Yavneh: Is it time to go?

With the Jewish education crisis looming larger than ever, (although some might say it loomed just as large 20 years ago and that this is nothing new), many individuals have been heard to ask the question “Do we really need 9 Jewish days schools in Melbourne?” and “If two or more of the schools were to merge, wouldn’t this free up more funds and resources for all schools?”

Let us consider for a moment the possibility of a merge.

It seems that one of the reasons it’s difficult for a merging to take place between any of the day schools is that there is a distinct difference in ideology within each school. For example, Beth Rivkah Ladies College, being both a Lubavitch and girl’s school, would be ideologically at odds to merge with the King David School, a coeducational Progressive Jewish day school.

However, Mt Scopus and Yavneh are ideologically similar and therefore if a merger had to take place, these two might be the ideal candidates.

Both schools identify as coeducational, modern orthodox Jewish day schools. Yavneh’s website calls itself “Zionist” and Mt Scopus’ website asserts its belief in the “centrality of Israel” as integral.

It’s probably important to note that the Yavneh and Scopus communities are socially and culturally similar too. Many families whose children attend the schools might be found sitting next to one another in the Mizrachi Synagogue or the Gandel Besen Congregation. On the other hand it would be a rare occurrence to observe a Bialik student in attendance at the Yeshiva Synagogue.

Are having two ideologically similar schools a case of “doubling up”? Could it be that merging the schools would mean that government and community funding could be directed towards 8 schools instead of 9?

Certainly Yavneh appears to be a less viable school, serving a much smaller 700 students, offering fewer subjects, fewer electives, fewer resources and facilities, and fewer interschool and tertiary programs.

It would seem that Yavneh students and families might benefit from a merge with Mt Scopus in that they might have access to more subjects, more electives, more resources and facilities and more interschool and tertiary programs.

The flip side of this would be that Mt Scopus, would stand to benefit from an injection of more orthodoxy. While Yavneh parents may be scared that the religious environment of their kids might be diluted, the flip side is that Scopus would be injected with a vibrant religious student base that could influence Scopus and the community in many unforseen positive ways.

However, in reality there is an additional consideration which may act as an obstacle to such a merger. As with most private schools, both Yavneh and Scopus are funded by individuals as well as by government. And although the contributions of private individuals can never ever be praised highly enough, it is these key individuals who would have to be the driving force behind any such merger. They would need to see a merger as the best outcome for both the community and the students.

Perhaps those with access to some facts and figures on enrolment and on funding, as well as those who work within the Jewish day school system, might be willing to offer their professional opinion on the viability of a Yavneh-Scopus merger.

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48 Responses to “Yavneh: Is it time to go?”

  1. TheSadducee says:

    Well, to use the words of one our more illustrious brothers:
    “The parochialism is startling.”

    Is this site aiming towards Australian Jews from Melbourne or one attempting to discuss issues which are relevant to Australian Jews that include those of us who live beyond that city?

    Your discussing your concerns with NINE Jewish day schools – in the ACT (Canberra) we have NONE.

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  2. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Malki. It’s a really interesting post. I would have thought the general population of Scopus was a fair bit more secular than Yavneh.

    Sadducee. I don’t think it’s an issue of parochialism at all. Unlike Sydney, Melbourne doesn’t have a centralised communal fund, so a lot of parents who want their kids to go to a Jewish dayschool are being squeezed by inefficiencies in the system as well as by the GFC.

    It’s possible to argue – though I wouldn’t stand tough on this one – that Melbourne is the Jewish cultural capital of Australia and if there is a crisis in sustaining Melbourne’s Jewish institutions, that has serious implications for the rest of Australian Jewry.

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  3. Baum says:

    There are a number of reasons that the Yavneh-Scopus idea does (in theory” make sense.

    Don’t forget however, that a major reason many parents choose Yavneh is because they like the concept of a small, “family style” school. They may not want their children lost in the vastness of Scopus!

