Jewish day schools, found to be the most effective means of maintaining affiliation among young people in an increasingly assimilated American community, are in serious economic crisis.
Two burning questions are emerging: Can they survive? And who cares?
There are about 200,000 youngsters attending some 700 day schools and yeshivot in the US, about 80 per cent of which offer an Orthodox curriculum.
Ten per cent are Conservative schools, eight per cent are “community”, or non-denominational, and the rest are Reform.
Funded primarily through tuition fees, which in New York can exceed $30,00 (£19,000) per year — the national average is about $14,000 (£9,000) — the schools, perennially struggling, now are reeling from the economic meltdown.
As more and more families face the prospect of losing jobs and income, even some of those most committed to a sustained Jewish education for their children are questioning how they can afford to continue, especially since the schools are hard-pressed to offer sufficient scholarships.
A number of alternative options are emerging, driven by a combination of creativity and desperation. These include the concept of no-frills day schools with tuition under $7,000 but offering few, if any, extra-curricular courses, such as art and music; dual-immersion Hebrew-tracked programmes in (free) public schools; and Hebrew-language “charter” schools that are free of cost but restricted from offering any religious education.
While day school parents and leaders of the Orthodox community are consumed with the crisis, the great majority of American Jews, who eschew day schools as too parochial (as well as costly), are less than concerned about the situation, underscoring the deep divide between the highly affiliated and the more assimilated among the population.
In the US, where church-state separation requires that the burden of religious school tuition be carried by parents, mainstream Jewish organisations continue to maintain that any break in that divide would jeopardise the religious freedom American Jews enjoy.
But a growing number in the community who fear for the future of Jewish day schools, and thus Jewish continuity, are suggesting that the debate be renewed, insisting that some governmental aid is possible without weakening religious rights.
Some experts in the field predict that, as things are, up to 15 per cent of non-Orthodox day schools in the country will close in the next two years.
Surely the current economic crisis calls for a clear-eyed re-evaluation of all the sacred cows in the American Jewish community related to Jewish education, starting by questioning liberal Jews’ sacrosanct approach to the church-state divide.
Another assumption that needs to be reconsidered, particularly in observant communities, is that the combination of a free public school education and supplemental Hebrew school (cheder) is, automatically, the road to assimilation and away from Jewish engagement.
True, Hebrew schools of the past were a disaster, for the most part, no doubt providing generations of young American Jews the single most negative Jewish experience in their lives. But that does not mean that supplemental schools cannot be made enriching if the community focuses its resources and creativity on them. The fact remains that about 70 per cent of Jewish youngsters who receive a Jewish education do so through the after-school supplemental programmes.
The new reality means that day schools will have to be more transparent about their finances, even if they are not required to do so by law.
And they will have to be more strategic in fundraising, broadening their reach beyond parents and families of their students, and making the case that day school graduates will provide the future leadership of American Jewry.
Communal organisations should be finding new ways to increase funding for local day schools, recognising the vital importance of these institutions to Jewish life.
In the end, there is no one solution to these problems. Rather, there are many alternatives to be explored through communal creativity.
The key for American Jews is to recognise that time is not on our side; we need to come together and focus on this crisis now, with fresh thinking, not old arguments.
Our children and grandchildren deserve no less.