Securing the Jewish Present
The vibrancy of the day school serves as evidence of broader communal health, something which helps justify further investment in the communal system. A strong community day school returns dividends to the bottom line of the Federation campaign.
There is another orientation to time in Jewish tradition, however—one represented by the Shehechiyanu prayer. Praising the One who has “given us life, sustained us and brought us to this day,” the Shehechiyanu is rooted in the moment, affirming the blessings of the here and now.
In making the case for Jewish day schools, we often highlight their potential for transmitting the inheritance of our past to the bearers of our future. It is a potent appeal, one that has inspired much support. But in basing a fundraising strategy on the Chadesh yameinu kekedem claim about day schools’ potential contributions to the future, we all too often neglect the Shehechiyanu case that is already proving itself right now in the present.
How are Jewish day schools strengthening Jewish life not twenty years down the road but at this very moment? Like the Shehechiyanu prayer which speaks in the first person plural, the answer is to be found by looking at the impacts that schools have, not necessarily on individual students, but on communities as a whole. Based on my experience with the Akiva School in Nashville, Tennessee, where my children are enrolled, I offer here five ways in which the community day school contributes vitally to the overall health of the Jewish community of which it is a part:
1) Strengthening Local Federations
The financial relationship between community day schools and local Jewish Federations is typically thought of as a one-way flow of funds. Consider, however, that Federations must increasingly demonstrate to their donors that they are planting “the seeds for Jewish renaissance and renewal.” A Federation’s support for an independent day school signals to donors that Federation is committed to Jewish education. This support can become an important element in the case Federation makes when appealing for the annual gift. Moreover, the vibrancy of the day school serves as evidence of broader communal health, something which helps justify further investment in the communal system. A strong community day school returns dividends to the bottom line of the Federation campaign.
2) Bridging Synagogue Communities
Like a JCC and Federation, a community day school brings together people from many different synagogue communities. More than a JCC and Federation, however, the school builds bridges around aspects of religious life—precisely those areas where differences tend to run most deep. By serving as a venue and as a catalyst for cooperation among local synagogues, independent day schools help strengthen the community as a whole.
3) Recruiting and Retaining Jewish Communal Professionals
Jewish communities now compete nationally to recruit and retain the best talent in the Jewish sector’s professional workforce. Jewish communities with strong independent day schools are able to compete more effectively to attract and keep the best young rabbis, communal service workers and educators. The presence of a day school is a key selling point to potential recruits. The absence of it is often a deal breaker. The reason is obvious: Those who choose careers in the Jewish sector often place high value on providing a rich Jewish education for their own children. The long-term health of a community’s synagogues, JCC, Federation, and agencies is directly bound up in the presence of a successful day school which can meet this demand.
4) Retaining Jewish Professional Couples
A portion of the Jewish communal workforce in any city is likely to include a number of Jewish communal professional couples. Particularly in smaller communities, the ability to provide employment for both spouses is important for retention of either one. The jobs that day schools often provide to one half of these Jewish communal couples help synagogues, JCCs, Federations, and agencies retain the other halves in their employ.
5) Attracting Committed Lay Leaders
The American Jewish population is becoming more geographically mobile every year. Young families move first and foremost for work, but often have choices about where they will move. Every Jewish community in the country should see itself as competing against every other to attract committed lay leaders. Just as a community day school is vital for attracting professionals to work in Jewish communal institutions, so too it is vital for attracting committed young Jewish lay leaders, and for the same reason.
Day schools are not only investments in the future. They are investments sustaining the health of local Jewish communities now, in the present. In a situation where Jewish communities increasingly find themselves competing against one another for mobile populations of communal professionals and lay leaders, a community either rises as one or falls as one. Such a situation demands systemic thinking. Does the community work well across institutions? Attract and retain the most talented professionals? Engage the commitment of devoted lay leaders? Exude the confidence that inspires even more participation? Communities that can answer yes to these questions will have the competitive edge that will enable them to go from strength to strength. More and more, the only communities that can hope to give such an answer are those with strong Jewish day schools.
We can still look with hope to the future that day schools promise, but we should encourage supporters to recognize that the schools are more than agents of children’s education. They are indispensable elements of an integrated strategy for communal vitality and institutional well-being. They are not just building a better Jewish tomorrow, they are building a better Jewish today. ♦
Dr. Shaul Kelner, assistant professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University, is the author of Tours That Bind: Diaspora, Pilgrimage and Israeli Birthright Tourism. He can be reached at email@example.com.