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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Jewish Education in the United States: Improving but Still a Long Way to Go

Filed under: World Jewry
Publication: Changing Jewish Communities

No 15


  • Jewish education in the United States seems to be improving. Engaged Jews have increasing educational opportunities. With those not engaged, however, the community tends to lose ground.
  • Sectors getting particular attention at present include early childhood education, day schools, informal education, and adult education. In recent years there has also been greatly increased interest in Israel education.
  • Part-time education – the area with the largest number of pupils – has not yet attracted major nationwide attention and funding, though this may be beginning to change. There is an ongoing debate about the effectiveness of this education.
  • Jewish teachers are recruited from a variety of backgrounds and training. There is a long way to go before the American Jewish community has an adequate preparation system for ongoing development of teachers and other Jewish educators.
  • birthright israel has brought over a hundred thousand young people to Israel. It is now stimulating funders and communities to think more seriously about the follow-up required to capitalize fully on the program’s success.

“Jewish education in the United States is improving. Engaged Jews have and are taking advantage of increasing education opportunities. However, among those who are not engaged with Jewish institutions, educational participation is not growing and may even be declining.”

Jonathan Woocher, Chief Ideas Officer of the Jewish Education Service of North America (JESNA), stresses that this is only an impression, since “organized American Jewry is not yet capable of adequately measuring the scope of Jewish education.”

Early Childhood Education

Woocher adds: “Jewish early childhood education (ECE) is one sector that has much more of a Jewish dimension than it had ten or twenty years ago. More stress is being put on areas such as development of Jewish curricula and teacher training for this age group.

“Jewish community centers now have early childhood programs that are more ‘Jewish,’ partly thanks to the efforts of the Jewish Community Centers Association (JCCA). Its project ‘An Ethical Start,’ which uses the Ethics of the Fathers to teach Jewish values, aims at putting more Jewish content into such programs. Jewish ECE is not only a vehicle for getting children to begin Jewish learning, but also involves their parents and has been shown in several studies to positively affect Jewish activities in the home.

“There is also a major new ECE organization called JECEI (the Jewish Early Childhood Education Initiative), begun by a group of philanthropists. It is working with more than a dozen pilot programs to define and implement a vision of excellence in Jewish ECE. In addition, CAJE (the Coalition for the Advancement of Jewish Education) has established a department to support ECE educators and programs around the continent.

“Most ECE programs are for three to five year-olds in pre-kindergarten. To some extent there are also kindergarten programs. And more recently, attention is being given to even younger children through daycare and ‘early early childhood’ programs. Although estimates vary depending on the data sources, it appears there are somewhere from sixty thousand to one hundred thousand Jewish children in Jewish ECE programs, representing 25-35 percent of the eligible cohort. This represents a significant increase over the past two decades.

“Most teacher training for ECE is local. There are a few Jewish-education graduate programs that offer degrees or certificates in this area, including Gratz College (Philadelphia), Hebrew College (Boston), and Baltimore Hebrew University. These, however, prepare only a tiny fraction of the educators. Many professionals involved in Jewish ECE programs are certified in ECE but do not have specific Jewish training. Thus, they have to rely on local in-service training.

“A few communities, including Baltimore, Detroit, Miami, and New York, have invested heavily in training for early childhood educators, and others – Denver and San Francisco – have recently undertaken major studies of Jewish ECE locally. But the national picture is still largely one of great acknowledged potential, but many gaps in training and working conditions, and meager communal support.”

Day Schools

Woocher observes: “Outside the Orthodox community, only a small percentage of Jewish children who participate in Jewish ECE programs go on to day school. One important issue on the American Jewish educational agenda has thus become how to convince more parents to send children from Jewish-sponsored ECE programs to day schools.

“The Avi Chai Foundation conducted a study of Jewish day school enrollment in 2004. It found that there are approximately 205,000 students in Jewish elementary and secondary day schools. This represents about 11 percent growth from five years earlier.1

“Of the approximately 850 Jewish day schools in the United States, about two-thirds identify as Orthodox, 12 percent are community day schools, 8 percent are Solomon Schechter schools of the Conservative Movement, 3 percent are affiliated with the Reform Movement, and the rest serve special populations (immigrants, children needing special education, etc.).

“Orthodox day school enrollment continues to grow in keeping with the increase in the Orthodox population. There has been about 8 percent growth in pupils over the past five years in the community day schools. In the Schechter schools the growth has been around one percent. The enrollment in Reform-movement schools is stable.

