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The Case for Free Jewish Day School

Day schools are getting cheaper. That’s not good enough.

Mark Oppenheimer
April 03, 2023
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler
Kate Dehler

My wife and I were reluctant day-school parents. She was a public-schooler all the way up to college (and the daughter of public-school teachers, to boot); I was educated in a mix of public schools and secular private schools. But, as it happened, two of our five children are now in Jewish schools. One went because we thought it would be a better fit than the public school she was in; the other, because the Jewish school was opening in person and, due to COVID, the public school was not.

Now that I’ve had an intensive immersion experience in the day-school world for six years, I have come to this conclusion: Sending your child to a Jewish day school is one of those human endeavors, like parenthood itself, or Ted Lasso, that you might not think is for you, but almost surely is, if only you’ll give it a try. Once you’re in, you’re in, and the occasional gripes—about cost, or dirty diapers, or season three—pale next to the obvious advantages. Pretty soon, you’ve forgotten why you resisted, and you wonder what took you so long.

Every parent, and child, will have her or his own reasons for embracing a Jewish education, which may include the schools’ effects on students’ long-term Jewish engagement, on their Zionism, or on what scholar Alex Pomson, author of Inside Jewish Day Schools, calls “cultural virtuosity.” As for me, I am impressed by Jewish schools’ obvious sense of purpose, which astounded me when I saw it from the inside. “[A]ll good schools have an implicit sense of mission,” I’ve previously argued, and in Jewish schools the sense of mission is front and center: to be knowledgeable about, custodians of, and practitioners of a glorious inherited tradition. Jewish schools offer a reason for school beyond the college-obsession, or self-centered careerism, now preached by many public and private schools.

Jewish parochial schools are not for everyone, of course, but they are for enough people. Especially given that, according to the latest survey of the American Jewish community, a large-scale study conducted by Keren Keshet, most American Jews hope that their children and grandchildren engage with the Jewish community. In a survey that suggests that American Jews don’t agree on much, 65% did agree on this. And there are few more impactful ways of guaranteeing that your child will be deeply connected to Judaism than sending them to a Jewish school.

Another thing many respondents (almost a sixth) agreed upon: that the cost of being Jewish is a barrier to greater engagement. I have thus begun to wonder, given the high interest in sending your children to Jewish day schools and the high cost of doing so, shouldn’t they be free? Put another way, aren’t there enough wealthy and charitable Jewish institutions that poor, middle-class, and even financially stressed upper-middle-class Jews should be able to send their children to Jewish schools without worrying about the tuition? If we are the people of the book; if we hope for Jewish continuity; if we believe Judaism is life-enhancing and promotes human flourishing; if we believe Jewish knowledge is as important as secular knowledge; if we believe our children have a right to know this stuff; if we feel called, or even commanded, to do this; and if there is extraordinary wealth in the Jewish community, then why do we only manage to fund most of these schools a little, or a good amount, but not all the way?

Before I go on to make the case that day school should be free (or almost free—I’ll explain that caveat in a moment), it’s worth noting that these schools have made great leaps toward affordability in the last decade. Without question, the about 300,000 students enrolled in about 900 non-Haredi schools (ultra-Orthodox yeshivas are a different matter; they are cheaper, and enrollment is growing) are receiving more financial aid now than ever before. And the money is getting better, faster. After the recession of 2008, when day-school enrollments began to decline, many Jewish communities embarked on herculean efforts to make the schools more accessible.

Given the high interest in sending your children to Jewish day schools and the high cost of doing so, shouldn’t they be free?

In Toronto, for example, TanenbaumCHAT, the large non-Orthodox Jewish high school, was in trouble. “The school was shrinking,” said Dan Held, chief program officer of the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto. “In 2017 it was at 900 students, with 175 in grade nine. It had been over 1,500 kids only eight or nine years before that.” Shrinking numbers meant that fixed overhead costs had to be spread among fewer students, pushing the price up. Together with the school the federation launched an initiative to lower tuition. Six years ago, with 14 million Canadian dollars ($10.4 million) in gifts from local philanthropists, the school reduced tuition by about one third, from nearly CA$28,000 to CA$18,500.

