov,” we can reply with the traditional response “boker or”—a morning of light. We see a path forward illuminated by growing enrollment, increased affordability, swelling pools of talent, more pervasive academic excellence and a greater appreciation of the value of our schools.

Paul Bernstein is the CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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