By Penny Schwartz
BOSTON (JTA) - When Ari Segal graduated from college, he thought he'd go into the field of computer science.
But a stronger calling to make a difference in the world led him to become a social worker and teacher.
Today, Segal, 30, is a rabbi and the head of Judaic studies at the Robert M. Beren Academy, a modern Orthodox day school in Houston, where he says he connects his students to the broader Houston community, to help make the world a better place.
"We're trying to have our cake and eat it, too," Segal says about his school's mission to achieve excellence in both Judaic and secular studies.
"It doesn’t have to be a choice," says Segal, one of the many Jewish professionals, educators and funders who gathered last week with one goal - making day schools the No. 1 educational choice for Jewish kids.
Jewish school advocates are working overtime to increase their enrollment, by creating and re-engineering day schools so they become centers of excellence and the top choice for today’s Jewish parents, according to Rabbi Joshua Elkin, executive director of Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which sponsored the gathering.
Under Elkin's leadership, the world of Jewish day schools is coming face to face with the latest, cutting-edge leadership and educational practices even as it faces its own set of challenges.
Some 1,000 day-school activists, educators, principals and supporters attended the PEJE assembly.
The conference drew participants from across the United States, Canada, Israel and Australia.
Young Chabad rabbis shmoozed with professional and lay educational leaders from Conservative, Orthodox and Reform day schools, as well as non-denominational community schools. They exchanged tips on everything from recruiting new students to the latest software for tracking academic achievement.
The range of topics covered in the 80-plus workshops reflects the widening array of challenges facing day schools as they seek to expand their appeal and attract new families. Workshops focused on issues of tuition costs and accessibility, questions about a lack of diversity among students and uncertainty about the quality of the secular education offered.
The assembly served as the backdrop for the public announcement of a $26 million Match grant initiative for 159 day schools, which brought in $15 million largely from new donors, as well as support from the Jewish Funders Network and other philanthropists and foundations.
During informal chats, corporate terms such as strategic planning, assessment measurement tools, marketing consultants and linking the silos were interspersed with admonitions to preserve the "menschlichkeit," or human values, of Jewish day schools.
There are more than 700 Jewish day schools, serving 200,000 students across the country, and the number of schools continues to grow, according to PEJE. Enrollment in the past 10 years has increased by nearly 20 percent, or 35,000 students, with nearly 100 schools opening between 1993 and 2003.
One sign of the times is a steadily growing interest in Jewish day schools among interfaith families, says Heather Martin, vice president of Interfaithfamily.com, based in Newton, Mass.
"They want their children involved in the Jewish community and one of the ways is by having them in Jewish day schools. Interfaith families have the same issues as non-interfaith Jewish families about teaching Jewish values to their children."
Leonard Saxe, a professor at Brandeis University and director of its Maurice and Marilyn Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, will lead a survey for PEJE, looking at how day-school alumni fare in college.
One question, he says, is how much day-school experience is necessary. In a seminar discussion, Saxe also cautioned that prospective day school parents are concerned that the schools will make their kids "too Jewish," an issue schools must effectively counter, he says.
Elkin and others acknowledge the concern but downplay its significance, citing studies and anecdotal evidence that day-school graduates integrate well into the wider world in college and beyond. Elkin further challenges any suburban public school to meet the socioeconomic diversity of day schools.
The cost of Jewish day-school education is the largest obstacle for many families who would otherwise consider sending their kids, according to some conference participants, including Yosef Abramowitz, CEO of Jewish Family & Life!
Abramowitz began a public discussion of a long-term financing plan under consideration with day-school supporters and representatives from the World Jewish Forum. An initiative of Israel’s president, Moshe Katsav, the forum is an advisory body of Jewish leaders from around the world that addresses current Jewish issues, such as educating Jewish youth.
Marily Lerner, director of admissions at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto, Calif., who attended her first PEJE assembly, says her school has made dramatic strides in its process for attracting and enrolling students, based on the professional advice of PEJE consultant Rheua Stakely, whose workshop on recruiting and keeping students was filled to a standing room only crowd.
"There is definitely a revitalization and renewed interest in Jewish day schools and we feel like we are part of a movement which is moving forward," Lerner says.