Non-Jews filling out ranks of struggling Jewish schools

During a High Holy Days discussion about repentance in Sarah Greenblatt’s Jewish values class, not all the students are listening. One girl stares out the window at the azure sky. Another sits in the back doodling.

But a boy in the front row wearing a creased black skullcap sits transfixed, notebook open, pencil poised.

Why, Greenblatt asks her fifth-grade class, is reflection and repentance so important around Rosh Hashanah? The boy’s hand shoots up. “The Torah, and also the Bible, tells us how to live right, how to get right and how to stay right,” he says.

This might be a typical scene in any Jewish day school, except for one thing: The boy isn’t Jewish.

Seth Pope is one of 58 non-Jewish students at the Lippman School, the only Jewish day school in Akron, Ohio.

Four years ago, the school — then known as the Jerome Lippman Jewish Community Day School — was struggling. Enrollment had tumbled to 63 students, and it was unclear whether the school could survive.

Like a number of day schools in Jewish communities with dwindling populations, Lippman for years had been accepting a few non-Jewish students, but without any modifications to the Jewish-focused curriculum.

Seth Pope is a fifth-grader at the Lippman School in Akron, Ohio, which began admitting non-Jewish students in response to declining enrollment. photo/jta-uriel heilman

With the 46-year-old school at a crisis point, however, board members decided some fundamental changes were necessary. They changed the school’s name, began marketing to non-Jews, and created a dual-track curriculum that offered a choice between Judaic studies and global studies.

The school quickly saw positive returns. Enrollment climbed, and not just among non-Jews. This year, the school has 101 students; 43 are Jewish.

“The fear was Jewish families would not want to participate,” says Sam Chestnut, head of the school. “In fact, we’ve seen the opposite.”

Lippman is one of a growing number of Jewish day schools that accept students from non-Jewish families. In many cases, their presence is relatively small, at 5 or 10 percent, but at some schools non-Jews comprise 50 percent or more of students.

For struggling schools, the issue often is survival. Non-Jewish students can be a lifeline, bringing in much-needed cash and helping schools with shrinking enrollment to achieve critical mass. In other cases, schools accept non-Jews as a matter of principle.

“The move toward more schools opening up in this way has been driven by the pragmatics of declining Jewish demographics in certain cities,” says Marc Kramer, executive director of Ravsak, a networking organization for 130 Jewish community day schools.

Tehiyah Day School in El Cerrito has had non-Jewish students since its founding in 1979. Bathea James, the head of school, says the diversity of the 250-strong student body — about 5 percent of whom are not Jewish — reflects the school’s values. All students study the same curriculum.

“I don’t believe you should take non-Jewish students purely for financial reasons,” James says. “If you believe it enhances the community of your school somehow, then I think you should do it. If we can expose the beauty of Judaism to more people in the community, why wouldn’t we?”

Most non-Orthodox Jewish day schools in the Bay Area admit non-Jewish students. Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto instituted a policy several years ago of actively recruiting them.

Lillian Howard, former head of school, told J. last year the policy had nothing to do with boosting the school’s financial bottom line. The diversity non-Jewish students bring to the campus makes Kehillah a better institution, she said, noting a 14 percent growth in enrollment over the last few years.

In New Orleans, however, the local Jewish day school’s decision four years ago to market to non-Jews had the opposite result: The number of Jewish students plunged to 15 from about 50. Only 29 students overall remain.

“There are going to be some hard decisions that the board is going to have to make,” says Deb Marsh, director of admissions at the school, which a year ago changed its name from the New Orleans Jewish Day School to Community Day School. “Is the Jewish day school a viable long-term school?”

The success of opening a school to non-Jewish enrollment often hinges on proportion. A small percentage of non-Jewish students can help stabilize a struggling school. But if a certain threshold is passed, the non-Jewish presence can alter a school’s culture.

“At what point does a notable presence of gentile children dissuade Jewish families from sending their kids there?” Kramer asks. “Some families enroll their children in Jewish day schools because they want their environment to be defined by Jewish classrooms, Jewish values, Jewish conversations on the playground.”

In most cases, non-Jews find their way to the Jewish schools through word of mouth, or because their friends go there, the school’s academics are strong or area public schools are weak. Some see the Jewish environment as a way to give their kids a strong ethical background.

And while Chestnut, Lippman’s head of school, concedes open enrollment is not right for every school, he says in Akron’s diminutive Jewish community it was not a difficult call.

“The first question is: Is it better to have no school at all, or a school that offers a Jewish curriculum during the day and yet has non-Jews?” he asks. “For our school it was an easy one.”

J. staff contributed to this report.