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4 Takeaways from UJA listening tour on day school crisis

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Craig Sunter FLICKR

For all of us who care about Jewish education, we are in an unsettling time – a time of significant change and uncertainty, as plans are developed to steward Toronto’s Jewish community through a crisis in day school education that has hit a tipping point.

One of the privileges of my position with the UJA Federation of Greater Toronto is that I am in regular contact with school leaders, parents, teachers and other stakeholders in the field. Over the past few months, as we shape a path forward, UJA leaders, including myself, have gone on a listening tour. Through our many conversations with parents, school administrators and other stakeholders, we have heard four sentiments expressed time and time again – sentiments that I deeply share and want to express.

The first is one of sadness. We all dreamed of building schools and opening campuses; of enrolling our children and ushering them out of the house and into vibrant and bustling schools each morning. In listening to parents, this sadness is driven by their love for their schools. They talk of the love that teachers pour over children, special moments like model seders and siddur ceremonies, and the role the schools have played in shaping their children and their families. The demise of a school is a deep loss.

READ: TO SAVE JEWISH EDUCATION, COMMUNITY MUST PUT MONEY WHERE MOUTH IS

The second is a commitment to day school education in York Region, north of Toronto. The passion of parents and students these last few months has been palpable. This type of activism and commitment is essential for our communal success. School leaders – heads and boards – have expressed a deep commitment, both publicly and privately, to ensuring the continuity of Jewish education in York Region. It is an essential part of their vision for our community and the reason they began doing this holy work in the first place. We must harness this shared passion and commitment.

The third is that there are two big challenges to address: cost and community. The cost of Jewish day school is simply too high for middle income families. What’s more, annual tuition increases have outpaced increases in inflation and household income, making day school less affordable each year.  To succeed in continuing to shape the future of our community, tuition must be reset.

‘there is a shared realization that change must happen – and quickly. It cannot be business as usual for a year, a month or even a week’

Joseph Schwab, a preeminent scholar of education, notes that there are four elements that shape schools – the teacher, content, learner and milieu. Like any community, York Region is unique. At times, we have mirrored campuses across communities, without building on their unique character. As we rethink how we provide education for the next generation, we must ensure that schools reflect the communities they serve.

Finally, there is a shared realization that change must happen – and must happen quickly. It cannot be business as usual for a year, a month or even a week. In partnership with the community, UJA is committed to rethinking, re-imagining and reshaping the system, so that it is affordable, sustainable and of the highest quality.

Jewish day school education is an essential ingredient in a strong Jewish community. For generations, Toronto has been blessed by the world’s strongest and most diverse day school system. The strength of our community is a result of these schools. To ensure its future, York Region, home to nearly 70,000 Jews, must have a vibrant Jewish day school system.

We sit at one of the most difficult junctures facing our educational system in memory. In partnership with the day schools, parents, philanthropists and the community, we will drive change, in order to ensure that day schools continue to serve as the backbone of a strong community.  We need your partnership and together we will achieve that goal. To join our work, share your ideas, experiences and expertise, drop me a line at dheld@ujafed.org


Daniel Held is executive director of the Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education at UJA Federation of Greater Toronto.