With the announcement last week that the 22-year old Day School at Baltimore Hebrew will close at the end of the school year and not be replaced by the Independent Jewish Academy of Baltimore, as had been planned, it is time for a sober assessment of the demand for day school education in our community.
It isn’t just the Reform-oriented Day School at Baltimore Hebrew that failed to find an audience. The pluralistic Shoshanna S. Cardin School, highly touted when it opened 10 years ago, announced in recent months that it will not reopen in the fall. And the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Rambam closed two years ago.
What’s the problem?
There are many reasons why each of the identified schools closed. Nonetheless, we need to ask ourselves whether the demand for what these day schools offered has diminished in recent years. What is different here and now? And why is it that these day schools were not able to establish the financial and organizational base to withstand the ebb and flow of competition and uneven enrollment activity?
Most strikingly, the fate of these schools is in marked contrast to the rightward leaning Orthodox schools, or yeshivot in our community. Those institutions are bursting with students, with more than one school actively raising money to expand their physical space.
Perhaps our challenge as a community is to break out of the “every child should have a day school education” mindset, and present more Jewish learning and Jewish education opportunities for families who are not seeking a day school education. That student population is huge. And the service of that population’s Jewish educational needs in a meaningful and comprehensive way should become a significant focus of our Jewish education agenda. But, to do so, we need to change our thinking, our focus and our efforts. And in doing so, we will need to devote the same intensity and creativity to broader supplementary Jewish education efforts, just as we have been devoting it to the day school movement for the past 50 years.
We are starting to see an upward trend in congregational school enrollment. That increased enrollment could benefit from an intensified Jewish education agenda that breaks the historic mold of Talmud Torah programming. In addition, it is time for our community to invest serious effort and dollars into making the quality and attractiveness of supplemental Jewish education even higher, and to focus more on Jewish overnight camping, youth groups and Israel experiences as comprehensive elements of a child’s Jewish educational training. Combining these areas with a heightened Jewish content in supplementary education will help assure the continuity of Jewish life in
Baltimore for the next generation and beyond.
In advocating for these changes, we want to be clear: We strongly support significant, ongoing support of Jewish day school education in Baltimore. We welcome new day schools, and hope they will thrive and prosper. But recent experience teaches us that as a community, we need to adjust our educational focus to expand our offerings, in order to reach a broader audience. Stronger and diverse Jewish programming will help everyone, including our day schools.