“According to the 2000-01 National Jewish Population Survey (NJPS), day schools enroll about 27 percent of all Jewish children aged six to seventeen. Some day schools begin earlier at age four or five. Especially in smaller communities, day schools may only go up to sixth grade. Others continue through eighth grade, and still others through twelfth grade. There are also day schools that are just high schools, including a growing number of ‘community’ schools serving a multidenominational population. The majority of schools, however, are in the first two categories.

“Many students who end their Jewish day school education at grade six or eight transfer to public or private schools. They may then have part-time Jewish education, or not continue at all.”

The Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education

“The vitality in the Jewish day school field can be measured by the increasing enrollment. Attempts are also being made to upgrade both Jewish and general education in schools and to strengthen the schools organizationally (board development, marketing, financial management, etc.). These efforts largely result from funders’ attention and investment in the day school area. In recent years, new giving to day schools easily totals in the tens of millions of dollars, perhaps even the hundreds of millions.

“Day schools, like Jewish religious life generally in North America, are divided into several subgroups by denomination, as well as those that do not identify with any one denomination and call themselves community schools. Each major Jewish day school movement has its own national association. A decade ago there was no single meeting place for day school leadership across the various educational streams. Now such a venue exists thanks to the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education (PEJE). PEJE was created by a consortium of individual funders and the UJA-Federation of New York who wanted to see day school education expand. PEJE, whose offices are in Boston, has emerged as the spearhead for strengthening the entire day school system.

“PEJE’s chief executive, Rabbi Joshua Elkin, is the former head of a Solomon Schechter school in the Boston area. He and the PEJE staff administer various programs designed to strengthen the day schools’ capabilities. This includes grants to support new schools and school improvement, providing coaching and expert consultation, convening day school leaders, sharing best practices, and helping schools acquire and better utilize key data tied to school enrollments.”

Financial Challenges

Woocher remarks: “Major challenges face the Jewish day school movement. Will it be able to continue its momentum developed over the past twenty years? The challenges are largely financial, since in the United States there is no general government funding of private education.

“Tuition fees are high. This is a major issue for many families who struggle to afford a Jewish day school education for their children. Furthermore, it is difficult to recruit and retain quality personnel, especially leadership. There is continuous pressure on teacher salaries and benefits. There is a shortage of money to increase educational resources and quality as well as for physical facilities.

“The situation is far from bleak. There are beautiful new schools in many communities across the country – Boston, Cleveland, Dallas, San Diego, San Francisco. But the question is whether the overall pace of growth can be sustained in the face of the financial challenges, leadership shortages, and demographic trends.

“In smaller communities it is often very hard to get a critical mass of students together. A Jewish day school with 150 pupils can have a reasonably strong financial base. Those with fewer students can sometimes be viable. A school with enrollment as low as eighty or ninety students – and there are such schools – is often financially unviable.”

Woocher sums up his observations: “The day school movement is rightly considered a huge success story in American Jewish life over the past quarter-century. Few people would have predicted twenty-five years ago that they would have so many students. But doubt remains as to whether these schools will be able to fulfill the potential that many see in them.

“Over the past decade or so the major achievement of Jewish education has been that Jewish day schools have become the preferred option for the most committed Jewish families, which does not mean exclusively the Orthodox ones. Yet the number of such families is not great and therefore Jewish day schools find themselves in a very competitive situation.”

Preparing for Life

When asked to what extent day schools prepare for the subsequent challenges of Jewish life, Woocher answers:

“Most Jewish day schools claim that their goal goes beyond merely conveying knowledge about Judaism. They want to nurture Jewish commitment. Studies show consistently that those with a Jewish day school education – in particular through high school, which is still a very small minority of American Jews – are more Jewishly involved on virtually every criterion we can measure. The NJPS identifies day school alumni as being more likely to be inmarried, more ritually observant, more likely to be synagogue members, more attached to Israel, and more likely to rate ‘being Jewish’ as very important in their lives than non-day school attendees. Other studies have similar findings.

“There is evidence that Jewish day schools are delivering in terms of producing young Jews for whom being Jewish is so important that they will sustain their commitment into later life. Findings also show that the more years of Jewish schooling a pupil has, whether in day school or in part-time settings, the stronger his or her relationship to Judaism.

“It should be noted that informal education – Jewish camping, youth group participation, and trips to Israel – also shows a strong impact on later adult Jewish identity.

