Hebrew school enrollment plunges dramatically in new report

(RNS) — A newly released census of Jewish religious schools for non-Orthodox children in the United States shows that enrollment had plunged over the decade and a half preceding the pandemic, falling by nearly 45%.

The forces that depressed attendance are still present. That, along with, according to experts, a turn to online learning during the pandemic, mean that the trend has likely continued in the past three years.

The Jewish Education Project’s census of the 2019-20 school year found there were 135,087 children enrolled in U.S. “supplementary schools,” known familiarly as Hebrew schools, down from 230,000 in the 2006-07 school year when the last census was taken. The census focused on children in liberal Jewish movements who do not attend Jewish day schools.

In addition, the number of religious schools, most of them attached to synagogues, dipped from 1,700 to 1,398, almost 20%. Most of that decline came from the 150 religious schools in the Conservative movement that have shuttered.

Jewish religious schools, which typically meet on Sunday mornings and on two weekday afternoons, have been a staple of American Jewish life. Parents enroll their children in all grades but particularly in fifth or sixth grade, when students are preparing for their bar or bat mitzvahs, the coming-of-age ritual when boys and girls first read from the Torah in front of the congregation. Most students drop out after seventh grade.

The wooden handle, or atzei chaim, that a Torah scroll is attached to. Photo by Taylor Wilcox/Unsplash/Creative Commons

The enrollment plunge may be another sign that declining religious affiliation across the U.S. is affecting American Jews as well. About a third of American Jews belong to no particular branch of Jewish life, according to a 2020 Pew study.

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But it may also be an indication that the kind of after-school instruction that was popular in previous decades isn’t working as well for today’s American Jews.

“The model of Jewish education in a supplementary school hasn’t changed significantly,” said Rabbi Dena Klein, a managing director at the Jewish Education Project. “It’s an after-school model. It happens at a time when kids are least able to engage in Jewish learning. It’s happening out of sync with the natural cycle of Jewish experience, such as Shabbat and holidays. So for some kids it’s hard to make connections between what’s happening in the classroom and how they’re living their lives.”

Driving kids to synagogue between 3 p.m. and 4 p.m. twice a week (and on Sunday mornings) is more challenging when both parents are working. Families are also more spread out, living in remote suburbs, far from urban areas where most synagogues are located.

Klein said some families are turning to online Jewish education, especially after the COVID-19 pandemic. Some hire private tutors to prepare children for their bar mitzvah. And there’s a new crop of independent Jewish instruction, not tied to synagogues or denominations.

Longtime Jewish educators add that philanthropic dollars for supplementary religious schools have mostly dried up. Most donors are giving to Jewish day schools rather than to after-school instruction. The census shows that 52% of Hebrew schools operate on a shoestring, with a budget of less than $100,000 a year and fewer than 100 children.

The content of religious school education has also evolved over the years with less emphasis on formal classroom instruction. The census reports that the No. 1 goal of most schools was to offer children a strong sense of Jewish belonging.

Cathy Kaplan, director of religious school at Beth Meyer Synagogue in Raleigh, North Carolina, a Conservative congregation, said that emphasis has become preeminent.

“Our goal is to teach them ritual literacy, Jewish history and connection to Israel,” Kaplan said. “But giving them a sense of Jewish community is right at the top. That’s what families want.”

Despite the plunging enrollment, Jewish educators said the model of Hebrew school has vastly improved over the years and is likely to hang on for some time.

“Judaism is not going anywhere,” said Amy Ripps, a retired Jewish educator with 40 years of experience from Raleigh, North Carolina. “I don’t think we’re in danger.”

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