Last week, we drew readers’ attention to an essay entitled The Case for Free Jewish Day School, published in early April in Tablet magazine. Its author, Mark Oppenheimer, a senior editor at Tablet and the host of the podcast, Unorthodox, wrote from the heart and aimed to touch the hearts of his readers.
In last week’s update, we featured some of Oppenheimer’s thoughts about the importance of day school education. In this update we share some of his ideas on why (and how) day school education should be free to those who seek it for their children.
The case for making day school education free or almost free
“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?
“…It’s worth noting that 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… 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…
“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…. 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….”
Oppenheimer noted some of the key objections to his suggestion for free or mostly free day school tuition. One of the most frequent was that “we don’t value what we don’t pay for.” But Oppenheimer doubted the accuracy of this quibble. Pointing for example to the relatively low tuition for a general arts program at the University of Toronto, he notes that “many of us value public education precisely because it’s a commonly funded good.”
Compelled by the need note the full financial implication of his proposal, he acknowledged “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.”
Oppenheimer concludes the essay by once again pleading with his readers, hoping to persuade them with the simplicity and sincerity of his plea. “The potential base of support for Jewish schools is… 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.”
Oppenheimer’s essay should be read. Its greatest quality is the force of his honest pleading from the place of concern and aspiration occupied by all parents trying with love and worry – through financial difficulty and related pressures – simply to steer their children to a path of life paved with Jewish experience, traditions, outlook and values.
The Oppenheimer article is available at:
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Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education (GAJE)
May 12, 2023