“The net result,” Held said, “is that six years ago, we had 175 students in grade nine, and today there are 350. That number will tick up even higher next year.” The school has additional funds for families that cannot meet even the reduced tuition and continues to keep tuition increases below inflation. Federation, in the meantime, has launched the Generations Trust, an endowed affordability program for Toronto Jewish elementary schools, which in its first two years has contributed to a 12% growth in the kindergarten classes.

Although nobody seems to have computed the average cost of Jewish day school, a look at some numbers are startling. On the high end, there are schools like Ramaz in New York City and Shalhevet High School in Los Angeles, where high school is over $40,000 a year (at Ramaz, preschool is over $30,000 a year). Same goes for Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School, outside Washington, D.C. On the other hand, at Friedel Jewish Academy, a K-6 school in Omaha, Nebraska, tuition is $9,200 per year. Community Day School, in Pittsburgh, will charge $19,200 next year. Many Haredi schools are much cheaper still.

Toronto is not the only community to embark on ambitious tuition-reduction or financial aid programs. Seattle philanthropists have launched a similar program, and the Pava Tuition Initiative has substantially reduced tuition at the modern Orthodox school that serves the the I-91 corridor from Springfield, Massachusetts, through Hartford and New Haven, Connecticut. One of my daughters, in fact, attends a school that benefits from one of these efforts.

But for all these efforts, it’s still the rare Jewish philanthropist who makes Jewish schools—or Jewish summer camps, which are similarly transformative—a top priority. “Deep Jewish education has not, at least until the recent past, been top of the list among investments in the Jewish community,” said Paul Bernstein, CEO of Prizmah: Center for Jewish Day Schools, a network for Jewish day schools and yeshivas in North America. “If we want committed leadership for the Jewish future, and to have a literate community deeply engaged here and with Israel, ready to fight antisemitism and strengthen society as a whole, we need to make the big bets to help day schools flourish.”

Kate Dehler

Donors prefer to focus on Israel trips, arts and culture, or well-meaning efforts to combat antisemitism. And there’s nothing wrong with any of that. But I can say that I have forgotten more about my Birthright trip than I ever remembered (and I think my wife, brother, and sister, all Birthright alumni, would say the same). And without Jewishly educated adults, there is no audience for Jewish film festivals.

Jewish parents who don’t send their children to day schools have many reasons. There are those who just aren’t interested—which is fine. Among those who might be interested, some believe strongly in public education, which I don’t quarrel with. I have sent my children to many cumulative years of public school, and I wonder about the ethics of using private schools.

Some parents eschew Jewish education because they seek “diversity,” but many of them have a fairly quirky notion of what that means. “What they often mean,” says Alex Pomson, “is they don’t want their child only to be in school with Jews. Ironically, because of where many Jews live, the public schools their children attend don’t include so much diversity, racial or economic. But they do include non-Jews.”

Such parents may also worry that Jewish schools, by their very nature, don’t have the “excellence” that secular private schools have. And these parents are often not price-sensitive; that is, no matter how cheap a Jewish school got, they wouldn’t consider it. For parents with a lot of money, and a fixation on elite college, a tiny edge in college admissions for their child is worth spending $40,000 a year, or more, even if there’s a Jewish school that costs nothing. And this population of parents, who would strangle themselves in ivy to get their kids some, includes thousands of synagogue-going, culturally engaged Jews.

But there are families for whom money matters, a lot. And financial aid. And how accessible the financial aid seems. Many Jewish schools promise that “no family is turned away because of need,” or some language like that; but if accessing that aid requires onerous forms, and submitting one’s entire tax returns, many people won’t bother (even if they should). And a high sticker price can be off-putting to casual shoppers, who may never bother to find out how much aid is actually available.

For such Jews, the most important innovation may not be more scholarship money but the unbelievably user-friendly aid calculator created by the Toronto federation. It is intuitive, answers every possible question, and also connects families interested in day schools with opportunities for summer camps and other Jewish activities. “We can offer families on scholarships free entrance to community events that would normally have a nominal fee—tickets to the Jewish Film Festival, a hotdog at the Walk with Israel, etc.,” Dan Held said.

