A case for Jewish day school

nathan grad

Nathan at his graduation from Gittelman in 2008.

When my son, Nathan, was born 16 years ago, I was living in the city. Everyone I knew who had young children, even infants, was beginning to talk school. And it seemed like much of that school talk revolved around Jewish day schools.

Jewish day schools were going to save the Jewish people. The stats seemed to be there. Day school graduates were more connected, they joined Jewish institutions at greater rates, they stayed involved, and they married in

What could be bad about that?

Fast forward those 16 years and I am now a Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School alumni parent. My daughter, Lily, 13, just completed the eighth grade and will be attending Clarkstown High School South this year.

How we made the decision to attend Gittelman had much to do with heart and little to do with sense. It meant throwing a certain amount of financial caution to the wind, and operating on faith. When we moved up here and I started lobbying to send Nathan to Gittelman, I did not even have a job. The decision to send him there meant finding one – fast.

My husband and I decided that day school was a worthwhile investment, back when it cost well under $10,000 a year. This was not an easy decision, but I wanted my children to have a deeper, more knowledgeable and more prideful connection to their Jewishness than I had growing up.

I wanted, like so many parents, to give them something I had not.

A short history lesson

Reuben Gittelman Hebrew Day School was founded as the Solomon Schechter Day School of Rockland County in 1971. As a Schechter school, it was affiliated with the Conservative movement from the start, though children from other denominations have always attended.

One of the first classes to go all the way through eighth grade graduated 10 students in 1983, one of whom was Rabbi Abby Sosland, the daughter of New City Jewish Center’s Rabbi Henry Sosland.

“I went to some good schools, but some of my best teachers were my fourth, fifth and sixth grade teachers,” said Sosland, who today is on the Judaic studies faculty at the Solomon Schechter High School of Westchester. “In my life, it’s probably where I got my best education. They taught me to love learning.”

Sosland attended the school when it first met in the JCC of Spring Valley, then among the county’s largest Conservative congregations, now closed. She describes a nurturing environment with small classes, a place where her imagination and Jewish spirit were sparked. She remembers being in 7th grade Talmud class, where emphasis is put on textual interpretation through examining the centuries-old arguments of the sages, and having something of a Jewish “aha” moment.

“I actually felt I was sitting around the table with the rabbis,” she said.

Sosland continued her education at Clarkstown High School North and eventually received rabbinic ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Gittelman, like most Solomon Schechter Schools, boasts a dual curriculum, where students spend about half their day in secular studies, such as math, English and social studies and the other half in Judaic classes, such as Talmud, Chumash, or Torah, and Hebrew language. Students have some instruction in music, art and physical education as well, to keep the school competitive with other private and local public school offerings. In middle school, students take Regents level courses and the accompanying exams.

The school is part of the Conservative movement and as such, seeks to balance Jewish traditionalism with a modern, liberal education. Children pray together daily before classes begin, and boys and girls are accorded equal status in the running of the service. Occasionally a girl will don tefillin (prayer phylacteries) and some wear tallit. Both of those are mandatory for boys.

The dual curriculum seems geared to the era of multitasking. For Jane Kurtzman, 21, a Gittelman graduate, the school grounded her both socially and academically. A graduate of Dartmouth College, Kurtzman gave her a network of friends she’s in touch with to this day. She also found her studies at RGHDS prepared her for school at Suffern High School and then at an Ivy League college.

“Anyone who ever interviews me, for college, for a job, in the medical school process, when they ask me what has shaped me, I tell them that I got my work ethic and my time management skills from Reuben Gittelman,” said Kurtzman, who is preparing to take her MCATs.

Providing Jewish education has always been a mandate of the Jewish people, said Rabbi Scott Bolton, head of school. And doing so within the educational secular paradigms of the day has a history, as well.

“The Jewish people have always had a school system of their own, no matter what chapter of history we’ve been involved with around the globe,” said Bolton. “We believe you have to take from the best of the educational fare of the day, what people believe the ‘real’ curriculum of the day is the standards of the educational movements of a time and place, plus all of our great books.”

And that education, he says, turns out Jewish leaders and those committed to Jewish causes and community.

“The day school journey gets people connected to the Jewish community,” he said.

But putting that mandate into a strictly Jewish context has not always been an easy sell. American Jews, by and large, intent on being “American” in the early part of the 20th century, embraced public education and the pluralistic access to opportunity it represented.

In the 1980s and 1990s, non-Orthodox communities began to invest in Jewish day schools. The reasons seem tied into a complex equation of pride in Jewishness and fear of intermarriage and assimilation. Rockland’s Schechter, already in existence, was renamed in memory of Reuben Gittelman, in 1985, supported by his sons, Milton and Isadore. Five years later, the school broke ground for the building it occupies today on New Hempstead Road. On May 6, 1992, it opened its doors. When my son was born, the school was only two years old.

Evan Kleinman, 28, didn’t start at Reuben Gittelman until he was in third grade. His mother wasn’t thrilled with how he was “developing Jewishly” while attending the public schools in Spring Valley.

