In 2011, Professor Jonathan Krasner published a book called The Benderly Boys and American Education. The volume won the National Jewish Book Award and it prompted Barry Holtz to write in the Jewish Daily Forward: “It is not an exaggeration to say that this volume is the most important piece of historical writing about American Jewish education to have appeared in a generation.” Now Krasner brings his comprehensive historical perspective to the PEJE’s Sustainable Stories series, offering us some useful context about the notion of communal obligation and Jewish day school.
When New York’s first Bureau of Jewish Education director, Dr. Samson Benderly, presented a plan to upgrade and professionalize Jewish education in 1910, critics wondered why it didn’t include a goal of universal enrollment. The answer was simple. The existing schools lacked the capacity to absorb the roughly 150,000 unschooled Jewish children. Even with the backing of financier Jacob Schiff, who was then American Jewry’s most generous benefactor, Benderly could not imagine increasing capacity by more than three percent per year. As it turned out, even that goal, which was contingent upon the opening of approximately 10 new schools per year (with a capacity of 400 to 500 students each), was wildly optimistic. Five years after the Bureau opened its doors, it operated at a considerable deficit. The father of modern American Jewish education was the victim of an acute head-heart conflict. Even as he acknowledged the futility of the exercise, he nearly bankrupted the Bureau trying to make a significant dent in the number of unschooled children.
It is with this cautionary tale in mind that I approach the question of universal day school education today. On a purely financial and logistical basis, any such plan is completely unrealistic. There is neither the capacity in existing schools nor the requisite communal funds to enact such an initiative. By one estimate, even if Federations allocated to day schools every dollar raised for domestic consumption, it would still be insufficient to cover the operating costs of existing schools—never mind the expenses required to build and operate scores of new schools. Recall that in Benderly’s day, intensive Jewish education was synonymous with an eight-to-10-hour-per-week supplementary school or Talmud Torah. The cost of day school education is exponentially higher.
Over the past generation, the day school world has benefited from the largesse of a few mega-donors. But there is reason to believe that this model cannot be sustained over time. Many an institution has learned the hard way that when foundation grants for even the highest-quality programs sunset, it’s often impossible to find replacement funding. This dilemma promises to become more acute as foundations like AVI CHAI prepare to wind down, as there is little evidence that a new generation of funders committed to day school education across the denominational spectrum is poised to replace them. Younger, non-Orthodox Jewish donors are far less likely than their parents to prioritize Jewish communal needs in their philanthropic giving.
Day schools are simply too costly to serve as the default model of American Jewish education. One might be tempted to bring up the example of the Catholic parochial schools as a rejoinder. But the Jewish community lacks the equivalent of a diocesan system and is far more decentralized. Moreover, in recent years, many Catholic schools without a secure funding base have been forced to close. Demographically speaking, the Jewish community is smaller and more diffuse, making Jewish day schools unviable in many areas. It is also useful to bear in mind that in order to fill seats, many Catholic schools admit large numbers of non-Catholic children, a policy that the Jewish community up until now generally has been unwilling to countenance. That is unlikely to change as long as day school education is viewed as a strategy for religious and ethnic survival—though some schools are experimenting.
But even if one were to leave aside the practical obstacles, there are other reasons why it would be unrealistic and wrongheaded to endorse day school education as a Jewish obligation. On the most basic level, it runs contrary to the American system and values. The separation of church and state and the disestablishment of religion are enshrined in the Constitution and have profoundly affected Americans’ outlook. The notion of compelling religious association is anathema to Americans. The strength of religious institutions in the United States derives in large part from their voluntary nature. Furthermore, unlike Canada, the American government never endorsed multiculturalism as an official policy. Voluntary ethnicity may be sanctioned and even romanticized in the private sphere, but it is neither privileged nor legally protected. On the contrary, as the recent immigration debates and the passage of “English only” laws demonstrate, Americans continue to hold fast to a melting-pot ethos. Thus, any attempt to mandate religio-ethnic education of any type, let alone one that removes children from the public schools, would be doomed to failure.
This is true today more than ever, in part because of low rates of affiliation, synagogue attendance, and Jewish engagement. More fundamentally, Americans of all stripes view religion, more and more, in personal rather than communal terms. This was evident long before the Pew Study and the celebrated rise of the “Nones” (i.e., the unaffiliated). As Arnold Eisen and Steven Cohen observed in their book, The Jew Within, published in 2000, this outlook is prevalent among the moderately affiliated Jews who pay lip service to community and peoplehood but speak the language of individualism. These Jews presumably would be the primary audience for an initiative to significantly increase Jewish day school enrollment, because the strongly affiliated already send their children to day schools and yeshivot in high numbers.
Interestingly, classical Jewish texts view education as a parental responsibility (see, for example, Deuteronomy 6: 4-9 and BT Kiddushin 29a). This understanding continued into the modern era. In Eastern Europe, for example, communal funds were used to maintain primary schools for the (male) children of the indigent. But all who could afford to pay tuition out of pocket were responsible for doing so. It was in recognition of this tradition that Samson Benderly recommended offering parents a variety of school options at different price points. He also supported a system of extension activities and youth groups designed for those who regarded the fostering of a sense of belonging and general cultural literacy as sufficient. In emblematically American fashion, Benderly believed that the free market and the laws of supply and demand would largely determine the landscape of Jewish education. He also recognized that Jewish education historically had been variegated, with both aptitude and economic status playing a determinative role with regards to both quality and quantity. Only a minority of pupils continued with their studies after primary school, and even fewer attended the most advanced yeshivot.
Benderly argued that the role of the school leaders and other educational professionals was to provide a quality product that balanced the communal imperative of Jewish survival with the needs and desires of the paying customers (i.e., the parents). The larger community would continue to act (through the Federations) as it had historically—by providing scholarship money to ensure that a Jewish education would not be denied to any child for financial reasons alone. To be sure, this schema encountered resistance from educators who wanted to make intensive supplementary education normative and communal leaders who believed that Jewish education was outside the purview of Federations and Jewish welfare organizations. But it became the norm in most communities. The consensus lasted two generations but was ultimately rendered obsolete or untenable in the second half of the 20th century by suburbanization, upward mobility, and the rise of day schools.
As a supporter of day school education, I would like to see more families avail themselves of quality intensive Jewish education. Day schools are touted as a bulwark against assimilation. But I believe that they are intrinsically valuable as a source of Jewish empowerment, providing students with access to and fluency in Jewish texts, history, and tradition. Such competence and sense of ownership is all the more important in an era when the Chosen People has become a choosing people. (That is to say, when Judaism has become a choice.) Day school education can help to ensure that the mantra of “informed choice” that animates liberal Judaism is more than an empty phrase.
Economic and cultural considerations compel us to eschew the language of obligation with regard to day schools in an American context. However, they do not preclude us from providing a greater variety of high-quality day school options serving the widest possible range of learners in large Jewish residential centers, and a strong and sustainable network of community day schools in midsized Jewish communities. Nor do they absolve the Jewish community from maintaining the tradition of providing financial aid to those in need. Ultimately, we must accept the reality that day schools will continue to be one of a variety of Jewish educational options in the United States. We should work to strengthen day schools and yeshivot, and reverse the trend of stagnant or declining enrollment in non-Orthodox day schools. Simultaneously, we should view the advent of Hebrew-language charter schools and efforts to revitalize and re-imagine supplementary school education as contributing to a healthy, variegated, and economically sustainable Jewish educational ecosystem. As our sages teach us, Shivim panim latorah, the Torah has 70 faces or points of entry. Our job is to keep all of those doors wide open and the atmosphere inside welcoming, stimulating, and generative.