“Since the outbreak of the Second Intifada in 2000, the teaching of Israel in day schools (and generally) has received greater attention. However, the broad subject of what one might call ‘Jewish civics’ – that is, education on contemporary Jewish issues, community life, and world Jewry – has not been thoroughly researched. We just don’t know much about how well students are being prepared for this dimension of Jewish living.”

Part-Time Jewish Education

“Despite the success of the day schools, the area that engages the largest number of Jewish children and their families remains the one that is variously called ‘part-time education,’ ‘supplementary education,’ or ‘congregational education.’ Depending on the community, 60-80 percent of children who are receiving a Jewish education do so in part-time settings.

“This type of education is a mixed bag. Major efforts are being made in some communities to improve its quality and effectiveness. New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Washington DC, and Hartford are examples of communities that have sustained a commitment to improving congregational education. In addition, some national efforts have affected dozens of congregations, most notably an initiative called the Experiment in Congregational Education that originated at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. We are just beginning to get solid evaluations of some of these projects. It seems there is progress, but we do not know how broad and enduring the improvements will be.

“Until now, part-time education, unlike day schools, has not attracted major national attention and funding. This is beginning to change, however, and a new philanthropic Partnership for Congregational Education has been established to help build a ‘movement’ for congregational educational change that will attract additional financial support. In many communities the leadership is still debating whether this type of education is important and thus whether to make more resources available to it. Some say it is unlikely that part-time Jewish education can be made effective enough to justify substantial additional investment. Others believe it is too important an arena to neglect and see mounting evidence that positive change is possible.

“The limited evidence from the 2001 NJPS and some additional research by Steven M. Cohen seem to indicate that part-time Jewish education that extends over six or more years does positively affect adult Jewish identity, especially when combined with participation in informal educational experiences. This type of retrospective research cannot really account for the differential quality of part-time Jewish education. We might hypothesize, then, that good programs have a solid positive impact whereas mediocre or poor ones probably have little or even negative impact. There is certainly anecdotal evidence and some research support from a study conducted by the Auerbach Central Agency for Jewish Education in Philadelphia that a significant number of pupils are dissatisfied and turned off because they feel this type of education is a waste of time.”

Woocher comments that it is surprising that the data on such an old, established, and major field are so limited. “We need a much more extensive study. We only have the beginnings of evaluations of what changes have taken place and how they have been implemented. The evaluations thus far provide little data on the effect of these changes on students’ attitudes and knowledge or on the Jewish activities of pupils’ families. The latter is an important potential area of impact in its own right, since we know that Jewish education is really an experience that engages the family and not just the child.”

Informal Education

“Informal education is another area where there has been much activity and progress in recent years. Jewish camping has become more visible on the Jewish agenda. One sees the beginnings of what hopefully will be significant new investment in this area. Camping has shown itself to be one of the most powerful forms of Jewish education.

“Many of the better camps are filled to capacity, which means there is a need for additional quality camps. These include religious and ideological ones, such as the Ramah camps of the Conservative moment, the Reform- movement camps, as well some Zionist and Orthodox camps. On the other hand, only 7 or 8 percent of eligible Jewish children have any Jewish camping experience, so there is clearly a need to build the market as well. One way to do this is to develop more Jewish specialty camps that appeal to young people with specific interests in sports, or arts, or computers, or science.

“Many camps have difficulty recruiting and keeping high-quality counselors and other staff. Increasingly staff is coming over from Israel. It has a high added value, but also reflects the dearth of Americans. The latter, however, are the ones who are most likely to be involved over multiple years.

“This raises the issue of how to get enough personnel and offer reasonable salaries that will enable people to make a long-term professional commitment. It is great to have leaders with whom young people can identify because they are college students or a few years out of college. Most of this talent is later lost as these counselors do not stay involved in Jewish education. The Avi Chai Foundation has provided funding to add incentives and training for staff who do return for multiple summers, and hopefully this is a model that will be replicated.

“The big challenge in informal Jewish education remains to attract underengaged Jewish teens. Many are not necessarily inclined to join traditional youth groups. Needed, then, are other forms of informal Jewish education. These might include programs that tap these young people’s interests in fields such as business, science, or the arts. Some interesting experimental programs like BIMA (the Berkshire Institute for Music and the Arts) focus on young Jews in art, music, writing, and so on. It’s important to create a variety of programming.”

The Funding

“The vast majority of all expenditure on Jewish education is paid by the students, their parents, or their families. This is true for day schools, Jewish camping, or trips to Israel. The one major exception is birthright israel (known in Israel as Taglit), which offers Jewish college students and young adults a free trip to Israel and is paid for entirely by philanthropists, the Jewish community, and the Israeli government.

