At PEJE, we think about schools. We think about communities. We think about the field. Each is critical to our work, and essential to support Jewish day schools across North America.
But really, we’re trying to help families. In all of the talk of strategy, of flipping forward, of communities as ecosystems, of sustainability, we can forget what really matters. We can lose sight of how our work affects mothers and fathers sitting at dining room tables, staring at each other over bills and spreadsheets, trying to find a way to send their children to day school. (And this year I join their ranks: my son started kindergarten on Wednesday.) Or who may be thinking about the knowledge and character they want to impart to their children, and whether the local day school is the best partner to instill those values. As we enter the 5774 holiday season, it’s helpful to remind ourselves of why our work is so important.
Recently, Jodi** started a discussion on JEDLAB about how the high cost of Jewish education puts stress on her family, and the community. She wrote that the challenge of paying for Jewish day school, “brings [her] to tears.” She wrote about how these issues are systemic, and relate to larger class issues in the Jewish community. These challenges not only put pressure on families, but can also affect school culture, and the perceived value of sending your kids to day school instead of public or secular independent school. Alisha**, whose oldest child starts kindergarten in the fall, wrote “my stomach sometimes ties in knots when I think about the finances of all of this over the next 13+ years.”
I spoke with several parents this week who face different aspects of the same challenge—how and why to pay for day school education. The stress of paying for day school keeps H** up at night. “On top of trying to pay for day school, we have to save for college, retirement…These are things that people think about before you go to sleep.” Ben** is part of the growing middle-income population, and he is floored by the fact that he can’t afford to pay full tuition for his children. “I give to every other organization, it’s hard to turn around and think of myself as needing help.” And I spoke to Moshe Schwartz, head of school at Kellman Brown Academy outside of Philadelphia, about how his school struggles to balance its formal aid process with compassion and understanding for each family’s unique financial situation.
These parents don’t have to be convinced of the value of a day school education. As Jodi wrote, “I did not see Jewish education as optional no matter the cost.” But Alisha is not alone when she writes, “I feel guilty over every amount we ask for help with, and even though we have been met with generosity the whole way, it seems there could be a different system… so that every choice along the way doesn’t reinforce the fact that your family is different, can’t afford it, need aid, etc.” Sentiments like these reinforce the need for the entire field—schools, federations, synagogues, and national organizations such as PEJE, RAVSAK, and Yeshiva University—to consider how our work benefits the Jewish families who are doing everything they can to send their children to Jewish day school.
According to the parent survey data we collected with Measuring Success, parents are more likely to promote their kids’ school through their social circles if they think the school effectively inculcates their children with strong Jewish identities and values. Part of that effort means a school must be conscious of how class and socioeconomic diversity impacts their educational product. That’s a main piece of the “value add” of Jewish day school. School leadership can lead discussions about how class issues manifest on the playground, at birthday parties, at bar and bat mitzvahs. They can take a close look at how peer groups among parents impact children, or how the presence (or lack) of a school uniform can minimize/exacerbate socioeconomic differences. School leaders can use these challenging topics to strengthen their community, and make every family feel more comfortable within the school.
As we help schools and the day school field promote themselves and advocate on their behalf, we (at PEJE, but really, everyone who values immersive, content-driven Jewish education) must keep in mind who needs our help, and our voice, the most—families. And you, families, should know that we day school professionals and advocates take your concerns and needs to heart, and that we must work together to solve these difficult, systemic issues.
* Yes, I know where it’s from. I’m taking it back.
** Parents asked that their names be abbreviated to respect their privacy.