As the CEO of the American Hebrew Academy in Greensboro, N.C., the only international Jewish college prep boarding school in the world, I have the privilege of leading a team of distinguished Jewish educators who are committed to bringing educational entrepreneurship to a one-of-a-kind Jewish school. Though we are unique as an institution, we share many of the same challenges confronting Jewish day schools around the world.
In pursuit of wisdom and inspiration, my recent reading has included dozens of articles, research papers, and surveys, diligently written by Jewish educators, scholars, and researchers. Most proffer three assertions: the extraordinary benefits of Jewish education are proven; enrollment at Jewish schools cumulatively continues to decline; and more families would consider Jewish education for their children if only it was affordable.
What is glaringly and repeatedly omitted by most of these writers is any attempt at providing solutions aligned with reality to the difficulties faced by Jewish educational institutions. Writers as well as donors often claim that Jewish schools must be run like businesses — self-sufficient and sustainable. Perhaps some schools in major metropolitan areas with large Jewish populations, affluent families, and philanthropists can achieve self-sufficiency. But the majority of Jewish schools around the globe cannot. To think otherwise is delusional.
Universities and colleges do not demand that students pay the actual per capita operating costs to attend. Patients do not pay the actual costs incurred by hospitals to render care, even for those who are fully insured. Museums don’t charge admission based on the projected number of visitors necessary to cover the cost of annual operations. Universities, hospitals, and museums depend upon philanthropic support to be sustainable and affordable. So why do we hold Jewish schools to an impossible double standard? Doing so is not only delusional; it is an affront to those who dedicate themselves to Jewish education.
At the American Hebrew Academy, we have recently experienced a 7 percent increase in enrollment. There is a growing demand by families, domestically and internationally, who are attracted by the Academy’s innovative approach to Jewish education as well as our high academic standards.
It is heartbreaking that while demand is high, the Academy is forced to deny admission to students whose families cannot afford the tuition, notwithstanding generous scholarships and financial aid. It is unlikely that the Academy will ever be totally self-sustaining without philanthropic support. Most Jewish schools never have and never will become financially independent. Jewish schools will always be reliant on philanthropic support and they are worthy recipients.
Donors take note: Jewish schools continue to have the highest return on investment by any measure when compared with other Jewish programs, based on the numbers of young people who reflect unwavering pride in their Jewish heritage, strength in their Jewish identity, and a lifetime commitment to Jewish community, leadership, culture, experiences, support for Israel, and Jewish life in the diaspora.
The statistics are irrefutable. The Jewish People Policy Institute’s (JPPI) Report on Raising Jewish Children found young Jewish leaders are disproportionately educated in Jewish schools. Jewish teen social networks influence the decision to attend Jewish schools, which in turn furthers Jewish marriage. JPPI concludes, “Quantitative and qualitative research suggests that having mostly Jewish friends in high school is a motivator for continuing formal and informal Jewish education and a predictor for marrying or partnering with a Jew and forging strong Jewish connections. Conversely, when teenagers stopped attending Jewish schools after bar and bat mitzvahs, both they and their parents reported that their Jewish family observances and activities gradually declined.”
But affordability is not the only obstacle to Jewish school growth. Changing family demographics as well as cultural and societal shifts have not been sufficiently addressed by many Jewish schools. Jewish schools may no longer fulfill the needs and desires that parents hold for their children. Just being a “Jewish” school is no longer adequate. At the AHA, conventional lines of religious and cultural demarcation are transcended. We begin with a simple philosophy — there are as many ways to be Jewish as there are Jews. And we respect all of them. Jewish schools which are not dynamic in their response to community demands lose market share or are forced to close.
I am inspired by the words of renowned Jewish philanthropist and American Hebrew Academy benefactor and board member Michael Steinhardt: “We need a critical mass of next generation Jews who have Jewish literacy skills and are steeped in Jewish culture, while at the same time possess the knowledge and creative spirit that will enable them to become Jewish and secular achievers…”
The reality is that Jewish schools that do not respond to community expectations and secular competition will not succeed, and those that believe that Jewish schools can and should be self-sufficient are suffering from the delusion of affordability.