This time of year, Jewish day schools across the U.S. are recruiting students for the coming school year. While each of the individual schools will share its unique story and value proposition with prospective parents and students, I want to make the case for Jewish day-school education in general. I am passionate about this because the research is compelling: Jewish day schools make a difference in the lives of students, families, the Jewish community and the larger society in which day-school graduates live and work.
Jewish day-school students receive an outstanding general education that prepares them for success at a broad range of colleges and universities. Research from the Cohen Center at Brandeis University found that day-school alumni demonstrate the highest levels of academic confidence and success, yet also exhibit significant advantages over their peers who are public- and independent-school graduates. I would suggest this is the case because not only is the general studies curriculum equal to, or better than, other schools, but because the dual curriculum in day schools emphasizes critical thinking skills, questioning and second-language instruction.
The Cohen Center study revealed that former day-school students express a stronger commitment to addressing the needs of the larger society and a greater desire to make a difference in the world by helping those in need, volunteering their time and finding careers that advance society in positive ways. While these day-school alumni are as active as their Jewish peers in the social life of their campuses, the research indicates they are less likely to engage in binge drinking and other risky behaviors on college campuses.
Choosing a Jewish day school is also about selecting an environment that fosters leadership. An AVI CHAI Foundation study on emerging Jewish community leaders in their 20s and 30s indicates that today’s young Jewish leaders are disproportionately represented by day-school graduates.
AVI CHAI found that 40 percent of the emerging leaders attended day school. This data suggests that not only do Jewish day schools produce leaders at a disproportionate rate, but that much of the volunteer and professional leadership of our 21st-century Jewish community will come from day-school alumni.
While outstanding academics and leadership skills are significant to the case for a Jewish day-school education, the foundational argument for choosing a Jewish day school is the Jewish benefits. Our Jewish day schools impart the foundation for a meaningful Jewish life based on knowledge of Jewish history, texts, and culture, connection to Israel, the skills to speak, read, and write Hebrew, and a knowledge of and inclination to apply Jewish values in their lives — something the recent Pew research study showed is in short supply in Jewish communities. Day-school students and graduates are grounded in their identity, rooted in the ancient wisdom of Judaism and its rich philosophical perspectives, and exhibit ethical behavior based on Jewish values.
When parents opt for a Jewish day school for their children, they are also, counter-intuitively, looking for a school that speaks to them. Research by my colleague, Alex Pomson, indicates that parents who choose day schools do so as much for what the school has to offer their entire family as for the rigorous education for their children. Families are searching for community and meaning in their lives. Although the academic curriculum meets the highest levels of excellence, it is the total community experience that separates Jewish day schools from their public and private counterparts — this is something other schools simply cannot offer.
Jewish day schools are about building the Jewish future, but they are also about the current vitality and health of our community. Day schools educate and sustain active and committed Jewish families, they build a bridge to synagogues and other Jewish organizations and they attract Jewish professionals and committed lay leaders to our communities. When families choose a day school, they are making an investment in their children, the Jewish present and the Jewish future.
Jewish day schools are expensive financially and this is an area that the day-school world and federations across North America are grappling with and developing solutions for. Affordability and, additionally, accessibility to more students are real issues that need to be addressed. Yet, the value of Jewish day school is significant, making it an outstanding choice for anyone considering it for their children.
Rabbi Mitchel Malkus is head of school of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School in Rockville.