We are living in the age of mergers and acquisitions in the business world – and in the Jewish community. In Ottawa, two venerable congregations with a great deal of history are merging, and talks are taking place between the two Orthodox day schools about coming together.
In the world Jewish community, we read about what is called NewOrg. This multifaceted organization is designed to address the needs of Jewish educational institutions across the denominational divide bringing together educational arms of the Modern Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and community school networks. The common theme, to preserve the future of Jewish education in North America for all students – regardless of affiliation and Jewish school – by working together on issues of finance, governance, fundraising, educational innovations and the enhancement of Jewish teaching and learning, is an imperative. The salient point of this merger is that there will be no discussion or validation of any one particular ideological approach to Judaism, but there will be an emphasis placed on the need to provide the best educational opportunities for students.
But, there is a drawback. Day school attendance in North America is suffering. Solomon Schechter schools are closing, community schools are experiencing dwindling enrolment and Modern Orthodox day schools are exhibiting zero growth. Only the haredi Orthodox schools in major Orthodox centres such as Lakewood, Monsey, Toronto and Flatbush are growing due to high birth rates in those communities.
A contributing factor to the decline in enrolment in Ottawa’s Jewish day schools is the emergence of French immersion programs in the public school system. It is understandable in Ottawa, a bilingual city, that parents want their children to be fluent in French in order to eventually gain employment in positions demanding that ability. Obviously, the learning of a second language redounds to the benefit of the child in many ways.
What is not understandable is the sacrificing of Jewish education on the altar of French immersion. How important is Jewish identification and adherence to Jewish law and practice to the parents who see French immersion as a sine qua non?
Can pre bar/bat mitzvah training and a modicum of Jewish education offered on an ad hoc basis serve to strengthen Jewish identity and continuity for those who choose the route of French immersion?
The ideal answer is for day schools in Ottawa to provide a French immersion program, for language taught in a Jewish day school, immersion or not, brings into focus the Jewish component of the school. Language is not taught in a vacuum, but in the context of the cultural atmosphere of the school. In a Jewish school, the teaching of French encompasses the celebration of Jewish holidays and Jewish themes, unlike public or private schools, which bring the teaching of French into the realm of celebrations of holidays of other faiths. The challenge posed by French immersion in the public school system is of great concern to the Jewish community day school here.
We are facing an uphill battle in Ottawa to preserve the future of the Jewish community through our support of the Jewish educational system. We have suffered the loss of the Jewish community high school, a bad omen for Jewish continuity here, and we are seeing further diminution of student enrolment in the day schools. The Orthodox day schools see the need to coalesce because of diminishing numbers as there is no critical mass to sustain each institution individually. The fledgling yeshiva high school has to import students from out of town to survive, and the girls’ seminary high school has barely a handful of students.
While highly appreciative of the contribution of Federation to Jewish education in Ottawa, it is not enough to simply accentuate the dollars and cents needed to sustain our schools financially. Attention has to be paid to the non-monetary aspects of school survivability and, consequently, Jewish continuity. Schools have to constantly re-evaluate their programs, and parents must ask themselves what priorities they are setting for their children in regard to their faith. These are daunting challenges for all parties involved.