The day-school system has been broken for years. Now is the time for meaningful change.
As September draws nearer, Jewish day schools are beginning to release their plans for the upcoming school year. Some announced a mix of in-person classes and distance learning, while others will be online only for the time being.
But countless schools, from Cleveland to Riverdale to Palm Beach, will not be reopening in the fall at all, even via Zoom. With shrinking numbers of students, the future looks bleak for many Jewish schools.
I view the impending day-school crisis as a long-overdue reckoning. For years, parents have cried out for help, stating that they can’t pay staggeringly high annual tuition fees for their children.
By and large, administrators have refused to budge. Rather than coming up with solutions to make tuition fees more reasonable, the blame is pushed back onto parents, who are told that their child’s Jewish education should be their highest priority.
The onus is placed on families to crunch the numbers and somehow come up with the money. Some families grit their teeth, cut back on everything they can and manage to make it work.
Some families even make aliyah for this reason. I’ve counseled dozens of parents who moved to Israel because Jewish education, especially for children with special needs, was prohibitively expensive in their hometowns.
Others fall through the cracks. Many families that can’t afford day schools also can’t afford pricey synagogue memberships, and slowly, begin to fade away from Jewish communal life. When the financial barrier to entry is so high, what else can we expect?
This fall, we can expect a significant drop in the number of children enrolled in Jewish day schools. Due to the financial crisis caused by the pandemic, many families are in dire straits and cannot afford to spend tens of thousands of dollars for their children’s education.
That’s without factoring in families who will choose not to send their children to school due to the health risks.
We must use this moment of crisis as an opportunity to make a meaningful change in the day-school system. With rapidly declining enrollment numbers, and more parents than ever who can’t afford tuition, we must come up with a plan to make sure day schools don’t die out.
Our priority should be getting as many Jewish students as possible enrolled in day schools, period. This might mean offering more full scholarships or generous financial aid, even if it hurts the school’s bottom line. Perhaps administrators can take a pay cut. Schools may consider adopting more economical resource-sharing models.
This is the ideal time for established Jewish-American organizations to step in. These groups need to turn inward and shift their priorities towards practical support for young Jewish families. Perhaps this means reallocating funds away from advocacy in favor of fully or partially reimbursing parents for day-school tuition.
While these groups undoubtedly engage in important work, we need to return to our roots and the principle of community aid, on which American Jewish organizations were founded. Instead of focusing on outreach to anti-Semitic rappers and football players, we should address the very real financial needs of parents with school-age children.
The benefits of Jewish education are clear. Children who attend Jewish day schools are far more likely to remain observant as adults and participate in Jewish communal life. While nearly 60 percent of American Jews are married to non-Jewish spouses, day school graduates are significantly less likely to intermarry.
It’s time to finally listen to the cries of parents who are unable to bear the financial burden of tuition. Rather than setting up roadblocks in the form of sky-high annual fees, we should embrace these families with open arms. These parents want to raise their children to be committed Jews, proud of their identity, history and religion, and day schools are a critical factor in ensuring that happens.
We must repair the broken-day school system by making it affordable and, therefore, accessible to the largest number of students possible. Our children deserve it.
Rabbi Chaim Perkal is the founder and director of Alei Siach, a Jerusalem-based nonprofit providing all-inclusive solutions for people living with special needs and their families.