When I pushed my free-day-school idea to several philanthropic officials, none would bite. One Toronto macher told me that there was no way to raise CA$100 million a year, the amount of the whole Toronto, non-Orthodox, Jewish-school economy. Of course, Toronto is an outlier. The Shalom School, a K-6 school in Sacramento, California, has an annual budget of $2.7 million. In many cities, the full cost of Jewish education could certainly be met by a few motivated philanthropists.

Another common reply was that people need to “have skin in the game,” or “we don’t value what we don’t pay for.” According to this thinking, it’s somehow ennobling to require people to pay something. But I am not sure that’s true in reality. In fact, the opposite is often true: Californians still look back with pride on the days when tuition in the University of California system was nearly free. The University of Toronto charges CA$6,590 this year, and Canadians don’t think less of it because it’s cheap. The Roman Catholic parochial-school system, which at midcentury was dirt cheap in most parishes, was a tremendous source of quality education, not to mention social cohesion. Many of us value public education precisely because it’s a commonly funded good.

But what if I’m wrong? One federation officer shared with me another concern, a fear that if school were free, “some people would say they’re coming and then just not show up in the fall.” If these are real problems, there is an answer: Just charge a little! Drop tuition to, say, $1,800—enough to transmit value, but not so much that it breaks most families’ banks.

It seems to me that even Jews who didn’t send their children to Jewish schools would be proud to say, “Jewish children can get a free (or very cheap) good Jewish education, paid for by the Jewish community.” Think of what it would signal about our community and its values. (As one friend noted: “People would convert just to get to use our private schools,” which in my opinion would be a very good problem to cause.)

So: Is the money there? Not right now. According to the Pew survey, there are 1.2 million American children living with a Jewish parent and being raised Jewish; at about $20,000 per year per child (more than the cheapest day schools, way less than the most expensive), the price tag would come in at about $20 billion. Figure only half of families would use the Jewish education; further recognize that children aren’t in school their first few years; and we’d still need somewhere close to $10 billion—more than the total of all philanthropy through Jewish federations and donor-advised funds in the U.S. in a given year.

It’s a hefty ask. But I’m a writer and a dreamer, not an accountant or fundraiser. I don’t have to live in the realm of the possible. And besides, I’m not saying Jewish day schools will be free—only that they should be. That seems a good place to start.

Paul Bernstein, of Prizmah, was telling me about the bump in day-school enrollment because of COVID, and he noted that more than 70% of these new families have kept their children enrolled. I asked him why. “COVID demonstrated the fact that school is about much more than grades and which college you go to,” Bernstein said. “Students need to receive an excellent education, and they benefit most when it is values-driven. The students and, importantly, their families want to feel part of a loving community, to feel connected to one another. For teachers to succeed, they too needed to feel part of the community. Everything surfacing during COVID showed it is the whole child that really matters, not just the homework. Those are the things Jewish day schools are really good at, and our schools excelled during and since the darkest days of COVID. If 10 years ago the question was, ‘Are these day schools good enough?’ COVID showed that this is exactly what we are good at.”

Especially compared to other religious groups, Jews are deeply invested in community, even if they can’t say why—and can’t always figure out what to do about it. This latest Keren Keshet Foundation survey exposes a troubling gap between American Jewish engagement and interest. Not a whole lot of American Jews are currently engaging with Jewish institutions like synagogues, yet a whole lot of those same people say it is “somewhat” or “very” important to them that their children, or any children they might have, be “actively engaged in ... being Jewish.” In that yawning chasm you can see the need for a dramatic institutional intervention. Free Jewish schools would be one.

The potential base of support for Jewish schools is thus quite broad. For passionate, engaged Jews, financially supporting Jewish education should be a no-brainer. But for those with a more inchoate longing, who have not figured out how to make Jewish community in their own lives, Jewish schooling is a way forward. These schools are diverse: Some are liberal, some not; some fiercely Zionist, others not; some single-sex; most co-ed. But they all teach children, and they all teach them Judaism. And that’s something. Maybe it’s everything.

Mark Oppenheimer is a Senior Editor at Tablet. He hosts the podcast Unorthodox. He has contributed to Slate and Mother Jones, among many other publications. He is the author, most recently, of Squirrel Hill: The Tree of Life Synagogue Shooting and the Soul of a Neighborhood. He will be hosting a discussion forum about this article on his newsletter, where you can subscribe for free and submit comments.