This isn’t your bubbie’s cheder anymore

Innovative, affordable Jewish supplementary education programs are gaining traction. How will they affect the future of day schools?

Ronit and her husband, parents of a five- and a seven-year-old, both have to be at work at 7:30 a.m.

This, along with the high cost of tuition, has prevented them from sending their kids to Jewish day school.

The couple needs a school with a before-care program so that they can drop their children off on their way to work, but they could only find a local public school that fit the bill.

They’re currently looking for a supplementary Jewish school program that gives their kids some exposure to Jewish holidays and traditions but doesn’t teach Hebrew.

“If they learn Hebrew, there’s more homework… That means extra pressure. We don’t have a lot of time to spend with our kids as is because of our jobs, and by the end of the day, they’re tired from having gotten up so early,” Ronit said. “We need something that makes sense for our lifestyle.”

Day school enrolment is on the decline across most of Canada. SHUTTERSTOCK PHOTO

It’s no longer news that day school enrolment is on the decline across most of Canada. Partly this is because of demographics. Jewish Federations of Canada-UJA doesn’t collect national data on day school or supplementary school enrolment, but the 2011 National Household Survey Study of the Jewish population of Canada showed that, over the preceding decade, the number of Jewish Canadians 14 years of age and under – essentially, school-aged children – had decreased by nearly 1,000.

By contrast, the number of Canadian Jews in every other age category had either increased or flat-lined over the same period.

In 2015, The CJN reported that non-Orthodox Jewish high schools in Winnipeg, Montreal and Toronto were all facing declining enrolment.

Then there’s the matter of cost. The Toronto group, Grassroots for Affordable Jewish Education, has spent several years advocating for reasonable day school tuition, highlighting that the cost of full-time Jewish education in Toronto has surpassed the rate of inflation by nearly three times in the past 25 years.


“There’s no question that there’s a decrease in day school enrolment… no question the cost of day schools and an overall distancing from Jewish life are impacting those numbers,” said Daniel Held, executive director of UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Julia and Henry Koschitzky Centre for Jewish Education.

What’s less well-known is the way supplementary Jewish education programs across the country are rising to the challenge of adapting to meet the needs – both financial and otherwise – of Canadian Jewish parents.

Jewish organizations and educators across Canada are dispensing with the Hebrew Sunday school model of yore and introducing models that are innovative, while affordable.

“This isn’t your bubbie’s cheder anymore,” said Held, who’s also a regular CJN columnist. “More and more, we’re seeing programs that work around kids’ particular interests and around parents’ schedules.”

In Toronto, nine such programs have received seed funding from the Koschitzky Centre’s four-year-old WOW! initiative.

In partnership with private donors Harold Wolfe and Phyllis Flatt, the centre spearheaded WOW! for the express purpose of growing the field of supplementary Jewish education and infusing new life into it.


The programs are indeed innovative: one of the initial groups that received WOW! funding is the Jewish Teen Board of Greater Toronto, through which Jewish high school students spend a year learning leadership and philanthropy skills by forming an actual philanthropic foundation. Then there’s PJ Library, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation that sends free Jewish children’s books to families across the world each month. There’s also the environmental group Shoresh, whose new Outdoor School will, beginning in May 2017, allow students to explore Jewish ethical teachings and other traditions through hands-on, nature-based learning.

“I’m hearing more and more parents say that they want their kids to enjoy Judaism. Maybe they themselves got a Jewish education that felt cold. They want a warm and fuzzy feeling for their kids,” said Rabbi Michael Goldstein of Ottawa’s Congregation Machzikei Hadas.

“They care more about their kids getting an experiential education than about facts and information.”

Rabbi Goldstein’s shul is currently collaborating with Ottawa Talmud Torah, a long-standing afternoon school in the city that has seen decreasing enrolment of late, in an effort to rejuvenate its programming.

“The federation’s 2011 survey showed us that 70 per cent of Jewish kids in Ottawa were not enrolled in any form of Jewish education whatsoever,” he said. “So we’re shaking things up.”

In addition to hiring a new school director and teachers with strong credentials, they’re seeking to use what Rabbi Goldstein called “principles of modern education” to teach Jewish values, rather than “going, ‘Just be Jewish.’”

The school also has a revamped schedule, with Sunday morning classes now moved to Sunday afternoons, to better accommodate families.

“Parents have said that Sunday mornings just don’t work,” Rabbi Goldstein explained.

The initiative was also spurred by the fact that the Ottawa Jewish Community School has seen dropping enrolment rates.

“When I was a student there 20 years ago, there were 500 kids; now there’s about 160,” Rabbi Goldstein said. And Ottawa’s Jewish high school closed last year.

He noted that, in addition to cost, the trend might also be attributable to the fact that many parents in Ottawa want to send their children to French immersion programs.

