Monday, January 23, 2012

The Demise of the Solomon Schechter Day Schools

One of the truly great Jewish lay leaders in America today is Professor Marvin Schick. Very few people can lay claim to the 60 year record he has being active in Jewish education. One of his most recent contributions is the 2008 - 2009 census of Jewish day schools he did for the Avi Chai foundation.

He found that the only day schools that experienced an increase in enrollment were Orthodox. That enrolment in Orthodox day schools has increased is not a surprise to me. The enrollment at Arie Crown Hebrew Day School in Chicago has more than doubled since my own children attended it.

The fact that the crown Jewel of the Conservative Movement, the Solomon Schechter Day Schools has experienced dramatic declines was somewhat of a surprise to me. Their enrollment has declined by a whopping 35%! The Forward reports that conservative leaders are currently struggling with this development.

This is truly a sad commentary on the state of Conservative Judaism. The Solomon Schechter day schools were widely seen by Conservative leaders as the answer to perpetuating their movement. They looked at the success of the Orthodox day schools and realized that this was the real way to keep their children in the movement. Education is always the key. Until then they saw the synagogue as the center of Jewish life that would perpetuate their movement.

But at some point they began to realize that without a truly Jewish education - and being raised in a completely secular environment of the public school they were losing their flock. The Solomon Schechter day schools were to be the remedy for that.

I have always predicted the eventual demise of all heterodoxies because of their assimilationist policies. But when the Conservative leadership started pushing their day schools, I saw it as a danger to Orthodoxy. A new breed of committed Jews would be created. But… committed to what?

As the educational arm of the Conservative Movement - Solomon Schechter tolerated heresy within their midst. One can be a member in good standing in the Conservative movement even if they believe Sinai never happened! That it is all allegory. That the Torah was written by different men in different periods of history! Or that its laws were taken from the much older Hammurabi Code. That is Heresy! My fears seem to have been unfounded. The system is failing. Attendance at these schools is decreasing.

I suppose I should not be surprised. If there is little or no commitment at home to Halachic observance, and their rabbis don’t push it, why should a parent ever send their child to a religious school? Why spend the money and be subjected to their children bringing home all kinds of peculiar Jewish laws and customs into the home? If you don’t keep Kosher or Shabbos in the home, you don’t want your child coming home and asking you questions about it.

Is this development something to gloat about? I don’t think so. Personally I have mixed feelings about the demise of this system. On the one hand the fact that fewer children will be exposed to heresy is a good thing. On the other hand fewer children will have any exposure to Judaism at all is not such a good thing.

On the plus side if one is doing outreach one might think it is easier to educate a child from scratch – rather than to first disabuse him of a heretical belief. On the minus side, the children who go to a school that teaches them the basics of Judaism will more easily be able to integrate into Orthodoxy when there is successful outreach to them.

I have no doubt that a Baal Teshuva with no background has a much harder time integrating than does a Baal Teshuva who attended a Solomon Schechter school.

Does this mean that if someone asks you whether they should send their child to a Solomon Schechter school or a public school - that you should insist on the Solomon Schechter school? I cannot recommend sending a child to a school that I believe teaches heresy.

On the other hand I am always happy to see a Baal Teshuva who already knows how to Daven in Hebrew; knows what Teffilin are; knows about the Shelosh Regalim; knows about fasting on Yom Kippur; knows about Shabbos and Kashrus; is familiar with Chumash and Rashi, Mishna and Talmud... and knows pretty much all the basics because he studied them in a day school albeit a Conservative one.

I guess the bottom line is that I am happy that Orthodox Jewish education is increasing. But I’m not sure whether the decline in Conservative Jewish education is a boon or an impediment to the future of Klal Yisroel. At least with Solomon Schechter Jewish children have a connection to their heritage – even if many of them will end up being non observant. Some will observe Shabbos and Kashrus. What about the Heresy? Good question.

But the fact is that there are some who will actually be motivated to go become Orthodox and will have a relatively easy transition into it. Without Solomon Schechter there will be far fewer of those – making outreach that much harder.