More students are learning Jewish roots Enrollment: Jewish day schools are experiencing a growth spurt as more families are enrolling their children so they can better understand their culture.

October 19, 1998|By Mary Maushard | Mary Maushard,SUN STAFF

Like private and parochial schools across the country, Jewish schools in the Baltimore area are having a growth spurt, and it might be just the beginning.

Unlike parochial schools, which are often the beneficiaries of the public's disillusionment with public education and a renewed interest in values, the Jewish growth reflects another trend -- the return of many Jews to their roots.

"The values, the traditions and the sense of identity -- that's why people are choosing Jewish day schools," said Marlene Daniel, whose son Justin, 16, recently transferred from Gilman School to Beth Tfiloh Community School because of his burgeoning interest in Judaism.

"In order to pass values on, we have to have schools that support our values."

Although Jews tried to blend into American culture about 40 years ago, "it has become more acceptable to be different," said Zipora Schorr, director of education at Beth Tfiloh Community School, which has 933 students in preschool to 12th grade. "The whole resuscitation of multiculturalism has been to our benefit -- let us find the beauty and the meaning in our traditions."

She added that Jewish parents, many of whom were not educated in Jewish schools, are concerned that they are not well-grounded in their heritage and are unable to pass on traditions and beliefs and ensure the continuation of Judaism.

In the Baltimore area, about 5,500 students attend nine Jewish day schools -- a designation that separates these comprehensive schools, with a mix of general courses and Judaic studies, from congregational schools operated by synagogues after school and on weekends to teach Hebrew and other tenets of Judaism.

These numbers represent about a 60 percent increase since 1990-1991, when 3,400 students attended Jewish day schools in the area, said Chaim Botwinick, executive vice president of the Center for Jewish Education.

"There is tremendous, tremendous growth," he said, adding that two schools -- P'tach, for children with learning disabilities, and Baltimore Hebrew School -- have opened since then.

Botwinick said the growth in Jewish day schools is only beginning, with 6 percent to 10 percent annual increases expected over the next decade. "What's happening in Baltimore is a mirror of what's happening around the country," he said.

In 1962, 60,000 students were enrolled in Jewish day schools nationwide. Last year, enrollment reached 200,000.

With growth comes growing pains.

Many schools are full and forced to turn away students. Buildings are stretched, as are budgets. Despite tuitions as high as $7,000 a year, the fees "do not begin to meet the costs" of operating the schools, Botwinick said.

In the Jewish community, opinions differ about how to fund the schools, said Jay Bernstein, a founder of the Advocates for Leadership in Education Funding, which supports state aid to parochial schools. Other segments of the community oppose government aid.

These challenges are not unique to Jewish schools. Catholic school enrollments have climbed consistently, and conservative Christian schools are second only to Catholic schools, making up about 20 percent of private schools nationwide. Though many fewer, Jewish, Lutheran, Episcopal and other denominations are adding to the growing private school picture.

At the beginning of this school year, 554 schools affiliated with established churches were registered with Maryland -- up from 386 in 1990. This growth parallels that in other types of nonpublic schools approved by the state, which numbered 575 last month vs. 333 in September 1990.

'Growth industry'

"That's a huge amount of growth. It's the growth industry of Maryland," said Virginia Cieslicki, chief of the nonpublic schools approval branch of the Maryland State Department of Education. "We get calls every day from people who want to start nonpublic schools for various reasons."

These schools are riding a population boom, a renewed interest in values-oriented education and increasing dissatisfaction with public schools.

Unlike Catholic schools, which enroll many non-Catholic students -- 23 percent across the Archdiocese of Baltimore -- Jewish schools have almost exclusively Jewish students, though they come from varying Jewish ideologies.

Orthodox Jews have traditionally maintained schools and sent their children to them. Families from the Conservative and Reform branches are fueling the enrollment increases, school officials say.

Baltimore County resident Deborah Baer said she and her husband did not intend to send their daughters to Jewish day school, but made the choice because "it was the best [education] that we could get. We felt very comfortable, even though our children were not coming from an Orthodox background."

Baer's elder daughter, Alisa, graduated in June from Beth Tfiloh and her younger daughter is in ninth grade there. Since the family's affiliation with the school, the Baers have become active in the Orthodox congregation that sponsors the school.

'Believe in the unity'

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