In Vancouver, day school enrolment is actually on the rise, while enrolment in supplementary Jewish schools has dropped in recent years, said Shelley Rivkin, vice-president of planning, allocations and community affairs at the Jewish Federation of Greater of Vancouver.

That’s because the cost of day school in Vancouver is shared with the province and because many Jewish families feel the quality of day school education is superior, Rivkin explained.

Nevertheless, she said, Vancouver’s Jewish federation is also looking to “shake things up” in the supplemental sector.

“There are approximately 4,000 school-aged Jewish kids in the lower mainland, and 850 of them are in day school. There used to be 300 to 350 in supplementary programs, but on last count that’s down to 250,” Rivkin said. “The total number of Jewish kids exposed to Jewish learning is down.”

The federation believes facilitating innovation is key to increasing supplementary school enrolment, Rivkin said. That means expanding the definition of supplementary education to encompass a more informal, experiential type of learning.

“The trend in the States is that the traditional after-school Hebrew Sunday school is no longer the model families want. There’s [movement toward] experiential education and what we’d historically call ‘informal’ Jewish education.”

Part of the process is expanding funding requirements for supplementary education programs to include, for example, those that meet sporadically, that serve entire families or are offered outside synagogue settings.


“Our challenge is to engage young families and find creative ways to introduce them to Jewish learning,” Rivkin concluded.

The 2015 class of the Downtown Jewish Community School in Toronto. ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHVIES. BLANKENSTEIN FAMILY HERITAGE CENTRE
The 2015 class of the Downtown Jewish Community School in Toronto. ONTARIO JEWISH ARCHiVES. BLANKENSTEIN FAMILY HERITAGE CENTRE

Rabbi Aaron Levy, founding director of Makom: Creative Downtown Judaism, said that a lot of Jewish parents living in downtown Toronto see the value of sending their kids to neighbourhood public schools.

“Families want their kids integrated in their neighbourhoods, to have diverse classrooms and to get the excellent education many public schools in the GTA offer,” he said.

Makom’s supplementary school, Makom Afterschool, offers five-day-a-week Jewish learning and immersive Hebrew language instruction.

Now entering its sixth year, the school will open a third downtown location this fall and continues to grow: enrolment has gone up from five children in its first year to 59 this past year.

In addition to the convenience factor of the neighbourhood locations, Rabbi Levy said, families may be drawn to the fact that “our program is very play-based and experiential.”

Beth Tzedec Congregation’s long established supplementary school in Toronto is also innovating, offering new online tutorials to students living farther away as well as launching a new class geared to students exiting the day school system.

In York Region, north of Toronto, the supplementary education sector is seeing significant growth in line with data from the Statistics Canada’s 2011 National Household Survey, which showed a surge in the number of Jewish families living in Vaughan, a city in York Region.


“You walk into the Schwartz/Reisman Centre [located on York Region’s Joseph & Wolf Lebovic Jewish Community Campus] on a Sunday, and the place is abuzz. At the Lebovic campus, there’s all this Jewish learning happening,” Held said, citing supplementary programs including J.Roots, Kachol Lavan, Neshamah and Beit Rayim Hebrew School.

A brand new venture in the region is the GTA’s first Sephardi supplemental Hebrew school, Divrei Shalom.

The school is a joint initiative of Ahavat Yisrael Hebrew School, an existing supplementary school with locations in the GTA areas of North York, Thornhill and Thornhill Woods, and the Sephardic Renewal Project, an organization started recently by Michael Ettedgui, Jack Benaim and Jack Benarroch, to engage young people of Sephardi origin.

“Divrei Shalom will be run by Ahavat Yisrael and we’ll tap into their resources and expertise, but we’ll hopefully bring the [Sephardi] kids a curriculum that’s tailor-made for them,” Ettedgui said. “They’ll learn from Sephardi prayer books and about traditions from the Sephardi perspective.”

When it came time to choose a school for her seven-year-old, Heather, formerly a teacher at a Toronto Jewish day school, didn’t even consider day school.

Herself a graduate of the day school system elsewhere in Canada, Heather said it simply wasn’t an option.

In addition to what she called the “exorbitant cost,” she found the curriculum at the day school where she taught to be far inferior to that of a public school.

This fall, Heather’s daughter, who attends public school, will also enter her second year at J.Roots.

Not only is it far more affordable than day school but, “they’re teaching the kids to speak Hebrew and… there’s some religious teaching but not too much,” Heather said.

She paused before conceding: “It would be nice if there was a little bit more, so my daughter could say the prayers and whatnot.”

As to whether she would consider subsidized funding for day school, Heather said the process is “invasive – they ask for every possible piece of financial documentation to prove you’re in need.”

In short, she said, “it’s not my priority. I’d rather go on a family vacation than send my kid to day school.”