More = More: Jewish Day Schools and the Education of American Jewish Leaders

Ezra Kopelowitz

It should come as no surprise that today’s Jewish communal leaders, both lay and professional, have far higher levels of Jewish education of all sorts, including day schools, than the Jewish public at large. Perhaps more surprising, if not more encouraging to advocates of day schools and Jewish education generally, is that these experiences are a growing phenomenon in the leadership cohort. Younger leaders report higher levels of Jewish education, including day schools, than older leaders. And leaders with children are giving them more day school and other Jewish educational experiences than they themselves undertook some years ago.

These are among the more crucial findings from a recently conducted study that focused on the educational patterns of Jewish leaders, both lay and professional, asking: How were today’s Jewish leaders educated in their childhood and adolescent years? How do the patterns differ by denomination, political identity, age and leadership sector?

Sponsored by Keren Keshet and conducted by Research Success Technologies Ltd. of Hannaton, Israel, from January through May 2021, the survey consisted of an opt-in sample of 2,079 respondents who lead American Jewish organizations of all sorts. These respondents include those who serve in lay or professional capacities, or whose social profiles closely approximate communal leaders. They lead schools, congregations, camps, federations, advocacy groups, women’s organizations, academic bodies in Jewish studies, social service agencies and others. Lists were provided by Jewish organizations or organizations that sent the link to the survey to their constituents.

A link to the survey was also posted on over 250 Jewish Facebook groups. Download the full report here:

The Increasing Importance of Jewish Education

The adults now in Jewish leadership positions were widely exposed in their youth to numerous educational experiences, far higher than the Jewish public at large. As many as a third went to Jewish day schools from grades K-8, and two/thirds of those, 23% of the total, continued on with day schools during their high school years. In addition, 59% went to overnight Jewish summer camp. Similar numbers participated in Jewish youth groups, a third in part-time Hebrew high schools and a third in high school age trips to Israel, while about half took Jewish studies courses in college, and almost as many participated in Hillel or other Jewish campus groups. Clearly, Jewish education in childhood, teen and college years is a central part of the life trajectory of almost all of those who choose to become professional and lay leaders in the Jewish community.

Younger Jewish leaders are more Jewishly educated than their older counterparts. With respect to Jewish day schools, the study uncovered some dramatic changes: While just a quarter of Jewish leaders between the ages of 55 and 64 attended a Jewish day school (K-8), 44 percent of those 20 years their junior did. Among leaders with children aged 14 or older, day school enrollment grows from 33% among the adults to 62% among their children.

For overnight Jewish summer camps, 56% of the older leaders and 65% of the younger ones attended a Jewish summer camp. Triple the number of younger leaders as compared with older ones attended Jewish preschools; double the number attended Jewish day camps, organized teen trips to Israel and Hillel programs; and significantly more younger leaders attended Hebrew high schools, Jewish youth groups and college courses in Jewish studies. Birthright participation also increases over the limited age span for which it has been available. The only form of Jewish education that doesn’t increase from older to younger leaders is part-time Hebrew school.

These patterns of growth apply to all the denominations.

Increasing Importance of Jewish Education for Active Engagement in Organized Jewish Life

What are we to make of these stunning findings?

Most significantly, they demonstrate that Jewish education is increasingly valuable for creating, nurturing and sustaining the high levels of Jewish engagement found among the minority of American Jews who are affiliated and active in organized Jewish life.

Why is this the case? How are we to understand larger historical changes and the contribution of day schools?

The Decline of Jewish Public Space

Individuals’ sense of Jewish belonging is an outcome of the “Jewish social spaces” in which they live. These are spaces in which individuals are conscious that they belong to the Jewish people. In these spaces, individuals experience the Jewish past, present and future intersecting and gaining meaning in the context of relationships with other Jews.

An example might be the experience one has when walking into a Jewish institution, such as a synagogue or JCC. The art on the walls evokes Jewish history, signs in Hebrew, Jewish or Israeli music played over the intercom, advertisements for courses offered and local Jewish businesses, the presence of Jewish newspapers and so forth inform one that you are in a Jewish space. Relationships that one develops in these spaces are ideally informed by Jewish concerns, decisions and conversations with Jewish content.

There are two basic types of Jewish social spaces:

Lived spaces. These are “natural” spaces into which we are born and live our lives. They are spaces associated with family and neighborhood, and in Israel they are found as part of the public life of the Jewish state.

Constructed spaces. These are social spaces that are intentionally designed, such as those we find in a JCC, synagogue, youth movement or day school. There are also special spaces that take us out of everyday life such as heritage travel experiences, museums and festivals.

A Jewish community includes both intentional and constructed spaces in which people live their Jewish lives. The rule is. More equals more: The more time one spends in Jewish spaces, the stronger one’s sense of belonging to the Jewish people, including motivation, curiosity to learn and sense of responsibility to other Jews.