“Gittelman gave me the tools to shape my own Jewish identity as an adult,” said Kleinman, who lives in Astoria, Queens and is working on a film series, “Punk Jews” documenting a community of artists, musicians and activists who are creating “unconventional culture around their heritage and religion.

“If I hadn’t learned to read Hebrew, I wouldn’t understand. There is a lot of magic in that language.”

Options or not?

Even before the economy soured, the Solomon Schechter schools had taken a hit. As Marvin Schick, a senior consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation, wrote in his 2008-2009 census of Jewish day schools, “as Conservatism goes so go those day schools. When the movement was self-confident and growing, Solomon Schechter schools were being established. Now that the trend is sharply and painfully in the other direction, schools are being lost.”

That trend is evident in Rockland. In the 12 years I’ve been in the county, the JCC of Spring Valley has closed, Pomona Jewish Center and Sons of Israel in Suffern, merged to become Montebello Jewish Center. Monsey Jewish Center, a traditional congregation, merged with Shaarey T’filoh. The Reform Temple of Suffern, merged with a New Jersey Congregation. There is constant chatter of future mergers and cost sharing to come in the non-Orthodox community. The new century is definitely not the shining moment for the more liberal streams of Judaism.

A decade ago, according to the Avi Chai study, there were 63 Schechter schools in the United States. Today there are 50. Some have folded and about half a dozen have become community schools in the past five years, according to Dr. Marc Kramer, executive director of RAVSAK, a network of community day schools.

Community day schools, by definition, are not tied to a particular movement of Judaism. They cast a wide net, seeking students across denominations. They tend to reflect the makeup of their communities, listing more liberal or more traditional as the case may be, Kramer said.

“Community day school are not wishy-washy places,” said Kramer. “There’s no relativism, ‘I’m okay, you’re okay,” or that they have to be parve.”

But they do seek to make a broader spectrum of the Jewish community comfortable within their walls, offering serious study in a pluralistic setting, he said.

Schools make the move to becoming a community school for a variety of reasons, he noted. Some make the transition out of commitment to pluralism. Others recognize that demographics have shifted and they choose to leave the Conservative movement to serve the marketplace. Others still, look at the trends and forecast.

“People will say, ‘Once 90 percent of our families were affiliated with the Conservative movement, now only 75 percent are. What’s the tipping point?’” Kramer said. So they begin to plan for that reality.

One school that has grappled with the transition in a very planned way was the Hillel Day School of Metropolitan Detroit, located in Farmington Hills, Mich. In 1998, the school had 750-plus students, according to Steve Freedman, head of school. But the numbers have since dwindled for the kindergarten-eighth grade school, down to 475 today.

In 2007, the school went through a re-accreditation process, and at that time the board of directors decided it was time to revise the mission statement of the school. In doing that, they actually reconsidered the mission of the school, Freedman said. The process took place over about nine months, and in 2008, the school board voted to leave the Schechter movement and become a community day school.

“It has opened the doors to some of our more observant families in the community and in the Reform community the largest congregation wants to work with us, because they want to encourage families to attend Hillel,” he said.

It is too soon to say whether the move has helped or hindered enrollment, Kramer noted. What it does in many cases, is help keep a non-Orthodox day school as an option in the community.

“There is still diversity in Rockland County and a need to offer a liberal Jewish day school education for those Jews who want and need it,” said Diane Sloyer, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Rockland County. “If we are going to continue to grow as a diverse community, a liberal day school, along with a vibrant JCC, Federation and choice in synagogues broadens the scope of what Rockland County has to offer.”

The need for diversity notwithstanding, non-Orthodox schools have not weathered the economy, disinterest and rising costs very well.

Elaine Cohen, the Solomon Schechter Day School Association executive, has seen the attrition in the movement and its schools. The reasons are many, but most of the schools that have closed or transitioned out of the movement, could not weather the financial storm, especially the smaller ones without endowments.

And the costs to meet the educational expectations of parents who live in good public school districts, keep rising, and with it, tuition.

“That’s heartbreaking when you have to turn away people who want the education when the school may not have the means to give the allocation at the level the family needs,” she said. “All our schools have reported an increase in requests for tuition assistance.”

Gittelman, she said, is not facing something completely unique. She described it as a “fine school with a visionary leader” but that there simply were not enough young families even “coming through the door” to check out the education going on within its walls.

“At the height [of the Schechter movement] there was a feeling of confidence and expansiveness,” she said. “There are perhaps more alternatives today and perhaps the parents themselves are less committed. We are subject to waves and tides of Jewish sociology. With rising intermarriage and diminishing affiliation in congregations across the board, we may in fact be looking at decreased involvement in Jewish life, and that’s very concerning.”

What you get


And Lily Caplan, at hers, in 2010.

When we enrolled Nathan at Gittelman, enrollment was at its peak with about 350 students. The school felt strong and rich in community. There was real warmth and caring. And the kids were engaged in Jewish learning that was so much more imaginative and creative than anything I’d encountered in after school Hebrew school growing up.

