It’s been a long time since the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter day schools — challenged by shrinking enrollment, competition from newer community day schools and Hebrew charter schools, and a denomination in demographic decline — have had an opportunity to celebrate.
But last Wednesday at the Jewish Theological Seminary, a light at the end of the tunnel came into view. Or more accurately, a bright red “rose compass” — a six-pointed red-and-pink logo meant to evoke both a Star of David and a compass — which was unveiled, along with a new name and marketing strategy.
The Solomon Schechter Day School Association, an umbrella for 49 schools, is becoming The Schechter Day School Network, with the tagline: “Engage The World.” And while “Solomon” has been dropped from the materials, the schools’ namesake — the Romania-born scholar-rabbi who discovered the Cairo Geniza, served as president of JTS and founded what is now the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism — will get new attention.
While he has never had the household-name status enjoyed by other JTS icons like Rabbis Abraham Joshua Heschel and Mordechai Kaplan, Schechter is now being introduced as the embodiment of the kind of “intellectual explorer” and “global Jewish citizen” that the Conservative schools say they seek to produce.
The new branding/marketing strategy is the culmination of a $240,000 ($171,000 from UJA-Federation of New York) collaborative project involving a paid branding firm (BBMG), consortium of 11 Schechter schools in the tri-state area, the various arms of the Conservative movement and the Jewish Education Project (which itself recently re-branded, changing its name from BJENY-SAJES and acquiring a fresh logo).
Jewish Education Project officials suggested the consortium focus on rebranding and marketing, in response to findings, in a 2008 UJA-Federation study called “To Go Or Not To Go,” that many liberal Jews in Manhattan and Long Island were unaware of the differences between non-Orthodox day schools and Orthodox ones, perceiving both as “insular” and weak in secular subjects.
Why, when Schechter schools make up but one small segment of metro New York’s day schools (but the majority of its non-Orthodox ones), have the federation and Jewish Education Project devoted so much attention to the movement?
Because, said Bill Robinson, chief strategy officer of the Project, the New York-area Schechters had already banded together as a consortium and approached UJA-Federation and his group for assistance.
“This is not about competing with other day schools,” Robinson emphasized. “It’s about increasing the market and stopping the drop-off of non-Orthodox enrollment” in day schools.
While initially envisioned primarily for the tri-state schools, Elaine Cohen — executive of the national Schechter School Network (formerly the Solomon Schechter Day School Association) — announced last week that the new name and logo will be adopted nationally, and she invited Schechter schools throughout North America to participate in the new marketing strategy.
At the JTS launch last week, which featured speeches from JTS Chancellor Arnold Eisen and United Synagogue Executive Vice President Rabbi Steven Wernick, among others, the mood was upbeat, almost a pep rally for Conservative Judaism and its day schools.
Noting the critical role day schools play in preparing future generations of liberal Jewish leaders (a recent Avi Chai Foundation study shows day school alumni, many of them presumably Schechter alumni, are disproportionately represented among non-Orthodox leadership), Eisen said that “only summer camp compares” to them in terms of impact.
“And Schechter has the advantage of being year-round and being school, which is real life for kids,” he added.Schechter schools, said Uri Cohen, director of development for Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, give children a “moral compass” and the “ability to navigate complex moral and intellectual challenges.”
“We. Are. Schechter,” Elaine Suchow, development director of Solomon Schechter School of Queens, and the founder of the tri-state consortium, pronounced triumphantly after leading the audience of 90, a mix of representatives from the tri-state Schechter schools and others involved in the project, in the Hebrew song, “Hineh Mah Tov” (How Good It Is).
Founded in 1956, Suchow’s school is one of the oldest Conservative day schools, and the very first to adopt the Schechter name. Suchow played a lead role in encouraging the local schools to collaborate with each other and recruiting support from the other players.
But is marketing and branding enough to reverse the Schechter schools’ decline? At their peak, less than 15 years ago, there were 63 Schechter schools, enrolling more than 21,000 children in North America. Today, 49 schools enroll less than 14,000.
As recently as last year, while enrollment increased at Modern Orthodox schools and stabilized at community schools, it dropped almost 5 percent in Schechter schools, according to a census conducted by Marvin Schick, a consultant for the Avi Chai Foundation. (This coming year may be better however. “This is the first year in three or four years where I have received e-mails from Schechter school heads informing me that they are expecting an increase in enrollments next year, so perhaps we are already turning a corner,” Elaine Cohen told The Jewish Week.)
While many of the remaining Schechters — such as one in Westchester County and another in New Milford, N.J., — are considered to be thriving, “at least a third are endangered,” Schick told The Jewish Week.
