Orthodox Day Schools in 2013

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by Dr. Marvin Schick

(Excerpted from “A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States, 2013-2015” with permission. Footnotes have been omitted and can be found in the full study: link)

Schools under Orthodox auspices have always been dominant in the Jewish day school world. For many years, these were the only day schools. Even with the enthusiastic establishment of Solomon Schechters in the post-Holocaust period and then expanded non-Orthodox interest in day schools in the aftermath of the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey, Orthodox schools have remained by a great margin the largest component of the day school world. If only because of the contraction in non-Orthodox sectors already touched on, the proportion of students in Orthodox schools has grown. This growth is fueled even more strongly by high Orthodox fertility, especially in the Chassidic sector but also in the Yeshiva World sector. As noted, the latest census shows 70,000 more day schoolers than there were 15 years ago and almost all of this increase is attributable to enrollment in Orthodox schools.

Demographers routinely note that although the Orthodox constitute a relatively small proportion of all American Jews – perhaps 12% today – they are a varied lot, and this has a direct bearing on how to look at the census data. In this research, as in its predecessors, there are what may be regarded as four primary Orthodox categories: Modern Orthodox, Centrist Orthodox, Yeshiva World and Chassidic. I will shortly describe the characteristics for each of these categories.

In addition and to perhaps complicate matters, there are Chabad schools that increasingly act as a world apart from the rest of the Orthodox day school world. There are Immigrant and Outreach institutions, all of them under Orthodox auspices. I believe that all of the Special Education schools whose mission it is to serve special needs Jewish students are also under Orthodox auspices.

Over the past five years, two new groupings have emerged: Montessori schools and Blended Learning schools that combine the traditional classroom configuration with learning over the Internet. There are nearly 20 of the former and ten of the latter. In this census, the Montessoris and Blended Learning schools are not presented as separate categories. All of the Blended Learning schools are Orthodox in their orientation. As for the Montessoris, they are a mixed lot. There are Montessoris that are Community schools, there are Montessoris that are Modern Orthodox schools and at least one Montessori is identified as Chabad. Five years from now, it may be necessary to treat the Montessoris and Blended Learning schools as distinct categories.

There are further complications. The day school world is dynamic, not static, and this is especially relevant to our understanding of each of the Orthodox categories. If some non-Orthodox schools, especially in the RAVSAK ambit, have been affected by forces in American Jewish life that impel them toward greater secularity and therefore lesser religiosity, within Orthodox life there are forces that impel many yeshivas and day schools toward greater religiosity.

As is true in general of Modern Orthodoxy, Modern Orthodox schools are being pulled in polar directions. Some are becoming more modern in their orientation, with the Orthodox element in a sense peeling away, while others have been affected by what is happening in the rest of Orthodox life, so that they are shedding attributes of modernity and moving toward the center. One aspect of the latter development is the tendency in certain Modern Orthodox schools to split classes by gender at an earlier grade than used to be the case. Some of these schools may be said to occupy a space on the continuum of Orthodoxy that once was identified as Centrist Orthodox.

As for the Centrist Orthodox, their schools can clearly be said to have moved rightward, so that there is greater gender separation, as well as additional hours of religious study. The Yeshiva World has not been immune from these developments, as in this sector the tendency is toward greater emphasis on the number of hours of religious study. It follows that this results in a collateral de-emphasis of the academic curriculum. Geography is a significant determinant of the character of Yeshiva World institutions. Lakewood schools are more “yeshivish” than those in Brooklyn and those in Brooklyn are more “yeshivish” than those away from the New York Metropolitan area.

It would be foolhardy to divide the Orthodox day school world into additional categories, yet it is certain that a Yeshiva World school in Lakewood varies significantly in curriculum and ambiance from many Yeshiva World schools away from New York.