What’s more, they loved it. They had Jewish neshamas, or souls.

I know that how my husband and I observe Shabbat and that we attend shul each week has a lot to do with that, too, but the ease my children felt at being their Jewish selves felt worth the price of tuition.

And what they knew and learned each year ? that I could not measure.

“What I liked the most about Gittelman and what I find lacking in public school is the values that they teach them,” said Karen Herbstman, whose son Jonathan, now a sophomore at Clarkstown High School North ended up at RGHDS because his birthday missed the public school cutoff and she didn’t want him repeating the nursery program he was in. So pleased was she with the pre-kindergarten class, that she kept him there, for kindergarten, the first grade. Her son Michael will graduate in spring of 2011.

“I went to public school in Ithaca. There were no Jews there,” she said, and coming from an Orthodox home was tough. “They have such a positive feeling about Judaism. I felt like I had such negative associations with it, it was embarrassing to me.”

Parents pick the school for their children for a variety of reasons. Beth Wish, and her husband, Ron, wanted their children, Auriel, 7, and Moriya, 9, to learn Hebrew and get a Jewish education. They struggled, though, with taking them out of the public kindergarten in Nyack, which felt like a real neighborhood community school.

“This is a beautiful secular community,” said Wish. “Everyone lives within walking distance, it’s quite ideal. But there are no Jews here and even fewer who care. If I didn’t do this, they would get next to nothing.”

Erica Napach, who attended Woodglen Elementary School and Clarkstown High School North, was looking for a private school with small, nurturing classes when her daughter Lily, 7, was entering kindergarten. Gittelman seemed to fit the bill, and she and her husband, David, liked the Jewish piece, though they were not specifically looking for that.

With Lily now in second grade and her son starting kindergarten, she is now sold.

“I love the fact that at the end of first grade, she knows more Hebrew than I did at my bat mitzvah,” said Napach. “I love what it does for her mind, that she can talk and sing in a second language.

“I love the sense of self-confidence that comes from her Jewish identity that I didn’t have growing up.:”

Something beyond measure

Andrew Brief is the type of graduate Gittelman wants to advertise. He completed his RGHDS education in 1988, long before the doors opened on New Hempstead Road. Today, the Cornell graduate is an orthopedic surgeon practicing in Ridgewood, N.J. Married, with two children, he just recently returned from Haiti, where he gave medical care to those devastated by January’s earthquake.

“I’ve always wanted to do international pro-bono volunteer work and this was an opportunity screaming for attention,” said Brief. “They are very short on volunteers and surgeons and it worked out that I could do it.

Brief credits the school with giving him a strong sense of Jewish identity, mixed in with Zionism.

“I think there was a lot of attention paid to the individual,” he said. “And you develop an innate sense of Zionism and a basis for cultural and Jewish tradition that you wouldn’t in a Sunday school setting.”

Brief, like my kids, had an opportunity that fewer and fewer may find available. The economic crisis, coupled with Jewish disengagement means there are fewer people who want to pay tuition that right now tops out at more than $15,000 for middle school. That figure represents about 70 percent to 75 percent of what it actually costs to cover expenses, according to Louis Singer, RGHDS treasurer. The difference is made up through fundraising, donations, grants and building rentals.

With increased tuition has also come an increase in financial aid requests. That need, along with an aging local Jewish population, fewer young people – including Jews – moving to Rockland, and you simply have a dwindling supply of available students.

When my daughter Lily’s class graduated in June, they numbered 32. The class that graduates this June is 30 strong. Last year, 234 students attended Gittelman. But those big classes are not being replaced.

Lily Napach’s kindergarten class, which had 24 students two years ago, now has 16.

Intangible results

I grew up in Dallas, Texas, the product of a Reform congregation’s three-day a week Hebrew school. I got a pretty good education from that, and yet, it wasn’t really up to much. I can read a little and understand some Hebrew, but I cannot speak it. Much of what I’ve learned, I have picked up as an adult, in synagogue and on my own.

Attending public schools as a child, I was, until high school surrounded by enough Jews to feel comfortable. What I realized in high school was that the non-Jewish kids around me knew their Bible, my Torah, better than I did.

And I did not like that.

This was my book, and my heritage. It seemed wrong to have relinquished ownership of that to someone else, so they could use it to bolster their arguments, their agenda.

When I had kids, I decided that I had to do better by them.

Gittelman was my way. I know it is not the way for everyone. When I told my father I was going to send Nathan to a day school, he announced, “I do not approve of parochial education.” And I know many, who believe in the American pluralistic ideal, feel the same.

A day school education comes at a price many cannot afford or do not want to spend.

Maybe I was foolish.

But my children have a rich connection to ritual, Jewish culture and Israel. They can walk into a shul anywhere in the world and know what is going on. They can learn a piece of Torah in a few days and chant it before the congregation.

They are Jewish, without ambivalence. That was the one thing Gittelman could give them that I could not.