Six years ago, riding the quest of the expansion of Jewish day-school enrollment around the country, the Raymond and Ruth Perelman Jewish Day School opened a branch in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.
With the general population of the once pastoral county swelled by those leaving Philadelphia and the inner ring of suburbs, Bucks was growing. Pastures were rapidly being turned into home developments. And with the number of Jews moving there rising fast as well, the idea of founding a day school affiliated with Conservative Judaism and the Solomon Schechter school movement made sense.
But last week, the board of the Perelman schools voted to "consolidate" the Bucks branch with their Forman branch in Melrose Park.
For parents and teachers, the decision was a tragedy. To them, the small school that operated on the second floor of Congregation Ohev Shalom of Bucks County in Richboro was a "jewel" with a "family atmosphere."
But to the school's board, the Bucks branch was a noble experiment that failed. After years of financial losses, only 33 children were enrolled. It was, in their opinion, no longer viable.
The question of whether or not that vote was premature or long overdue is a sore one for those personally involved. But to the rest of us, this move ought to inspire some hard thinking about the future of Jewish education in this country.
Relying on Day Schools
With population studies showing a decline in both terms of absolute numbers and the rate of affiliation on the part of American Jews, a consensus has emerged that sees the day-school movement as the community's best investment in its future.
While other factors such as family observance, synagogue membership and Jewish camps influence the chances that our children will choose to remain part of the community, day-school education has emerged as a crucial tool in the battle for the Jewish future in this country.
Though many afternoon and Sunday Hebrew schools are far better than they were decades ago when they may have done more to deter Jewish affiliation than to encourage it even the best of them don't offer their students what day schools can give. By placing instruction in Jewish studies and fluency in Hebrew at the center of the curriculum, while not slighting secular subjects, day-school students are forming the core of a new Jewishly literate community.
The greatest impediment for many has been the high cost of tuition. With the price even of a spot in kindergarten reaching five figures, the number of those willing or able to make that kind of financial sacrifice is not unlimited. As a result, many children who might have otherwise gotten a such an education went elsewhere.
But the closing of the Bucks county school ought to force day-school advocates to realize that other factors may be limiting enrollment.
In this case, a donation from a generous local family paid for a significant reduction in tuition for all new students. While that resulted in annual savings of more than $3,000 per student, it was not enough to significantly increase enrollment. It must be admitted that even $6,000 to $7,000 isn't cheap. But it may well be that the small classes at Bucks Perelman were the result of other forces.
The problems of distance (exurbs such as Bucks are spread out over a wide area) can't be ignored. Day-school attendance in the Greater Philadelphia area is also significantly lower than the national average. The local culture largely embraces private schools such as "Friends" schools run by the Quakers but there is no similar entrenched acceptance of Jewish schools.
Still, there's no getting around the fact that for many of those Jews who moved into Bucks (and other places like it), there is another more compelling reason they aren't putting their kids in day schools: They just don't believe in them.
Market surveys of communities around the country consistently show the same results: The majority of American Jews think immersing their kids in Jewish culture and language is exactly what they don't want.
For this large slice of American Jewry, the cure that day schools offer for saving the Jewish future is worse than the disease of assimilation.
Faith in Diversity
For them, the value of "diversity" trumps any other consideration. They fear day schools will isolate their children. Others seem to fear the possibility of kids embracing a more observant lifestyle than their parents with more horror than the possibility of children abandoning their Jewish identity altogether, even though the latter is the more prevalent pattern.
The truth is, short of moving to an Orthodox enclave such as Monsey, N.Y., there is no escaping the flood of non-Jewish cultural influences on children, even with a day school. The notion that day-school students miss out on the American experience is nonsense.
But the knowledge that the majority are not getting a comprehensive Jewish education does factor into the numbers who will fall away from the community in the future. Day school is no guarantee of Jewish grandchildren. However, it does increase the odds in your favor.
Nevertheless, after peaking at the end of the 1990s, statistics show that day-school enrollment seems to have flattened out, creating problems for many established schools. And that brings us back to the end of Perelman's Bucks venture.
This will not be the last attempt to create a day school in Bucks. Though the odds are against them, the Bucks Perelman parents are exploring restarting the school on their own.
And a "traditional" day school the Abrams Hebrew Academy in Yardley continues to operate, even recently moving into a new building.
Planners in Philadelphia are also mulling schemes that will make day schools even more affordable. Marketing plans to bring the message to a broader audience are also being mooted. As much as containing costs is still vital, it is this latter point that is going to have to be emphasized.
Starting a school in a place where one is needed isn't enough. The example of Bucks County shows that if you build it, they won't necessarily come. But if you can convince more Jews that although costly, day schools are not only consistent with their values, but vital to their Jewish future, then they have a chance to succeed.
Nevertheless, objective observers must ask, if a day school such as Perelman cannot be sustained in a place where the Jewish population is growing, the consequences for the community are ominous. Though many of us would prefer to spin the news in a different manner, this is a problem we ignore at our peril.