“The second major source of funding is contributions from individuals and in some cases foundations. Some education is also subsidized by the institutions that sponsor the programs – for example, synagogues that run supplementary school programs and youth groups.

“Most day schools are heavily involved in fundraising in their own localities. They approach a broad range of funders, from large to small. Since this funding is largely local, it usually does not include direct support from mega-donors, unless they live in that community. Donor support goes for various purposes, from basic operating funds and scholarships to special programs and capital campaigns to build facilities.

“In recent years the size of the largest gifts to day schools has grown to the multimillions of dollars, though critics sometimes complain that even these do not approach what Jewish mega-donors give to non-Jewish causes. PEJE has brought a number of major national Jewish donors to the table to support day school education, but only a few national foundations, like Avi Chai, have invested consistently large sums in this area over a long period.

“Federation money accounts for at most 3 or 4 percent of the total Jewish education budget in the United States. In the Jewish nonprofit world it is increasingly understood that federations are only going to obtain a certain percentage of the market share when raising money. Even if federations are making a major effort to increase their funding, most donors will only give part of their available funds to them.

“The general opinion today is that most dollars raised by the education system are ones that would not go to the federations under any circumstances. Thus education fundraising campaigns only compete to a limited extent with those of federations. One of the most recent developments is collaboration between federations and day schools to try to raise very large sums of money – $50 to $100 million in some instances – to create endowment funds for day schools. Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Baltimore are among communities where this is being attempted”.

The Jewish Educator

Woocher turns to the issue of teachers. “We are unable to compare the quality of the Jewish educator with that of others. There are no data that allow us to make a comparison between a typical Jewish day school faculty and that of a comparable elementary school.

“Jewish educators are generally paid less than public school educators. This is not unusual for private education in the United States in general, but in some cases the gap is significant. There are few, if any, instances where Jewish educators are getting salaries and benefits that are fully comparable with what people earn in public education. This is an area where hard data are again lacking, although there is now a major study under JESNA’s auspices that we hope will provide this information within a year or two.

“Training for educators is provided in various ways, both pre- and in- service. More than a dozen graduate programs prepare Jewish educators, leading mostly to master’s degrees. The number of students, full-time and part-time, in all of these programs is generally around eight hundred to nine hundred in any given year, though the number of graduates each year is considerably smaller. Some of these individuals are already working in Jewish educational positions, so the flow of new people into the field from these institutions in any year is smaller still – only a few hundred at best.

“There are also teachers in Jewish schools who have received their preparation in general education programs. Some have Jewish-studies training as well. Other teachers have a strong background in Jewish studies without formal training in education. The bottom line is that there is great variety in background and preparation among those involved in Jewish education.

“Most in-service training – that is, professional development for people who are already employed in Jewish institutions – takes place locally. It is done either by the institution directly or by a local central agency for Jewish education.

“In recent years a few new, interesting programs have been developed for preparing Jewish day school teachers. Some are in the United States, others in Israel. Brandeis University and Hebrew Union College operate a program called DeLeT (Day School Leadership through Teaching), which was the brainchild of Laura Lauder, a philanthropist, and was launched with support from a number of funders. In Israel, Pardes and the Hartman Institute, both in Jerusalem, have begun programs (Pardes’s is in cooperation with the Hebrew College in Boston). All of these programs are relatively small – totaling a few dozen students in all – but they do demonstrate the potential for new training models.

“Recruitment and preparation for Jewish education is very open. Teachers come from a variety of backgrounds and training. They need to be developed and nurtured over a period of time. Even though this area is now receiving greater attention and investment, there is a long way to go before the American Jewish community will have an adequate preparation system for ongoing development of teachers and other Jewish educators.”

Adult Education

“Intensive Jewish learning programs are an important development in the adult education field. Some major programs are those of the Wexner Heritage Foundation, the Florence Melton Adult Mini-Schools, and Me’ah. These programs have sophisticated, multi-year curricula focused on Jewish literacy, use high-quality teachers, often from universities, and have their own infrastructures in North America and, in the case of the Melton Mini-Schools, internationally.

“By now tens of thousands of Jewish adults have gone through one or another of these programs. They are geared to providing a basic Jewish literacy, covering Jewish history, thought, texts, and practices, and operate intensively with readings between sessions and up to 120 hours of class time over a two-year period.

