Bulletin Education Series: Ottawa’s Jewish day schools face common problems of low or declining enrolment

Students work together on a math problem at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

Students work together on a math problem at the Ottawa Jewish Community School.

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harris works with students studying texts at the Ottawa Torah Institute high school for boys. (Issie Scarowsky)

Rabbi Yaakov Moshe Harris works with students studying texts at the Ottawa Torah Institute high school for boys. (Issie Scarowsky)

Older students work on reading with younger students at the Ottawa Torah Academy.

Older students work on reading with younger students at the Ottawa Torah Academy.

While each of Ottawa’s Jewish day schools is proud of its academic standards, all stress the need to increase enrolment and broaden community support to ensure the future of day school education in the city. Louise Rachlis reports.

One result of the announced phasing out of the Ottawa Jewish Community School (OJCS) high school division has been the increased realization that if Jewish education is not supported, it may be lost.

“There was a realization that not everything that exists will always exist,” said Aaron Smith, president of the OJCS board.

“The elementary school has been around much longer than the high school was,” he said. “The closure was a level of support issue. The elementary schools are a very critical element of our community, and the closing of the high school raised the issue that if people don’t support Jewish education and raise their children Jewishly, they may lose it.”

“We always have to look at the silver lining, the positive impact on who we are,” said Marlene Wolinsky, the OJCS head of school. “Certainly the need to work together and support each other has strengthened our community.”

She praised the engagement of OJCS families and the community character within the school building.

“The feeling of community within our building is unique; the way our teachers engage in very meaningful relationships with our students and with our families. It creates a dynamic learning environment and it supports Judaic values that our students can identify with and live by.”

Smith said the OJCS elementary school is seeing strong retention rates.

“We’re putting in a ton of effort at kindergarten,” he said, “in the same way Camp B’nai Brith of Ottawa grew from the bottom up. It’s even more critical from a school perspective. Most kids start in kindergarten, and it’s important to expose the kids and families to the high quality education we have. Our retention rate is 93 per cent. Once families get in, they stay in. That really is the critical message for us and the community. We’re doing everything we can to welcome everyone with open arms.”

Smith said his concerns are not just for OJCS. All of Ottawa’s Jewish schools need to increase enrolment. “The community has to come forward and show up.”

Smith’s concerns were echoed by Rabbi Howard Finkelstein, dean of Judaic Studies at OJCS. “The community has to support the Jewish educational system in Ottawa. Otherwise there will be no Jewish community here,” he said.

Representatives of each of Ottawa’s day schools stress that the whole community reaps the benefits of their existence.

“I think the Orthodox community brings a foundation to the community,” said Leah Scarowsky, administrator of the Orthodox Ottawa Torah Institute high school for boys (OTI) and Machon Sarah high school for girls (MS). The schools currently operate in rented classroom spaces at Young Israel (OTI) and Agudath Israel (MS) congregations.

“Kids who come out of Orthodox schools are very much involved in the Jewish community,” she said. “Wherever graduates move, they are a benefit to the communities they live in.”

OTI and MS were created to provide an option for Orthodox students after they graduate elementary school, so students wouldn’t need to leave Ottawa to continue their education, explained Scarowsky, who served on the board of the schools for about 15 years before working in the office. All of her five children graduated from OTI or MS.

“I think it is unfortunate that many members of our community don’t know anything about these schools, and when and how they were established. I think it is important for people to understand the importance of religious Jewish schools to their community.”

Scarowsky also stressed the high quality of the schools’ secular studies program, pointing out that OTI and MS students have gone on to study medicine, dentistry and obtain PhDs. “One of our current grade 12 girls will be studying neuroscience at Carleton next year. Our secular program is definitely good quality.”

Covering the costs of that quality is a challenge because “the Orthodox schools tend to be smaller because we’re drawing from a smaller population,” she said. “Small class size is a tremendous challenge … How you do it is through a lot of fundraising, because not a lot of money comes from tuition because of the smaller student body.”

Now, OTI and MS have fundraising projects and people who solicit donations.

Established in 1997, Torah Academy of Ottawa is located in a spacious building near Woodroffe and Iris.

“Our enrolment has been generally steady for the past 10 years,” said Rabbi Zischa Shaps, the school’s executive director. “We hope we’ll still grow.”

There are currently 77 students enrolled in the elementary day school.

As for financial challenges, “We can always use more money. But we own the building and are not in danger of closing. We rely on fundraising. People who believe in Jewish education sustain us.”

Rabbi Shaps said the school is economically responsible. “We don’t spend money we don’t have” and is not complacent. “We’re always looking for ways to improve … A donor should feel from us they’re getting a good return on their investment.”

“We’re a diverse community with diverse needs,” said Rabbi Yisroel Goldbaum, principal of Torah Academy. “Our school is designed for a different demographic. Our goal is to provide comprehensive Jewish and secular education, and many of our graduates go on to Ottawa Torah Institute and Machon Sarah. We try our best to have quality general studies … We’ve had children from a wide variety of backgrounds. It’s all about providing a strong base.”

“Whether it’s our education model or the community’s model, we have to never give up,” said Rabbi Dovid Hayes, executive director of the Chabad-affiliated Rambam Day School, which offers preschool to Grade 8 in Hebrew, French and English in a wing of the OJCS building on the Jewish Community Campus.

“It’s one of the most important things for our community to do. Across the world, it has been shown that Jewish schools make possible a vibrant community.”

There is an ongoing need for “vibrant, strong Jewish education,” he said. “In a vibrant community, you have a variety of options satisfying the needs of the community. Big Jewish communities across North America have many different options available to them.”

Ottawa, as well, has to satisfy the needs of its Jewish community, said Rabbi Hayes.

“I think we’re on the right track by discussing it, he said in regard to the problems faced by the city’s Jewish day schools. “Perhaps we need one school, or two or three, but, by working together, we can come up with a solution that will work …

“Without Jewish education, we risk losing a generation … If we want to ensure we have Jews affiliated with the Jewish community, we have to put our emphasis in it, and spend our time and money to do that. We all have to work together. When there will be this real recognition that this is our future, and we put our heads together, we’ll find a solution.”

For the past five years, Rambam Day School has had about 60 pupils. Rambam fills a need for a select group, he said, and the intent is to grow and get more enrolment.

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