He never attended a Jewish day school.
But it is hard to think of another individual whose name is more associated with day schools than Rabbi Joshua Elkin.
With Rabbi Elkin at its helm since its 1996 founding, the Boston-based Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education has seeded more than 60 new day schools throughout North America, offered training and consultation to volunteer and professional day school leaders from all streams of Judaism, and, most recently launched an ambitious program to help more than 40 schools grow their legacy and endowment programs.
Rabbi Elkin, 62, will leave PEJE at the end of September, and in a conversation with The Jewish Week, the rabbi (who was ordained at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 1975) talked about growing up in Providence, R.I., the highs and lows of running PEJE, and Hebrew charter schools. Noting that he is "far too energetic" to retire, he said he plans to move on to a "not-yet-identified different platform from which I can continue to help strengthen the Jewish people."
Jewish Week: Before PEJE, you were head of the Solomon Schechter School of Greater Boston for 20 years. What drew you to the day school world and what was your own childhood Jewish education like?
Elkin: I went to public school but was in a very identified [Conservative] Jewish home. My father was the director of the bureau of Jewish education, and my mother taught Hebrew at religious schools. I was tutored [in Jewish studies] for many years by my mother, and I went to a community Hebrew high school [a part-time program], participated in youth group and then worked as a counselor at Camp Ramah [a Conservative sleep-away camp] …
One of the ironies was that when I was hired to run the Boston Schechter in 1978, not only was I young but very inexperienced. I had only stepped foot in a day school once. All my knowledge of day school was from reading and talking to people. All of us took a chance, and it worked out well.
So before your bar mitzvah you not only didn’t go to day school, but you didn’t go to Hebrew school?
No, I went [to Hebrew school] for three years, but … I wasn’t learning to the level my parents wanted me to attain, so my mother moved in as a private tutor … She’d grown up on the Lower East Side and went to a very intensive Ivrit b’Ivrit (Hebrew in Hebrew) after-school program. By the time she was 19, she was fluent in Hebrew.
What are some of your proudest accomplishments from your time at PEJE?
Most of the schools we helped start are still very active and functioning at very good levels … We’ve created a place in the day school field where the expertise of seasoned professionals is valued, and where they’re increasingly involved in mentoring the next generation of leaders. Coaching is build into all our grants and work … Also, the convening work we’ve done has been very powerful, connecting professional and volunteer leaders to each other and across the denominations. We’ve also helped create communities of practice, which are monthly phone calls and online communities where job-alike people [from different schools] get together and, with some facilitation, create a community and learn from each other.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently?
When I think back on the first phase of the organization, from 1997-2003, we were heavily involved in seeding new schools, and the existence of our grants propelled a few school to move forward in adding on a middle school too quickly … We may have accelerated some of those processes that might have benefited from growing at a slower pace … Also, the ratio of cash to expertise for those new school grants was 80-20. What we did in 2003-04, as we moved to work with existing schools [rather than starting new schools] we flipped that and went to 80 percent expertise, 20 percent cash. The feeling was the expertise and coaching delivered to the leadership team was greater impact than what we were getting with the cash grants. The cash, while significant, was not going to make or break a school but people often come up to us now and say "Without the coaching, I’m not sure our school would have made it."
I know many people in the Jewish world are apprehensive about the recent emergence of Hebrew charter schools and are worried they will draw students who would otherwise attend day schools. What do you think about these tuition-free schools, and has it been disappointing to you that some of PEJE’s founders, like Michael Steinhardt and Harold Grinspoon, have in recent years turned so much of their attention to this area?
Knowing how Michael Steinhardt approaches his philanthropy – the importance he places on having a wide impact and making aggressive progress, and his concern about financial accessibility – I understand what led him to pursue the experiment of Hebrew charter schools.
I think it’s a very interesting development. In terms of whether they’re a threat to day schools, my feeling is the impact is not significant. I feel it’s appealing significantly to another segment of the population. At PEJE, we’ve advised the day schools to focus on what is within their reach – and affecting whether a charter school opens in their community is not within their each. Our sense is that the day schools need to focus on what’s in their grasp and that is to make themselves as accessible as possible, drive new revenue streams, put on the ground the best value proposition you can, communicate your message widely and garner as significant a portion of the marketplace as you can because you believe in your product … The conversation that day schools need to conduct with their communities is about the Jewish future: what kind of Jewish future is their going to be, how do day schools fit in, what’s the value of what’s delivered.
So are you saying you’ve advised day school leaders not to fight Hebrew charter schools or speak out against them?
I’ve never felt you can grow any enterprise, whether inside or outside the Jewish community, by bad-mouthing another choice.
You’re much better off strengthening yourself and growing your capacity to be compelling and excellent – to make yourself irresistible.
I feel like back in the late ’90s when PEJE was getting started there was this sense that day schools could become the primary education choice for non-Orthodox Jews in the United States, and that more recently the goals have become more modest: a consensus that day schools, unlike perhaps sleep-away camp or Birthright, can never attract the majority of liberal Jews but that they are instead a training ground for the most committed cohort: the future leaders. Do you agree, and how large a percentage of the non-Orthodox market do you think American day schools can ever realistically hope to capture?
We’re still committed to maximizing the number of kids in day school and the number of years they’re in day school. We’re working with admissions directors, marketers and advocates to try to be able to have as bold and wide-ranging a messaging going out so people can understand the value of a day school education. How high could enrollment go? … There’s actually a big debate about how many non-Orthodox kids are in day school right now. When you count all of those that may be in an Orthodox school but aren’t themselves Orthodox, we’ve felt it’s probably in the 8-10 percent zone. We never imagined it would ever be more than 20 percent.
At this point, having 15-18 percent [of non-Orthodox children in day school] would make a big difference for us … I know anecdotally there are many day schools with empty seats, and that’s where vigorous marketing and the value proposition can draw in the next tier of people. Connecting to projects like the PJ Library, Jewish summer camps and being able to work through the relationship of day schools to synagogue so they reinforce and strengthen each other: there’s a whole tier of people that can and will be brought in to at least consider the day school option.
What about affordability?
We have challenges certainly of middle-class affordability, and that’s an area PEJE is definitely very focused on … But the excellence piece is also very important. In a lot of areas, day schools are not competing against public schools, but against established, high-quality private schools. There are significant pockets of Jewish families in nonsectarian private schools, and those are families for whom the value proposition of day school has to be made … You have to be able to present the quality of your program as something compelling, something that will make a difference in people’s lives.
What do you think you’ll do when you wake up on your first day after you leave PEJE?
I’m going to go on a long bike ride: 30 or 40 miles maybe.