Thirty years ago (way before the 2000 National Population Survey shocked everyone with its intermarriage figures rising above 50 percent), a group of forward-thinking Jewish educators charged the Jewish community with devoting significantly more resources to Jewish education and improving its quality. They founded the Coalition for Alternatives in Jewish Education (CAJE) hoping that creative reform would transform Jewish education and thereby save the Jewish people.
Thirty years are a mere blip on the Jewish timeline, yet much has changed in the field: CAJE’s acronym now stands for the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education, since so many of CAJE’s original “alternatives” have become mainstream practice: non-frontal teaching, teacher training, creative language acquisition, etc. Boards of Jewish education around the country are staffed with CAJE program graduates. Foundations, from Avi Chai to Covenant, now fund day school and afternoon school initiatives. The number of non-Orthodox day schools and high schools continues to grow. These factors reflect great success. However, there are also a number of significant challenges that remain.
Day schools remain prohibitively expensive. In effect, access to Jewish education becomes an issue not only of priorities but also of economic capability. That may be one reason that, except for the small percentage of non-Orthodox families deeply committed to day-school education for its own sake, many parents choose day school where it is as an attractive substitute for an unsafe or academically inferior neighborhood public school.
While more communal funding is critical, it is not a panacea to all woes.
It is obvious that students in a day school will learn more than those in an afternoon school, if for no other reason than the increased hours spent in Judaic and Hebrew classes. However, while day-school children may have a stronger background in Bible or Jewish history, they still may not be fluent in Hebrew, competent in Jewish ritual observance outside of the daily prayer service recited each morning in school, or imbued with a stronger commitment to Jewish affiliation than their afternoon-school peers, particularly if their Jewish education ends in eighth grade.
One reason is that even Conservative day schools are hesitant to advocate personal observance or a commanding sense of a personal relationship with God. Where the day school is a community school, the value of mutual respect for difference can clash with the educational opportunity to inspire the next generation in Jewish practice where there is an inability to agree on “whose practice” will be taught.
All these challenges are amplified in afternoon schools, where the commitment level of families may be lower, teaching hours less, and the ability of students to pay full attention after a full day of school more limited.
Studies have shown that Jewish peer engagement, not class room hours per sae, is the single most significant variable in determining 21st century Jewish affiliation. Perhaps that is because, though Jewish identity and living skills historically were transmitted in the family, most American Jewish families no longer have the will nor the skill to do so. Therefore, while peer bonding – through programs like Birthright and significant Jewish camping remain critical, the bottom line is that even the best Jewish school education is no substitute for what a child learns and does at home. In other words, until family education becomes mainstreamed and integrated within regular curricular objectives and goals, rather than seen as enrichment or additional optional programming, we will continue to see a gap between the hope and the reality of Jewish education, whether on the day school or afternoon school level.