NEW YORK – America, like the UK, is experiencing an uptick in Jewish day-school enrollment.
The last data showing the trend for the US as a whole comes from the Avi Chai Foundation, which releases a census of Jewish day schools every five years.
The last census conducted by the group for the 2013- 14 school year revealed that enrollment has grown by 37% since the first study conducted in 1998, with nearly 255,000 students enrolled from kindergarten through grade 12 in Jewish elementary and secondary schools. It also represents a 12% increase since the previous 2008-09 census.
In New York City, a similar trend has been observed during the past year.
According to data released this summer by the New York State Department of Education, the number of students attending Jewish day schools and yeshivas in the city has exceeded 100,000, an unprecedented number.
The total number of K-12 students enrolled in day schools and yeshivas is 101,120, or 7.7% of the total school enrollment in the city.
This rise in demand has been felt at the Hannah Senesh Community Day School in Brooklyn.
According to Jessica Robins, director of admissions, enrollment has gone from 205 students last year to 220 for the current year.
The school, which opened in 1995 with only 14 children in the first and second grades, has grown steadily over the years. It now hosts students from kindergarten to eighth grade.
“I think because we are still a youngish school, that there is of course increased enrollment, just because we’ve been able to expand to a bigger space in the past years,” Robins said. “But there was demand for that, there was interest.”
To promote the school, she said, many parents and students serve as ambassadors to help recruit newcomers. Some of the applications she receives come from families moving to the US from Israel.
“They love the values that are taught here,” Robins told The Jerusalem Post. “We believe in social action and social justice.
The kids feel a very strong sense of their identity, and they are proud of who they are, their family and their connections to Judaism.
“Kids are allowed to practice any form of Judaism they want, believe in G-d or not. I think parents like that open-minded, pluralistic approach to Judaism.”
But beyond Jewish values and teaching Hebrew, Robins believes what attracts parents to Jewish day schools, and hers specifically, is that are tight-knit communities.
“Parents are friends with each other,” she said. “It serves the purpose of a community as well as a warm, welcoming, nurturing place for their kids and a great education.”
Anik Levy, a mother of four boys, transferred her eldest son from public school to Hannah Senesh this year. She and her husband had planned to do the switch later on, but after visiting the school, they decided to enroll their child (a third-grader) for the 2016-17 year.
“Living in New York, but living in a non-Jewish neighborhood, that’s a decision we wanted to make for our kids,” Levy told the Post. “In the public school where my kids go, I would say maybe 5% are Jewish, and most of them are secular and not practicing at all. So we realized that if we didn’t send our kids to a Jewish school, then they would lose their Jewish identity very fast.”
For Levy and her husband, the high cost of Jewish education was not a decisive factor.
“I’m a stay-at-home mom; my husband makes a very good living,” she said. “Yes, it is a financial burden in some sense, but we have four kids, and we are raising boys. We want to make sure they can lead prayer and have a strong Jewish identity.
That’s important for us.”
Although the Hannah Senesh school does not refuse many applications, the main obstacle for some interested families is financial: If their children are accepted, parents have to pay more than $30,000 a year. On top of this, they are faced with an additional “materials and trip” fee of $400 per student and extra costs for overnight trips, after-school and lunch programs.
“We always provide financial aid to families that ask for it and qualify, but we can’t always provide the exact amount they ask for and need,” Robins said.
“Unfortunately, some of our applicants are not able to come because of this.”
Unlike the UK, in the US, affordability has been a major concern for families wanting to provide their children with a Jewish education.
A year of studies at a Jewish day school in the US can reach as high as the approximate cost of a year in one of the country’s Ivy League universities.
“In America, it’s hard to get a clear average on what the tuition is, but if you look in the New York or New Jersey area, it is not surprising to find elementary- school education hovering in the $15,000 to $20,000 range and find high-school education in the $20,000 to $30,000 range,” Maury Litwack, from the Orthodox Union’s Teach NYS project, which advocates for Jewish day schools, told the Post.
“It’s expensive. In American- Jewish education circles, it’s referred to as a tuition crisis because parents struggle to pay these costs and have to make difficult decisions around these costs,” he said. “The costs are what they are because the Jewish community is subsidizing them as a whole, as opposed to in other countries where the government is playing a substantial role.”
According to Litwack, a sizable part of the tuition goes to schools’ scholarship funds to allow more students to receive financial aid.
Teach NYS believes the most effective way to tackle the Jewish tuition crisis is through government funding.
This is important, Litwack said, “considering the fact that our community is made of taxpayers who pay property taxes and taxes in general that go into an education system in which they do not participate.”
Teach NYS has been appealing to local governments for this purpose.
“For example, in Florida, there is government funding from Tallahassee, the state’s capital, and we estimate that because of it, one of four children in Florida receives a scholarship,” Litwack said.
Beyond the high cost of Jewish education, some parents have also complained about schools’ lack of transparency when it come to tuition fees.
Earlier this fall, dozens of parents decided to create an online spreadsheet listing Jewish schools in the US, Israel and abroad with their tuition fees. Anyone can edit the document and add in the tuition fee for their school, thus helping prospective parents compare schools financially.
Affordability, not just of education but also of living costs in New York, has caused some Jewish schools to lose students despite the overall trend.
This is the case at the Manhattan Day School, a Modern-Orthodox school for children from prekindergarten to eighth grade.
“Let’s talk about a typical family,” the principal, Rabbi Mordechai Besser, told the Post.
“Young parents with a couple of kids – they rent an apartment in Manhattan, and they have another child. They need a bigger apartment. But who can afford a big apartment in Manhattan? “In order to get their money’s worth, these families move away from the city and settle in peripheral areas such as New Jersey suburbs or Westchester, New York,” he said. “We have a certain percentage of our population that we lose every year because they move to one of these areas, or they move to Israel because they make aliya.
Considering that, our population has still grown, but slowly and steadily over the last 10 years.”
In general, Besser believes one of the main reason parents prefer Jewish schools is that they are “worried about what’s going to happen if they put their kids in public schools.”
“They look around they hear so many terrible things happening to youth in our country and I think they are worried,” he said. “In general, I also think there is a movement whereby parents want their children to be more religious than they are.”
Across the State of New York, the Department of Education study showed that more than 412,000 students attend nonpublic schools, 13% of the state’s overall school population.
Yet, they receive only 1% of local and state education funding.
Recently, nonpublic schools, including Jewish institutions, have managed to locate funding for an important and recent challenge: security.
The city has recently agreed to allocate $20 million in order to provide a safety officer at every nonpublic school in the city.
Until now, nonpublic schools have had to pay for security themselves.
“In the past number of years unfortunately, we’ve had to really reinforce our security and about three years ago we hired a company largely made up of former Israeli intelligence agents,” Besser told the Post.
According to the census, Jewish day schools are present in 37 states and the District of Columbia. New York and New Jersey are, to a great extent, the center of the day school world, with enrollment growing by 47,000 or 45% in New York and by nearly 21,000 or 16% in New Jersey between 1998 and 2013.
This, the study stated, reinforces the financial challenges for the New York and New Jersey communities as they must consider ways to address growing capital and operating needs.