There are several characteristics that distinguish Modern Orthodox schools. Generally, they are coeducational. Even with the recent trend to separate by gender in religious studies at the middle school level and perhaps earlier, coeducation remains a principal feature of these schools. There is a strong emphasis on both Judaics and the academic program, and the curriculum tends to include subject matter that is not included in the curricula of typical yeshivas. Hebrew language is stressed, and it is often the language of instruction in Judaic courses. Identifying with Israel and Zionism is essential in these institutions, not only in the teaching of subject matter but perhaps more critically in the attitudes that are embedded in the school. At the high school level, the expectation is that graduates will go to Israel for at least a year of seminary study, and that when they return home, they will enroll in college.

As is indicated in Table 2 on pages 10-11, over the course of the four censuses, enrollment in Modern Orthodox schools has been stable. There was an increase between 1998 and 2003 and then again between 2003 and 2008. The current census, however, indicates a decline of nearly 2,180 students over the past five years, and that is a huge loss. Just the same, 2013 enrollment was a tad above the 1998 figure. Several factors seem to be responsible for the recent decline. Modern Orthodox schools tend to charge very high tuition by Orthodox school standards, and they also tend to be relatively skimpy in providing scholarship assistance. The economic downturn clearly did not help. The still young Hebrew charter school movement has drawn away some students and, probably more critically, a growing number of graduates from Modern Orthodox elementary schools go to secular high schools.

Aliyah is another factor. While it is difficult to pin down numbers, the strong impression is that in the relatively high aliyah statistics of the past decade, there is a large representation of Modern Orthodox families. While some such families do not have children of school age and, of course, many olim have not yet married, inevitably, day school enrollment in Modern Orthodox schools in their former country is affected.

As is true more broadly of Centrist Orthodoxy, Centrist Orthodox day schools occupy a somewhat unclear position on the continuum of Orthodox Jewish life. They partake of meaningful doses of modernity, including a strong emphasis on the academic program and strong support of Israel, yet they also are pulled in the direction of the more fervently Orthodox, as is evident in the spreading tendency to divide classes by gender, either altogether or at an earlier grade than used to be the case. The outcome of Centrist Orthodox schools being pulled in two directions is that they are somewhat less modernistic and less Zionistic than they used to be. Yet, they remain significantly more committed to a strong academic program and to Israel than Yeshiva World institutions.

Centrist Orthodox schools are, in the main, coeducational in the sense that they enroll boys and girls, albeit with a growing emphasis on gender separation, including total gender separation at some schools. There are schools that are single gender institutions that are considered Centrist Orthodox in this census, including the two high schools associated in New York with Yeshiva University and the two Yeshiva University of Los Angeles high schools.

The current census shows that Centrist Orthodox schools enrolled nearly 19,000 students, which while more than 1,500 students below the 1998 figure, represents an increase of 1,275 students over the 2008 statistic. Could it be that the uptick in enrollment over the past five years is to an extent related to the decline in enrollment in Modern Orthodox schools? There are parents of a modernist orientation who may prefer a greater degree of gender separation, apart from which, tuition at Centrist schools is invariably below what it is in Modern Orthodox institutions, and scholarship assistance is more readily provided.

There were nearly 75,700 students in Yeshiva World schools in 2013, representing a tad below 30% of all enrollment. This represents an increase of 11,700 students or 18% between 2008 and 2013, an impressive growth rate. However, nearly all of the increase is attributable to the remarkable growth in enrollment in Lakewood, New Jersey schools. With few exceptions, Lakewood schools are in the Yeshiva World category.

Furthermore, whereas in the previous censuses Yeshiva World schools constituted the largest category of enrollees, in this census that distinction goes to the Chassidic grouping of schools.

Although the designation “Yeshiva World” might suggest great homogeneity among the institutions that are so described, the fact is that this category is broad, with a wide range of schools. At one end of the spectrum there are intensive yeshivas, in Lakewood and elsewhere, where the religious studies curriculum is overwhelmingly predominant and the academic program is relegated to a back seat. At the other end of the spectrum, there are schools, primarily located away from New York and New Jersey, that have many of the attributes of Yeshiva World institutions and yet in terms of their curriculum operate far differently because the academic program is taken more seriously. Greater identification with the State of Israel is also an attribute of Yeshiva World schools at that end of the spectrum.