Decline of Lived Jewish Spaces and Increased Importance of Constructed Space

The pre-modern shtetl or the ethnic neighborhoods in which most American Jews lived through the end of World War II are examples of lived Jewish spaces. The experience of Jewish life is one in which the family home and surrounding neighborhood are a lived Jewish space in which one forms a sense of Jewish belonging. Such an experience still occurs in heavily Jewish areas such the Upper West Side of New York City, the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh or Pico-Robertson in Los Angeles. There, it is possible for a person to develop a strong sense of identification with the Jewish people without receiving an intensive Jewish education.

After WWII, most Jews moved to suburbia, and with time the ethnic neighborhood has for the majority disappeared as the central space of Jewish socialization outside of the family. As a curiosity that speaks to the larger trend, Ted Merwin in his book Pastrami on Rye documents the decline of the Jewish deli, from 1,550 kosher delis in New York City alone in 1931 to just a couple hundred delis in the entire United States today. The deli is an example of a lived Jewish space normally located in an ethnic Jewish neighborhood.

Outside of Orthodox Jewish communities, in which people live within walking distance of their synagogues, the vast majority of American Jews are left with the extended family as the primary site of Jewish socialization. The result is the growing importance of constructed Jewish spaces, such as those mentioned above, that grew rapidly to serve suburban Jewry after WWII.

Day schools are a critical example of intensive and holistic constructed Jewish spaces. In day schools, children spend a majority of their waking hours over the course of years. Students interact with one another and their teachers, providing a holistic experience inside and outside of the classroom. In effect, a day school serves the function of a Jewish neighborhood. It’s a place where Jewish children come to associate membership in the Jewish people as natural part of their lives.

The Jewish Education Weave: Everything Supports Everything with Day School at Center

The movement of individuals between different Jewish educational contexts and their homes creates overlapping experiences that reinforce one another and, in aggregate, recreate the experience of Jewish public life that was once found in the ethnic neighborhood.

Preschools are a feeder for Jewish day schools and other forms of Jewish education. Day school students and alumni participate heavily in overnight Jewish camps, youth groups and campus activities. As we move from the left to right on the Jewish social and religious spectrum, so we see the strength of the Jewish education weave grow. Orthodox Jewish children, teens and young adults participate in the full range of Jewish educational opportunities, creating a holistic and continual lived social experience with other Jews.

Day Schools for Some, Overnight Jewish Camp for Others

Outside of Orthodox communities and the more traditional Conservative population, the major alternative pathway into the Jewish educational weave begins with overnight Jewish camp. As one moves left on the Jewish spectrum, camp replaces day school as the major entryway into Jewish leadership. Once children participate in a Jewish camp, they are more likely to search for other Jewish educational opportunities. Other starting points include teen youth groups, Hebrew high schools or post-high school experiences such as Israel educational travel and Jewish life on campus.

Implications for Day Schools

Jewish day schools stand at the center of what may be called Jewish public space in the United States today. They provide a replacement for the Jewish neighborhood, an experience that strengthens when there is overlapping involvement in other Jewish educational, religious and communal institutions. Day schools and overnight Jewish camps are critical drivers for the socialization of Jews who engage in Jewish life. Their students and alumni heavily populate other forms of Jewish education that take place before, during and after the period of day school attendance.

This circumstance yields lessons both for the conduct of Jewish educational institutions and for the advocacy of Jewish education.

Allyship. In terms of promotion and advocacy in Jewish communal domains, day schools ought to see themselves as natural allies with related Jewish educational institutions. More funding for preschools, camps and the like can well benefit day schools. More participation in Jewish educational and communal life means increased enrollment at Jewish day schools.

Fostering cooperation. Day schools have a strong interest in fostering cooperation with Jewish preschools, overnight summer camps, youth groups, Israel experiences and campus groups. The presence of day school students and alumni in other Jewish educational domains can only serve to reinforce the education undertaken by day schools and build firmer social ties among day school families and with other Jewishly engaged families.

Leadership. Day schools should see themselves as allies and leaders in other Jewish educational interventions. Day school faculty working in summer camps or youth movements (for example) are a source of professional and intellectual guidance and potential collaboration. In general, day school faculty should advocate for communitywide Jewish education.

In sum, the day school and overnight summer camp are critical sites for Jewish socialization, providing intensive and holistic Jewish social spaces where children, teens and their families experience belonging to the Jewish people. Jews who are likely to be involved and active as leaders in organized Jewish life are also more likely to report having attended a Jewish day school or summer camp, and are even more likely to send their children to day school and camp.

To the extent that the Jewish community thrives, so will its educational institutions; one is dependent on the other. Greater numbers of educational opportunities available to children and teens mean more opportunities for children and families to interact with one another, thereby strengthening their overall sense of belonging and involvement in their local Jewish community and the Jewish people. In this context, the interest of day school lay and professional leadership and faculty is to work to strengthen the growth of Jewish education beyond the day school itself.

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HaYidion Spring 2022, Value Proposition
Value Proposition
Spring 2022