How a national drop in religious school attendance is affecting Bay Area Jews

May 22, 2023 | News

By Emma Goss

On Sunday mornings, Jonathan Cheyer takes his 11-year-old daughter to the Palo Alto School for Jewish Education. Compared with when her 15-year-old brother attended, the school has shrunk considerably.

At its height in 1997, PASJE swelled to 200 students. By 2014, that number had shrunk by more than half — to 75 students.Today, there are fewer than 20 students.

The independent K-8 religious school, which started in 1967 with seven founding families, caters mostly to South Bay families unaffiliated with a synagogue but who want a supplemental Jewish education for their children.

“Last year, we got down to a very, very small [enrollment], and we were worrying about whether we might even close,” said Cheyer, who served as PASJE president from 2020 to 2022. His wife, Jennifer Cheyer, is the current president. With tight budgeting and a few additional students enrolling this year, he said, the school has avoided closure.

PASJE’s enrollment decline over the last two decades mirrors a trend occurring nationally across synagogue-affiliated supplemental schools. A report published last month by the New York-based nonprofit Jewish Education Project found that between 2006 and 2020, enrollment fell by 45 percent in such schools.

The report, “From Census to Possibilities: Designing New Pathways for Jewish Learners,” includes information on 455,000 children enrolled in part-time, non-Orthodox Jewish education in North America. The census was conducted with Rosov Consulting, a Berkeley-based professional services firm for Jewish nonprofits.

The report found that one factor contributing to lower enrollment in supplemental school programs is actually a silver lining. Jewish day school enrollment was up 43% between 2000 and 2020.

Still, the report suggests generational shifts have also changed parenting habits around sending children to supplemental Jewish education programs, often referred to as Sunday school or as Hebrew school, which can fall on any day of the week.

“Generally, the national religious school movement is a very broken movement,” said Rabbi Ryan Bauer at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He noted a problem in a lack of a national standardized curriculum.

“Nothing has been created to be compelling,” Bauer said. “The kids are much more scheduled today than they were 15 years ago. And so the competition for time is much greater. A synagogue is no longer just competing with the synagogue down the block. They’re competing with Netflix,” Bauer said.

The synagogue is in the middle of rewriting its curriculum to produce what it hopes will be a model for Reform synagogues nationwide.

Emanu-El has been rolling out the curriculum over the past two years and has another two years to go until the process is completed, Bauer said. The synagogue has maintained steady enrollment growth over the last 15 years and currently has approximately 600 students in its religious school.

​​Jeni Markowitz Clancy worked in early childhood Jewish education for more than two decades. Now San Francisco program manager for the Jewish Baby Network, which hosts free outdoor meetups, Shabbat services and other Jewish programming for families with infants and toddlers, she said she has noticed a trend in recent years of parents looking for a specific Jewish program for their child, rather than a larger Jewish community such as a synagogue that serves the entire family.

“There is a really distinct language from parents that we weren’t hearing 20 years ago,” Markowitz Clancy said.

She has observed how parents of children who had positive experiences in their Jewish preschool still choose not to enroll their kids in religious school. Some of these parents didn’t enjoy their own experience and are concerned their children won’t like supplemental school. Many later seek out Hebrew school when their children reach fourth grade to learn the fundamentals in time for their b’nai mitzvah, Markowitz Clancy said.

“They really are thinking of it in a different a la carte kind of way, that they’re there for their kids and for the b’nai mitzvah experience, and then they may or may not stick around,” Markowitz Clancy said, adding that she’s saddened that this type of thinking often limits families from building lifelong Jewish connections. “I think that’s a really different mindset and a really big shift.”

Teaching about Purim is like trying to teach what cake tastes like. I can’t do that. You have to experience it.

Many synagogues pivoted in the last two decades toward hosting religious education on weekday afternoons to accommodate families’ crammed weekend schedules. However, students arrived for their lessons exhausted, distracted or burnt out after a full school day, said Jen Altman, who taught at various religious schools in the East Bay in the early 2000s. Furthermore, for many of her students, Jewish traditions weren’t discussed or reinforced at home.

“I remember teaching about Purim, and I asked the kids … ‘Who here is celebrating Purim? Who here is going to a Purim party?’ And no one raised their hands,” Altman said. “I told them: Teaching you about Purim is like trying to teach you what cake tastes like. I can’t do that. You have to experience it.”

Altman now works as the East Bay program director for the Jewish Baby Network, and sends her children, ages 8 and 13, to religious school at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont, where she says enrollment is booming.

“What I think helps a child to feel Jewish is being surrounded by a Jewish community and being able to joyfully celebrate holidays,” Altman said, “not just in isolation in a classroom, but with the family and with the community.”

In Berkeley, parents and their children raved about their positive experiences at Congregation Beth El’s innovative Chug Mishpachah family school program on Shabbat mornings. But in 2019, the program ended after nine years, according to Juliet Gardner, Beth El’s director of learning and engagement for kindergarten through fifth grade.

Overscheduled kids and parents not having the time for the weekly commitment were factors that contributed to waning enrollment that eventually dipped too low to sustain the program, Gardner said.

The tight-knit community of parents and kids joined a havurah, or friendship group, to stay in touch, said Gardner, who served as Chug Mishpachah’s director for three years.

Meanwhile, the synagogue’s other educational child program, Kadimah, has endured. It’s a twice-weekly after-school program just for kids, rather than for the whole family. Gardner now runs programming for all 141 kids enrolled in the K-5 program. That number includes another 20 children who joined it last year, she said. In addition, 61 students in sixth, seventh and eighth grade participate.

The synagogue actually has more kids than it did 20 years ago, in part due to an influx after El Cerrito’s Tehiyah Day School closed in 2018.

“We’ve shifted how we approach our programming, so that it’s more experiential. There’s more choice,” Gardner said, noting that each year she surveys the students to determine which electives she’ll offer based on their interests. Every Thursday is for electives called “chugim,” when children participate in Jewish learning through cooking, drama, sports and art. Next year she’s considering requests for a Lego elective, where students could build Lego projects based on Torah teachings or holiday rituals.

Another factor that appears to retain students is convenience for parents. Berkeley public school buses drop off students at Beth El after school on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Religious school serves a dual function as child care for working parents by staying open from the end of the school day until 6 p.m.

In San Leandro, Temple Beth Sholom found a solution to its waning religious school enrollment two years ago. The synagogue invested in a major reboot to transform it into an after-school program that runs five afternoons a week.

Beth Sholom provides vans to pick up kids from three local schools, making multiple trips to accommodate various dismissal times. Bancroft Middle school students are able to walk a few blocks to the synagogue, and other kids from the surrounding community are dropped off by their parents. Religious school programming is taught twice a week, and the rest of the time is spent on homework help and “summer camp-like activities,” Rabbi Josh Weisman said, such as games, reading and art.

“We have 38 students enrolled, of which 26 are in the Hebrew school, and that’s tremendous,” Weisman said. “Before this great reboot, there were just a handful of kids left in the Sunday school. So it’s a huge rate of growth.”

The reboot came after the synagogue surveyed parents and asked what their needs were. After-school care topped the list.

“We’re giving people after-care and Hebrew school education at the same time in the same package. And they really want and need both of those things,” Weisman said. “But if we weren’t able to give them the after-school care, as part of it, not all of the families … would be able to avail themselves of the Hebrew school part of it.”

originally posted in The Jewish News of Northern California (Photo: Facebook-Congregation Emanu-El)