Jewish Journal

Jewish Identity Spectrum Has Been Giving Way to Two Poles - Day School Enrollments Indicate

by Pini Herman

December 29, 2011 | 2:46 pm

Again, the Jewish community will be whipsawed by information that may or may not be valid, far from comprehensive and surprisingly superficial from an organization that has the resources to do better.  This time it’s about Jewish day school education. 

J.J. Goldberg of the Forward writes about the findings from the AVI CHAI foundation which is purported to be bad news for Jewish day school advocates.  Its even worse news for the majority of non-ultra-orthodox advocates of Jewish day schools. Day schools left of the ultra-orthodox declined precipitously, while ultra-orthodox strongly increased.

Dr. Steven Cohen has stated with regard to this educational phenomenon “The middle of the Jewish identity spectrum has been giving way to the two poles of most traditional and fervent and most postmodern and tentative.” What remains is less enrollments in the schools in the middle, such as the Solomon Schecter schools and greater enrollments in the ultra-orthodox schools.

I went looking for the survey report at the AVI CHAI foundation, spending down its half-billion dollar corpus to the tune of about 85 million dollars in 2007 in North America, one the largest funders of Jewish education in the world. 

I expected the AVI CHAI foundation to expend a bit of its largess on following up on whether the hundreds of millions it has spent have had some effect. A serious survey of the Jewish community would question individuals in households about their Jewish education to help inform policy. Enrollment information gathered provides little to analyze and much to speculate about.

What I found was a brave research soul, Dr. Marvin Schick, who for years, single-handed, has tracked Jewish day school education as best he could with lists and phone calls to schools about their enrollments.  This is all good and well and may provide a valid macro picture of the Jewish day school situation in the U.S.

What Dr. Schick and the AVI CHAI foundation may miss are the why of what is happening.  Dr. Schick has his plate full looking just at day schools, but most Jewish education to most North American Jews may be delivered outside those boundaries. Dr. Jack Wertheimer undertook a similar Census of Jewish Supplementary Schools in the United States in 2006-2007 which also looked only at patterns of enrollment reported by the schools.

Recently I looked at adult Jewish education finding in the 1996 LA Jewish Population Survey and the heaviest users were those adults who had Jewish after-school (supplementary) educations.  Adults who had day school or Sunday school Jewish educations tended to report significantly lower
use of adult Jewish education.  Unfortunately, after-school Jewish education had withered on the vine in North America in the past decades for lack of notice and support.

Adult Jewish education does 1) encourage those of the Jewish faith towards greater commitment to Jewish observance and lifestyle by increasing their understanding, appreciation and practice of Jewish traditions, customs and laws and 2) encouraging mutual understanding and sensitivity among Jews of different religious backgrounds and commitments to observance. These are are the primary stated objectives in the AVI CHAI Foundation goals.

The day school model was what could be practicably studied, with a relatively weak research methodology by an underfunded researcher, Dr. Schick, who began his modest scale research prior to AVI CHAI’s support. 

Dr. Schick’s limited data is being trumpeted as the next worry and dark cloud to befell the Jewish community.  I would have like to be armed with a proper national Jewish population survey that would have confirmed or contradicted Dr. Schick’s findings and and been able to find the silver linings in the dark cloud, such as after-school Jewish education. A National Jewish Population Survey should have been fielded two years ago.  So, I expect we will witness the blind opining at other blind about the directions of Jewish education with no reliable information on which to base their opinions or plans.

Pini Herman, PhD. has served as Asst. Research Professor at the University of Southern California Dept. of Geography,  Adjunct Lecturer at the USC School of Social Work,  Research Director at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles following Bruce Phillips, PhD. in that position (I was just notified that with 40,000 visitors this year the 15 year old study of the LA Jewish population wasThird Among The Top Ten Publications Downloaded from Berman Jewish Policy Archives in 2011) and is immediate past President of the Movable Minyan a lay-lead independent congregation in the 3rd Street area. Currently he is a principal of Phillips and Herman Demographic Research. To email Pini: pini00003@gmail.com To follow Pini on Twitter:

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Bruce Phillips is Professor of Sociology and Jewish Communal Studies at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. He has conducted Jewish population...

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