Elena Weinstein is a Wexner Heritage alumna from Westchester, NY. Elena is a board certified rheumatologist in private practice in Littleton, Colorado. She has served in a variety of Jewish leadership positions, including those dedicated to furthering the cause of affordable Jewish day school education and is currently on the development committee at Herzl/Rmha in Denver, Colorado. Elena can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
One evening in November of 2008, my husband sat me down and explained to me that we were at a crossroads. We were living in suburban New York and our two oldest children were in Jewish day school. Our third child was set to start kindergarten the following fall. The choice we were facing was this: either pull our kids out of day school or leave the area.
Despite the fact that we are two full time physicians, living a very moderate lifestyle, the cost of tuition had become so prohibitive that we would simply not be able to balance the budget going forward. I was shocked. After nine years in the New York area, we were totally integrated into the Jewish community, the school, our synagogue. We had come to enjoy the ease of Jewish living that goes with being in the New York area. I could not imagine uprooting from our community, our jobs, our friends and finding another place to live.
A great deal of soul searching followed, and then a great deal of research (hooray for the internet!). We quickly came to the conclusion that a Jewish education for our children was the over-reaching priority. Once we accepted this, we set to work on a solution. Clearly, we were going to need to leave the costly tri-state area altogether. The foundation of our search was to locate a city with a strong Jewish community and K-12 conservative or non-denominational Jewish day school. This is not a very long list. In an instance of what was for us truly thinking “outside the box,” Denver came to the top. Then in a series of events that could only be considered “besherit,” we came upon job opportunities in both our specialties at the same Denver area hospital. Incidentally, it so happened that the Denver Wexner Heritage class had just begun, and Rabbi Jay Moses kindly put us in touch with a member of the class who warmly welcomed us into her home with a number of her classmates when we came to interview.
We’ve now been in Denver for 6 months. Although we do miss friends and colleagues in New York (and a good pastrami!), the change has been wonderful for our family. Our kids have fully adapted to Herzl/Rmha, their terrific new school. We are still amazed almost every day by what a warm, welcoming and thriving Jewish community there is in this beautiful Rocky Mountain city. In our first few months here, not a single Friday night dinner was not spoken for. Another Wexner Heritage member made it her personal mission to ensure we had a place to go for every high holiday meal.
Several lessons can be learned from our experience that made me feel it was good to share in this genre. First and foremost it highlights the crisis that we all know is facing the Jewish day school system. When two full time professionals have to make this drastic of a change just to keep their kids in day school, something is clearly very, very wrong. It’s time for the Jewish community at large to take this on with urgency. Schools must consistently raise tuition from year to year just to cover expenses. If something doesn’t change, our day schools will only be available to the very wealthy and those who qualify for significant aid. Those in the middle will be entirely alienated.
The other day I bumped into a friend while dropping off our kids and she shared with me that when she first heard our story, she was struck by the importance of this issue to the community as a whole – not just to those with kids in day school. As she put it, “If we didn’t have this school, you guys would never have moved here, and how many other Jews looking for a place to settle would that affect?” The value of a day school to the community at large should not be underestimated, even by those who do not choose it as an option for their own family. It helps ensure the stability of the community and makes it attractive for future growth and for retaining young families.
Finally, I would be remiss if I did not underscore the incredibly welcoming nature of this community. I hope my statistics are correct; Denver has approximately 80-90,000 Jews in the metro area, a fraction of the number found in the large communities on the coasts. Despite that, we have found terrific access to resources for Jewish living and have found it very easy to integrate into the community. Our larger communities could learn a lot from the warmth and inclusivity found here, and it is a great model for the many smaller communities that are growing and thriving around the country.