A further point is that this category, as well as the Modern Orthodox and Centrist Orthodox categories, refers to the orientation of the institution and not necessarily to the character of the student body. There are Yeshiva World schools, for example Beth Jacobs, that enroll a considerable number of students from Chassidic homes. It is also the case that there are a handful of schools that are under the leadership of a Chassidic Rebbe and yet are included in the Yeshiva World category because in ambiance and curriculum they essentially belong in that category.

Although there are a number of large schools included in this category, in the aggregate Yeshiva World institutions tend to be small. This point is suggested by the Table 1 statistic on pages 6-7, showing that 282 of the 861 schools included in the census are Yeshiva World institutions. The next largest category in the number of schools is the Chassidic, which though larger in total enrollment does not have quite one-half of the number of schools that there are in the Y eshiva World category.

There are several explanations for the small size of Yeshiva World schools, one being the powerful tendency in mesivtas (high schools for boys) to limit enrollment to one class per grade, a policy that is strongly preferred by both educators and parents. Ambition is another critical factor, it being the determination of men who have devoted many years to Torah study – primarily at Beth Medrash Govoha, the great advanced yeshiva in Lakewood, NJ which now enrolls 7,000 students – to have positions commensurate with their scholarly skills. Since there are few high-level Judaic teaching positions open in yeshivas, a number of Lakewood alumni have established small mesivtas.

In the first census, Chassidic schools had fewer than 40,000 students. In 2013, enrollment was 82,000 students, an increase of 110% in the 15-year span. This extraordinary growth rate is largely attributable to high Chassidic fertility. There are two interesting sociological factors that add to the impact of fertility. The first is that unlike all other sectors of American Jewish life, including the other Orthodox sectors, the singles phenomenon is not a major factor in Chassidic life. The tendency is to marry young and to have children quite soon and also to have many children.

A second factor is that despite the sophomoric efforts of some writers, the dropout rate among Chassidim is astonishingly low by the standard of American ethnic groups. Of course, some drop away, but not many, despite Chassidim living in a society that has all kinds of mobility and all kinds of attractions that might impel younger Chassidim away from a Chassidic lifestyle.

Chassidic schools tend to be large, especially those associated with Satmar which has nearly 30,000 students or close to 12% of all yeshiva and day school enrollment.

Chassidic schools also tend to be far more monolithic in their enrollment patterns, which is to say that few non-Chassidim are found in these schools. There is also a high degree of homogeneity in the parent body, student dress and curriculum. Religious studies overwhelmingly dominate, especially in the boys’ schools where secular studies are minimal and often vanish after the conventional elementary school grades. The curriculum for the girls’ schools is more varied, even at the high school level, with the focus often being on mathematics and writing skills.

All of the major Chassidic dynasties, including those that are primarily located in Israel, such as Belz and Ger, operate schools in the United States. Each group has separate schools for boys and girls, and each has schools that begin at the pre-school level and continue through seminary for male students. It is a tribute to the Chassidic communities that they have been able to raise the funds for much needed capital construction and also to meet the ongoing operational budgets of their schools.

Excluding Chabad, which is treated as a separate category, all Chassidic school enrollment is in New York and New Jersey. There are, of course, Chassidim living elsewhere in the U.S. They either send their children to local schools or perhaps have an arrangement with family members living in the New York/New Jersey area that permits their children to attend the schools operated by their group.

There are now 80 Chabad day schools in the U.S., up from 73 in 2008 and 44 in 1998. There is now a significant emphasis within Chabad on day school education. Actually, this emphasis was apparent in the first stage of Chabad development on these shores: when the previous Rebbe arrived in 1940, he immediately set out to establish yeshivas and day schools, primarily in major cities in the Northeast and Midwest. When he was succeeded by his son-in-law, the late Rebbe, there was a shift in policy, my view being that it arose from the determination of the Rebbe not to establish Chabad schools that would compete with existing yeshivas and day schools. The movement focused for many years on after-school programs, summer camps and other activities that pointedly veered away from establishing Chabad day schools.