“The NJPS indicated that almost a quarter of all adult Jews who identify Jewishly participate in some form of adult Jewish learning during any given year. In addition to the above-noted intensive programs, there is a wealth of other opportunities, from lectures and cultural events to study programs in synagogues, Jewish community centers, and with groups like Chabad and Aish HaTorah. In the Orthodox world, adult Jewish learning is flourishing on every level.

“The funding for these programs is provided by a variety of private donors, some federations, and participant fees. In addition to the effects they have on the individuals who participate, there is also great interest in the potential impact of these programs on the community. There is still much more to learn about this, but they could well produce changes in Jewish life that will ripple for many years.”

Israel Education

Another subject in which interest has greatly increased in recent years is Israel education. Jewish leaders, Woocher notes, realized that Jewish students were coming onto the college campus knowing little about Israel. They could not respond to verbal attacks by Palestinians and others.

“The limited studies that have been done – some surveys and some interviewing – have all concluded that Israel education has not been receiving the intensive attention that is necessary. Although pretty much everybody does something, no one was doing a lot, nor doing it particularly well. Students were getting a smattering without it being systematic or high-quality.

“The North American Coalition for Israel Engagement (NACIE, recently renamed Makom) is a project launched several years ago by the Jewish Agency together with some private philanthropists. It is working with some dozen communities to help them revamp their Israel education. There are many efforts also being made on college campuses, led by the Israel on Campus Coalition, an umbrella group of more than two dozen organizations spanning the entire spectrum of the pro-Israeli community.

“There has also been new activity targeting high school and younger students. A new curriculum has been developed with the help of the American Jewish Committee called IKAR (Israel Knowledge, Advocacy and Responsibility). It is being implemented in day high schools. The Conference of Presidents initiated an online newsletter called The Israel Highway, with supplementary guides for educators. And JEXNET (the Network for Experiential Jewish Youth Education), an umbrella group of Jewish youth organizations, camps, and Israel programs, is sponsoring ARTSY, a seminar on Israeli culture and Jewish life, to provide youth professionals with another approach to engaging teens about Israel.

“There are many philosophical questions concerning Israel education programs. What is the boundary line between Israel education and advocacy? Some in the educational world, myself included, are concerned that much of what has been called Israel education in the past was focused only on advocacy, without getting into educational issues. We need to address important questions that require sophisticated educational answers, such as: how do you help young people develop a personal relationship with Israel and an understanding of Israel’s place, not only on the current world scene but in Jewish life more broadly? Happily, there seems to be new energy, investment, and creativity in this area that should lead to a much better situation.”

birthright israel

“birthright israel has brought over one hundred thousand Jewish young people to Israel. We are starting to see its effects. It has stimulated communities and funders to think about the follow-up required, and is beginning to create a new area of work with Jewish young adults. Leaders are now asking what should be done regarding young people that goes beyond an experience in Israel.

“Studies by a team at Brandeis University have shown that birthright israel has an impact on large numbers of those who take part in it. It changes the way they think about Israel, as well as the ways they see themselves as Jews.

“Other types of Israel programs, in particular high school trips to Israel, were hit hard by the Palestinian uprising but have recovered somewhat since. There are high expectations for a new initiative called MASA (Journey) that aims to increase the number of young people who come to Israel for at least a semester or longer.”


Woocher summarizes by saying: “Overall, Jewish education in the United States is stronger than it has ever been in terms of quality, investment, and activity aimed at making it more effective. The key question, however, is whether in a rapidly changing world we will be able to accelerate the improvement and innovation sufficiently to make Jewish education relevant and effective for the large portion of the community whose continuing Jewish commitment cannot be taken for granted. Doing better and better with fewer and fewer will not be enough. We need to continue to seek out new strategies, new approaches, and new sources of investment.”

Interviewed by Manfred Gerstenfeld

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Jonathan S. Woocher is Chief Ideas Officer of JESNA and heads its Lippman Kanfer Institute: An Action-Oriented Think Tank for Innovation in Jewish Learning and Engagement. He served for twenty years as JESNA’s chief professional officer before assuming his new position this year. JESNA fosters excellence in Jewish education by providing the field with the knowledge and know-how it needs in order to thrive. Before coming to JESNA in 1986, Dr. Woocher served on the faculty of Carleton College in Minnesota and Brandeis University.

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1. The figures cited here on day school enrollments come primarily from A Census of Jewish Day Schools in the United States 2003- 2004, prepared by Marvin Schick and published by the Avi Chai Foundation in 2004. Schick’s study identified a total of 759 day schools enrolling 205,035 students. A more recent effort to identify schools in North America yielded a total of 851 day schools, but there are no enrollment figures available.