By Jerrold I. Katz, Head of School (2013-2017)
Applications to non-Orthodox Jewish day schools are down nationally, down in NYC, and down at RSS. While we continue to experience considerable demand, maintain robust enrollment, and have strong financial reserves, this is a trend that certainly merits our attention.
Earlier this spring, Michael Steinhardt, former chair of PEJE (Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education) and chair of The Steinhardt Foundation for Jewish Life, issued a challenge to the day school world. While acknowledging the clear evidence that a day school education gives a young person the knowledge, joy, and pride in their Jewish identity that significantly increases their chance of ongoing Jewish involvement, he suggested that, in 2016, “too many contemporary Jews view the prospect of sending their children to an exclusively Jewish school for full time education as a step backward in their American engagement.”
Everyone understands that issues of affordability can be obstacles to seeking a tuition-driven education, and we have been working hard to increase need-based financial aid at RSS. However, Steinhardt is challenging us to answer a more profound question: “Even if I can afford it, why would I want to send my children to a school that is homogeneously Jewish?”
We’ve understood this question for many years at RSS, and I believe that we have some compelling answers.
- Answer number one is: “We offer an excellent N-8 education.” Our academic program is based on hiring and retaining great teachers, implementing best practices, comparing favorably with the rigorous programs offered at other NYC independent schools, and preparing our students well for matriculation to a range of outstanding secondary schools.
- Answer number two is: “We make values and the development of character front and center in our curriculum and our culture.” At RSS, we graduate young people who are recognized as leaders for doing the right thing and making a difference in and beyond their next schools.
- Answer number three is: “Children grow up here to become empowered, contributing members of a remarkably caring and supportive school community.”
- Answer number four is more elusive, but I believe that it speaks directly to Michael Steinhardt’s concerns. Attending a Reform Jewish day school like RSS provides children and their families with a context for leaning into the paradox of seeking to live in two worlds at once, seeking to be both American and Jewish, valuing both “the particular” and “the universal.”
Here’s the “big idea”—I agree with our Rabbi-in-Residence, Ben Spratt, that the future of Jewish day schools must be to educate young people to experience Judaism not just as an innate identity and an end in itself, but, importantly, as a source of inspiration to become citizens of the world who embrace the creativity, courage, and hope needed to make a difference for others. I am proud to say that this is what we strive for every day at RSS.
Last year, a parent who moved her children from Jewish day school to public schools and, then, back to Jewish day school reflected that, “The public schools are excellent. They will teach my children to read and write and add and subtract. They will prepare them for higher education and work. But they cannot partner with me to raise my children to live good Jewish lives, to know who they are, to feel that they are indispensable members of a community.”
Along with an excellent education, that’s what parents get for their children at RSS.
Please keep spreading the word.