This changed in the last years of the Rebbe’s life, almost certainly because Chabad emissaries felt that they needed to have local schools that could help further their mission and perhaps also serve as places where they could educate their young children. What also furthered this development was the weakening and, at times, disappearance of day schools, Orthodox and non-Orthodox, that served small Jewish communities.

Because of the ad hoc nature of certain Chabad activities, particularly in education, it is difficult to have a comfortable grasp of the Chabad day school network. Presently, there may be four subcategories of Chabad schools. The largest in enrollment, mainly located in Brooklyn, educates children from Chabad homes. These schools have a strong Lubavitch student body and orientation. A second category consists of what may be regarded as outreach schools established by the emissaries to primarily serve local families that themselves are not Chabad. The attraction for parents, many of them ex-Israelis, is a Judaic curriculum and Judaic ambiance, as well as remarkably low tuition charges. Then there are day schools mainly in small communities that have had nothing historically to do with Chabad. As enrollment in these schools declined and there were attendant financial problems, those who were previously responsible for these schools withdrew, and Chabad rabbis took over leadership of the schools without substantially changing their orientation and program. By and large, I have retained the previous designation of these schools, so those that were designated in the earlier censuses as Community schools continue to be identified in the same fashion. Finally, in small Jewish communities there are ad hoc Chabad schools that pop up to serve the children of Chabad families for a year or two as needed and then disappear from the scene.

The current census places Chabad day school enrollment at 12,650, a small increase over 2008, but an increase of 4,000 students or nearly 50% since 2003. Were it not for the Chabad network, thousands of children now being educated in day schools would not be receiving a meaningful Jewish education.

The 1990s was a period of excitement regarding immigration from the Former Soviet Union, and there was heightened activity to provide a Jewish education for children in FSU families. There was a collateral interest in the 1990s to establish and fund day schools with an outreach orientation. In a sense, the 1990 National Jewish Population Survey and the arrival of FSU families coincided, and this resulted in the establishment of schools and other activities aimed at strengthening the Judaic commitment of Russian Jews and also children being raised in families that were being reached out to. Perhaps inevitably, this communal commitment would be diluted as the years went by.

In 1998, there were more than 5,000 students in schools designated as immigrant and outreach institutions. Five years later, there was slight slippage to 4,800 students. By 2008, Russian immigration was no longer a major communal concern, nor were there as many outreach families with younger children who might be enrolled in Jewish schools. Enrollment declined to 3,400. This census shows a further decline to nearly 2,400 students. In short, between 1998 and 2013 there has been a decline of more than 50% in enrollment of these schools.

A considerable number of Immigrant and Outreach schools have closed. There were 31 in 1998; in 2013, there were 19, and some of these are barely surviving. There is no indication of significant communal interest in sustaining these schools, all of which are under Orthodox auspices, although much of the parent and student body is not Orthodox. However, because immigrant enrollment is heavily Bukharian and not what may be referred to as Russian, there is a strong traditionalist orientation, which enhances the prospect for effective outreach and beneficial Judaic outcomes.

It will never be possible to have a comfortable understanding of enrollment in Special Education schools. One obvious issue is that there are mainstream schools that have classes or tracks devoted to special needs students, and these schools tend to include enrollment statistics for these children in their overall figures. As for schools exclusively established for special education purposes, since they rely enormously on public funding, there is an obligation to accept non-Jewish children. This census has made a substantial effort to accurately count special education enrollment, and I believe that the figure we have come up with is close to the mark. In 2013, there were more than 2,100 students in special education schools under Jewish sponsorship, a modest increase over 2008 but a three-fold increase over 1998. The current census identifies 34 schools as being distinctly for special education students.

Table 1
Table 2

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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