A Crisis of Inspiration
Barry is a Wexner Graduate Fellowship alumnus and currently serves as the Head of School at Fuchs Mizrachi in Cleveland. OH. Barry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When it comes to day schools it seems that the buzz word of the moment is Sustainability: the rising price of tuition, the inability of families to afford our day schools, and the struggle for institutional fundraising to keep up with the cost of education, etc. etc.
Recently, I attended a conference entirely dedicated to this topic. Discussion ranged from alternate funding models to new approaches to financial aid, financial planning, and methods for cutting costs and sharing resources. In truth, the burden which tuition places particularly on our middle income families cannot be underestimated and some game-changing ideas are currently being developed, such as the middle-income affordability programs that Daniel Perla described in this column.
We must empathize with families struggling to make tuition payments, or choosing not to send children to day schools due to financial concerns, and we must support and engage with those pursuing solutions and viable financial models. However, I would suggest that the centrality of this issue in our communal dialogue around Jewish education may be obscuring the opportunities for true long-term growth in the day school movement. In my mind, much more pressing than our funding crisis is our crisis of inspiration.
When they emerged in the United States in the last century, Jewish day schools were a groundbreaking and innovative movement. The Jewish day school challenged American Jewry to pursue a literate and committed Jewish lifestyle without sacrificing involvement in American society. The existence of Jewish high schools which could prepare students both for university study and for higher Judaic learning was not to be taken for granted. Today, however, Jewish day schools have become commonplace. A Jewish high school whose students complete a dual curriculum and spend upwards of 9 or 10 hours daily in class is not impressive, it is expected. For the previous generation, Jewish day schools and high schools were an innovation. For the current generation they are just part of the landscape.
As a result of our progress we are not just facing a crisis of affordability; we are facing a crisis of inspiration. We must not only find a way to fund Jewish day schools, we must find a way to re-invent them so that they are again relevant and energizing to 21st century Jews. And, as a corollary, I would suggest that if we indeed succeed in inspiring this generation we will soon find our funding crisis is no longer quite so daunting.
Once the discussion turns to a question of reaching 21st century Jews our tendency is often to look to technology as a panacea. But giving the students iPads will not inspire our community to renew its commitment to the Jewish day school. Technology is indeed a vital tool in our attempt to reinvent Jewish day schools, but it is a tool that must be used in a larger context. Our efforts must be guided first by an attempt to redefine this larger context. Instead of going through business as usual or tinkering around the edges we must seek to re-imagine the experience of a day or high school student. We must begin to ask ourselves what sort of school will be compelling for a 21st century Jewish family?
The answer to this question may lie in any one of a number of models: It may lie in creating a school environment that allows students to exercise personal choice (regarding courses, majors, or learning styles) and work in the collaborative group structures favored by 21st century learners and workers. Alternatively, it may lie in re-envisioning the type of community we build within our schools to serve the particular need for belonging experienced by 21st century Jews by creating deeper social and work-based bonds amongst both students and their parents. Similarly, the solution may lie in creating an entirely new parent-school dynamic such as that of a co-op or a partnership school. In any of these models, the key to success would be to implement them not as superficial additions to what we already do but as a holistic new vision for our day schools.
I do not know for certain whether the answer lies in any one of these models or in a combination of them. In all likelihood solutions will be found in different ways for different schools and communities. However, I do know that we must begin asking ourselves a very different question. Rather than simply seeking to determine how we will fund the schools today we must begin asking ourselves how we can build the schools which will inspire our communities tomorrow.