By Rabbi Mordechai Weiss
I have been active in Jewish education for nearly four decades. During that time I was fortunate to lead two schools as principal – one in the Atlantic City, N.J. area and the other in my current post in West Hartford. In addition, I have also been involved, at least passively, with the Jewish community in Vineland, N.J. These communities are unique and have something in common: each have, or had, only one day school serving the Orthodox Jewish community.
At one time Vineland was a bustling Jewish community that boasted a day school with more than 200 students. Later, parents not satisfied with the quality of the school’s education formed a break-away school, supported by the local Federation causing active competition between the two schools. Friction between the two schools led to the demise of both, marking the beginning of the end of this once vibrant Jewish community. I am familiar with the details because I was principal of a day school only 30 miles away in Margate, N.J. when a group of parents, not wanting to be burdened with the headaches of maintaining a day school, registered their children in the school I led. Today there is no Jewish community to speak of in Vineland. It is a depressed area with no Jewish future in sight.
I have always said that when a Jewish day school closes there is no future in that location.
The Jewish community in Margate has a similar but more productive history albeit the same outcome befell that school.
I was the principal of this school for nearly three decades. Upon my arrival in the 1970s, the school had only 17 pre-school students. By the late 1900s, the school, situated on a beautiful 15 acre campus, had an enrollment of close to 300 students – nearly 80 in the high school, with a potential of growing even more. The school attracted students from 29 New Jersey communities, and others as far away as Philadelphia. The school was accredited by Middle States and had won the “excellence in education” award from the United States Department of Education as one of the outstanding schools in the country.
Shortly after 2000, the local federation, led by some of the local Conservative and Reform rabbis, mounted a campaign to impugn the school and divest it from receiving any support within the Jewish community, as well as its ardent supporters. These local leaders also formed a competitive Hebrew day school with the hope and goal of seeing the Orthodox day school shut its doors.
In 2004 I resigned my position. Prior to my departure, I formed – together with some very special people in my community – the Young Israel of Margate. I became the shul’s rabbi, for which I did not accept financial compensation.
In my Shabbat sermons, I often spoke about the day school’s centrality to Orthodox Jewish life and the importance of maintaining and strengthening it. “All financial support should go to that cause,” I stated over and over again. On a given Shabbat you might see 40 or 50 children in shul – all day school students. We were proud that we had no Hebrew school associated with our shul. All our children were enrolled in day school.
Today, there is no day school in that community. The Jewish community is essentially dying. The once active and vibrant synagogues are scrambling to join others to survive. The school that the Federation launched with the intention of replacing the Orthodox school is closed. The Federation itself is hard pressed to raise funds. The future of this community is indeed very bleak.
Each of these stories is a microcosm of what is happening in some small Jewish communities in the United States – and the situation is growing more volatile all the time. There was a time when parents and teachers within a Jewish community were loyal to their community school. Teachers understood the importance of Jewish education and would support the school in any way possible. Preserving the day school as the centerpiece of the Jewish community was essential.
That is not necessarily the case today, as parents and teachers feel a sense of entitlement. The principle of loyalty to many of them is a thing of the past. Many parents or teachers have no qualms in sending their children to a school 30 or 40 miles away, abandoning their local Hebrew day school, perhaps for lower tuition rates. It seems that the “me” is much more important than the “we”. Dedication to one’s local Jewish community is often replaced by selfish personal considerations.
The bottom line is this: If people residing in small Jewish communities with only one day school don’t support that school, these small Jewish communities will likely disappear. That would be equally as tragic as the examples of the day schools cited above.
Day schools are the heart and future of our people. Without them we have no future.
Rabbi Mordechai Weiss is the principal of the Bess and Paul Sigel Hebrew Academy of Greater Hartford in Bloomfield. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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