In making the “case” for day schools it has been suggested that their very existence in a Jewish community is a sign of its vitality. Others have reminded us that we are “people of the book” dedicated wholly to educating our children and instilling in them Jewish values. But in the face of this we also have an overarching trend of declining enrollment. More specifically, we have heard that many core community leaders do not send their children to their local day school. To me this is in akin to saying “Libraries are a sign of vitality in a local community. They play a vital role in educating our children. Of course, I don’t ever GO to the library, but I like knowing that there IS one in my town. I’m the kind of person who wants to live NEAR a library. So, people ought to support libraries.”
My town of Hadley recently won a grant from the state of Massachusetts for $3.9M to build a new library. I was, frankly, a little surprised to hear this. On the few occasions I have visited the Goodwin Library in the past year there were hardly any people in there. It’s an old and dusty space and the books are pretty beaten up. It’s quaint, but hardly the center of the town it once was. Investing nearly $4M into this place made little sense to me. But then I spoke with a friend who is a librarian at UMass, and she explained what libraries have done to reinvent themselves and invigorate their relevance.
Despite the preponderance of information in our world, as it turns out there is no substitute for a library. It is still a center for the community, a home for knowledge (and knowledgeable people, such as librarians), and a contemplative place for learning, in-depth study, and connection. In Hadley, the library hosts the chess club (and while YOU CAN play chess on line, it’s just not the same as sitting across from your opponent and holding the pieces in your hand). it has language classes, is home to historical society, has arts programs for children, hosts many community groups, and remain an informal gathering place for the community. In addition, the new library will provide access to the internet (for seniors and people who can’t afford a computer), training in new technology, have a small auditorium (for local performances and lectures), and – of course- books. Lots of new (and old) books.
No amount of money can fix the problem of organizational irrelevance, and – in a sense – this is what day schools are facing. The challenges of changing demographics are huge and very real. But if the Hadley library leaders had made their case by saying “Every town needs a good library, and therefore you ought to support ours. I know you never go to the library, but you SHOULD!” then I don’t believe they would have received the support they did. They REDEFINED THEIR RELEVANCE, and in many ways added new programs, services, and features that increased their actual relevance. Day schools need to consider new programs that increase their relevance and then articulate those offerings to their broader community. If they do this, not only will people believe it’s a “good idea,” but a good investment in the future of the Jewish community.