‘Jewish education is at a crisis point’
Photo: Dreamstime.com
Photo: Dreamstime.com
Victorian Jewish Schools Project

‘Jewish education is at a crisis point’

IN 2011, the soaring fees at Jewish day schools prompted community member and father-of-five Jonathan Schauder to seek an alternative way to give his children a Jewish education

His solution was to arrange for Hebrew lessons and Jewish cultural activities to be provided at local public secondary school, Glen Eira College.

Other families, he told The AJN this week, had different ways of addressing the problem. “I discovered that many parents were deliberately stopping at two children, purely in order to afford private school fees.”

“When did we get so lost?” he lamented, “That idea is too tragic for me. Having less children in the community is not the answer for Jewish continuity.”

Ten years on, the crippling costs associated with sending children to Jewish schools still impact far too many families, according to a major report released on Tuesday.

The discussion paper Re-thinking the future of our Jewish schools,  produced by a working group of communal leaders and educators under the banner of the Victorian Jewish Schools Project over the past two years, warns that towering fees will push thousands of students into the public school system in coming decades, while demographic changes also lead to a decline in enrolments.

During a time of rising housing costs, “some families must choose between a Jewish education and buying a home,” states the report.

It is projected that in the next 20 years, “the population of Jewish school age children in Victoria will fall by nearly 25 per cent – 2000 students,” with school fees set to reach as high as $45,000 by 2025 and up to a staggering $52,000 by 2030, for year 12.

This shift was already evident in the Gen17 community survey of 2017, in which almost half of participants reported that school fees were too expensive, while roughly a third who considered Jewish education, indicated that cost had prevented them from enrolling at least one child in a Jewish school.

The predicted decline has also taken into account falling birth rates in the community, partly due to a steady shrinkage of women at reproductive age over the next 20 years.

If the community is to allow this trend to continue, the study found that 51 per cent of Jewish school-aged students could be enrolled in government primary schools and 31 per cent in secondary schools in the next decade.

“It could also mean losses to schools of fee and grant income reaching $10 million a year in 2031, and about $18.5 million a year in 2041,” states the report.

Convener of the working group Alan Shwartz told The AJN that after 50 years of “building an exceptional Jewish school system,” this “existential challenge” which has been building for two decades, is only increasing, due to cultural, financial and demographic forces.

With attempts to create a community fund to provide vouchers to families who can’t afford full fees deemed unsuccessful, the discussion paper offers four options: maintaining the status quo; merging schools; creating a new, independent Jewish co-educational VCE school; and establishing greater collaboration among schools.

Noting that the purpose of the report, however, is not to find an immediate solution but to start a conversation with public forums held regularly, until a consensus is reached about the path forward, Schwartz said, “I and all members of the Victorian Jewish Schools Project believe that working together as a community, we can find the right solution for our children and our grandchildren.

“If ever there was a time for us to pursue this conversation with open minds, leaving personal feelings and loyalties to one side, that time is now.”

“We cannot put our heads in the sand – we must think, plan and act.”

Reflecting on the report, Mount Scopus Memorial College principal James Kennard told The AJN, “I thank those who have worked on this report, and who have made the community aware of the severe challenges to the sustainability of our school system. Scopus has been happy to assist them with their modelling.

“At Scopus, we are very concerned about the financial burden on parents, and that is why we strive to keep down costs and to provide fee assistance to 20 per cent of our families. Most significantly, we are pursuing our long-term goal of moving our entire school to Caulfield, which, according to our projections, will be a game-changer for fees and for the whole community.

“In terms of the proposals suggested in this report, we are always happy to talk to other schools about merging resources,” he added. “We are interested in the concept of a VCE centre, but have questions about how it would work, and how it would impact on the remaining schools.

“We look forward to philanthropy being a significant support to Jewish education, as has been the case in every thriving community throughout our history.”

Bialik College principal Jeremy Stowe-Lindner and Leibler Yavneh College co-chairs Gerard Max and Ari Schachna all noted that in recognition of the challenges presented by high fees, their respective schools offer fee assistance programs.

Stowe-Lindner added, “We welcome this opportunity to have discussions with other schools and other changemakers to ensure that through both existing structures and creative new ones, inclusion is broad and genuine.”

Max and Schachna concurred, stating, “We look forward to engaging with the report’s working group, our colleagues in Jewish education and the community more broadly as we address the challenges related to sustainable and diverse provision of Jewish educational choices.

Some schools noted that their experience bucked the trend observed in the report. A Yeshivah-Beth Rivkah Colleges (YBR) spokesperson said, “YBR has over 1230 students, making it one of the largest schools in Victoria and Australia. Enrolments have increased by over 15 per cent in the last decade.

The spokesperson continued, “Many of the valid concerns aired in the report are mitigated by the YBRCAPS model, which ensures that parents pay a family fee, on a sliding scale, from eight per cent of their household income, for all their children to attend YBR Colleges, which ensures that a quality Jewish and general education is affordable for all.”

The spokesperson added, “We welcome this community discussion and would be glad to contribute our insight in offering quality and affordable education to all.”

Stating that The Kind David School has “seen an increasing number of families who understand the value of a progressive Jewish education,” principal Marc Light said, “However, we understand that for many families this involves financial sacrifice, and for some, a 15-year private education is unaffordable.

“Whilst we feel that it is critical that each school community preserves its individual identity, we hope that enhanced collaboration across the sector can lead to increased affordability for all.”

President of the Jewish Community Council of Victoria (JCCV) Daniel Aghion said while the JCCV will be assisting in enabling discussion on the topic, the council “does not agree with everything that is written in the discussion paper. Nor does the JCCV endorse any particular option within the discussion paper,” adding that “there is no mention of the role of UJEB in Jewish education within Victoria”.

“Our community has shied away from this issue many times in the past. But it is too important to ignore,” added Aghion, thanking Schwartz and the working group, and encouraging community members to contribute to the discussion over the next 12 months.

Though welcoming the report, UJEB president Gabi Crafti stressed that tackling high school fees was just “one piece of the puzzle”.

“We also need to talk about the plain-faced reality that 40 per cent of Victorian Jewish children do not attend a private Jewish school,” she said.

“That 40 per cent equates to approximately 4000 learners. We can keep attacking the fees issue in the hope that a huge percentage of those 4000 learners will move to the Jewish day schools.

“But if we put all of our eggs in that basket, the opportunity to actually provide Jewish education to those kids will have passed us by.”

Reflecting on the report, Caulfield MP David Southwick said, “Jewish education is at a crisis point.”

He said the idea of a shared VCE campus, located in the heart of Caulfield, “would go a long way to reduce transport issues and build networks by allowing students from different Jewish schools and backgrounds to finish their school life together”.

“Making schools more affordable without compromising quality Jewish education can only be done through cooperation,” he stressed.

Southwick will be running a forum on Tuesday, August 10 for Jewish families from public schools in collaboration with UJEB and Schwartz to discuss affordability and choice.

To read the discussion paper and join the conversation, and for more information about the Victorian Jewish Schools Project, go to
jewishschoolsproject.com. To attend the forum on August 10, visit trybooking.com/BTIVS.

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