Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, former chief rabbi of the United Kingdom, wrote once: “To defend a country, you need an army. But to defend an identity, you need a school.” If the need to maintain Jewish identity by means of education was necessary over the past 2,000 years, it is now more necessary than ever. As school registration season is at its peak, it is essential that parents know why sending their child to a Jewish day school is a worthy investment.
We are fortunate to live in a generation where parents don’t need to choose between a Jewish education and academic excellence.
Jewish day school alumni are competitive and well educated. In fact, a study published by the Council for American Private Schools found that “students who attend religious schools score at an academic level about 12 months ahead of their counterparts.” Religious schools are doing better than public — and private — nonreligious schools. It is at this time more than ever, when academics should not be sacrificed or compromised, that sending to children to Jewish day schools should be a top priority.
With rapidly dropping numbers of Jewish affiliation and a more than 70 percent intermarriage rate for non-Orthodox Jews in America, day schools show themselves to be the clearest and most solemn path for the preservation of Jewish identity among Jews. A Brandeis University study shows a strong link between day school attendance and choosing to marry Jewishly and engagement in Jewish life as adults. A study conducted by the Avi Chai Foundation found that not only will day school graduates be identifying and engaging Jewishly, but they will also be the most likely Jewish community leaders of tomorrow.
Another important point which was not emphasized in the past, yet unfortunately needs to be part of the day school discussion, is the topic of Israel and anti-Semitism. In the America of the recent past, being proud and being Jewish were not mutually exclusive. Tragically, that is becoming less and less of a reality. Anti-Semitic attacks, even at New York’s most upscale private and public schools, are no longer unheard of. The ongoing delegitimization of the State of Israel and the rapidly expanding popularity of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, makes Jewish day schools critically necessary for both the present and future of Jewish children. For the present, so that we know our children are growing up in a safe and loving environment, and for the future, so that when they go to college and beyond, they can confront challenges with knowledge, pride and confidence.
All this being said, the same study conducted by Brandeis University shows that going to a Jewish day school does not compromise the ability of students to enjoy a broad and diverse range of friendships in college and beyond. This helps put to rest a concern many parents have had before, worrying that sending their child to an exclusively Jewish day school would limit their children’s social opportunities in the future.
It is essential, though, not to ignore the elephant in the room which is the most common reasons parents end up choosing Jewish day schools: Jewish heritage. As Dr. Ruth Wisse of Harvard University wrote to me not long ago: “Jewish parents … are heirs to a remarkable culture and civilization. They are like people who have inherited a treasure and now have to decide whether or not to pass it on to their children. … The most generous parents are those who would bequeath to their children as much of the treasure as they possibly can.”
While sending children to Hebrew school, taking them to synagogue often and educating them at home are all important things, numbers show that those pale in comparison to the positive impact of Jewish day schools. History, the various studies on the topic and personal testimonials show there is nothing that can come close to the efficacy of Jewish day schools.
It was not until the day school movement in America became vibrant and successful that Jewish life and identity became sustainable in the United States. Another fascinating case in point is that 30 years ago, assimilation rates in the United States and the United Kingdom were equally rising. Suddenly, the rate of assimilation in the United Kingdom began decreasing while here in the United States, it kept on increasing. What happened? In these 30 years, the rate of day school enrollment in the United Kingdom kept on rising while Americans did not keep up with same rate of day school enrollment.
Jewish day schools are the source of the survival of both our spiritual identity and our physical continuity. Now, more than ever — at a time when academics need not be sacrificed or even compromised — is the time to give your child the gift of Jewish education. The gift of knowledge. The gift of identity. The gift of warmth and pride.
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a rabbi, teacher and blogger. He lives with his wife in New York City.