Some Schechters, such as ones in suburban Detroit, Morris County, N.J. and Providence, have recently gone from Conservative to nondenominational, joining the RAVSAK Community Day School Network. (See Sidebar)
With even many highly engaged American Jews shying away from denominational labels and growing numbers of interfaith families whose children aren’t Jewish according to the traditional halachic definitions to which the Conservative movement adheres, it is not clear whether Schechter schools, which pride themselves on their rigorous Judaic studies, serve a large enough niche to be viable.
“They’re affected even more than others by what’s happening in American Jewish life,” said Schick. Schechter schools on average devote more hours to Judaic studies than community schools do, Schick said, and that might be a problem: the Conservative schools are “more religious than most non-Orthodox American Jews want to be.”
Then there’s the price tag. In the New York area, Schechter tuition ranges from $9,200 for the lower grades at the Brandeis School (in the Five Towns) to $32,000 for the higher grades (middle school) at Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan. While their tuition is comparable to community/pluralistic schools and often lower than secular private schools, Schechters tend to be pricier than Orthodox schools. Amidst a lingering recession in which even many Modern Orthodox families are leaving day schools to economize, and with some parents seeing tuition-free Hebrew charter schools as an alternative, can Schechter schools actually attract new families?
Schechter proponents say they can — and that their schools fill a critical, centrist niche.
“The main goal of this branding and marketing initiative is to reach Jewish families with school-age children who at this point in time are saying, ‘Day school? That’s not for me,’” Elaine Cohen told The Jewish Week. “We’re saying ‘Yes, you belong here. Our schools are good for your kids.’ We’re not trying to recruit only from Conservative families. The pool of prospective families is larger.”
Schechter schools are open to Modern Orthodox, Reform and secular families as well — and the differences between them and community schools are not always especially noticeable.
“Many Schechter schools have quite a wide range of families from various denominations, and they’re all respected,” said Rabbi Jim Rogozen, who is president of the Schechter Network and headmaster of Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland. “But the approach of what we teach and how we teach it is based on Conservative Judaism.”
Steven Lorch, head of Solomon Schechter School of Manhattan, said that while his school takes “a stand on normative practice,” it is, “in the way we think of who the community is, very pluralistic.”
According to Lorch, the Schechter approach can be more effective than the community/pluralistic approach in the elementary years when children are in the “industry” stage of psychosocial development: “learning how to be a competent person in the terms defined by adults around them.”
“If the message is this way, that way or not at all if you don’t want to, that works against the developmental stage of industry and leaves the challenge of the stage unresolved,” Lorch said.
While the Schechter network still adheres to the “matrilineal descent” definition of who is a Jew — one factor in some schools’ decision to switch affiliation — it has become more welcoming of interfaith families in the past decade. Schools have become less concerned about the mother’s Jewish status as long as the child is raised exclusively Jewish and has a halachic conversion before bar or bat mitzvah.
While no one expects branding and marketing to solve every problem, particularly not the financial challenges inherent in operating day schools, many argue that, by dispelling misconceptions about the schools, they can attract parents who might not otherwise have considered a Jewish school — including many who do consider secular private schools and can thus afford a day school.
“There’s a whole world of people who don’t know about us, or what they think about us is incorrect,” said Suchow.
The new marketing/branding approach emphasizes the schools’ embrace of science and literature, as well as their goal of preparing graduates to have a foot firmly planted in both Jewish and secular pursuits. The Jewish Education Project’s Robinson said, “Obviously these are seriously Jewish schools, but in terms of marketing it’s about engaging families who value Judaism but also something else. How do we take the Jewish tradition of learning to prepare one to become a Jewish global citizen?”
Helping the Schechter schools rebrand, he said, is “just one piece” of his agency’s efforts to increase the number of non-Orthodox children enrolling in day schools.
That strategy also includes “building a pipeline” with non-Orthodox Jewish early childhood programs — that is, having preschools do more to promote day schools and other Jewish educational options to parents — and helping day schools “continue to enhance and improve what they are doing.”
But what of people who argue that day school will never be the dominant choice for liberal American Jews and that it makes more sense to focus on camps and congregational schools (areas in which the Jewish Education Project is also involved)?
“There are limits to how far [day school enrollment] can increase,” Robinson acknowledged. “We’re never going to see the commitment to day school that we’ve seen among the Orthodox in the last 50 to 60 years. But there’s still significant room for growth.”
“We’re not shooting for everyone going to day school,” he said. “Just to move the needle.”