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  4. And there we all were thinking the blog might get a little less controversial or hard-hitting with the recruitment of some new writing talent from the rapidly expanding centre …

    This one will make great Shabbat table discussion (especially at Mizrachi).

    Most of the people involved in starting Yavneh are no longer among us; my understanding is that Mizrachi wanted something more Orthodox and Zionist than Scopus. However, it’s fair to say that Scopus has taken a shift toward Orthodoxy.

    While some talk of broad merging of school infrastructure, Malki’s approach is micro, focussing on the two schools that are a closest fit, and where a merger of sorts would make the most sense. Scopus has seen a drop off in student numbers in recent years, probably going to Bialik and public schools.

    Mergers succeed or fail on culture, not economics (and most of them fail). On that basis, any Melbourne Jewish school merger is going to really struggle.

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  5. rozumim says:

    Even the Rudd people think it is O.K. to be diverse, as the BER funding shows. Though some think Deputy Prime Minister [Ms.]Gillard – [shock, horror]a woman, AND a shikse [should / not go to Israel] the BER money is still gladly snatched, hein? Non – denominational education institutions[a.k.a. schools] of varying means and styles are by definition not only confined to those of the Christian following. There again, it follows that fewer [not less] schools mean more MONEY for those who secretly know that they alone are the Real Chosen.

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  6. sensiblejew says:

    Malki, I’ve been thinking about your post over the last day.

    In my past incarnations, working with kids in the community, the biggest difference between those graduating from Yavneh and those from Scopus, was that there was a lot less resitance towards Jewish Studies and Hebrew from the Yavneh kids. There were, of course exceptions: the Yavneh kid who found Hebrew “uncool” and the odd Scopus kid that could actually have a conversation in Hebrew after 13 years of Hebrew lessons.

    But the general trend was pretty much that Scopus produced a cultural cringe of sorts that bordered on outright animosity towards formal Jewish education. And that was really absent from the Yavneh folk.

    So when you write about Scopus benefitting from an injection of a kind of Jewish intensity from Yavneh, that really does ring true on one level.

    But there’s a flip side to that too.

    Secularism is as much an identity as modern orthodoxy. I’d wager that the Scopus animosity to all things formally Jewish comes from a combination of poor teaaching, but also – and maybe more importantly – a real disconnect from what is being promulgated at school and how the kids and their families actually live at home.

    When these kids listen to their teachers moralise about various religious observances, I think they feel a bit shamed, because neither they nor their families actually live like that. That shame then transforms into rebellion and animosity. Maybe the problem is that the values of the Scopus population are just not being reflected in the syllabus.

    If that’s the case, then trying to inject even more religiosity into the school via a merger with Yavneh is might indeed dilute the Yavneh kids committemnt to modern orthodoxy, simply because in terms of teachers and students, Scopus’s numbers are just so much greater.

    Perhaps the more natural merger would be Scopus and Bialik. Apart from the ideologies the two schools profess, there’s not all that much difference. The students bodies are also very similar.

    The best case scenario might be the idea (Johnny Baker’s?) of shared facillities and admin, but maintaining individual schools’ identities. A school like Yavneh produces a really unique kind of graduate: modern with a real passion for MO Judaism. I don’t know of any other school in Vic that does that.

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  7. frochel says:

    We know that this is unlikely to happen because amongst other things, there is already a saturation of Jewish day schools in Melbourne, but we are aware that in Israel and the US, there are now a number of pluralistic Jewish day schools. In these schools, not only do the students range from secular to religious and come from a variety of religious streams, but the curriculum encourages this diversity.

    If we could start from scratch, we think this would be a really interesting model to introduce in Melbourne, and would also obviate the need for a school for every denomination.

    See http://www.brandeis.edu/mandel/pdfs/Pluralism_Working_Paper_Community_Shevitz_Wasserfall_Oct_06.pdf

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  8. Malki says:

    SJ,
    I am not sure if this is still the case, although I agree with you that it once was.
    As David Werdiger mentioned, Scopus has taken a shift towards orthodoxy in recent times, and the “cringe” you speak of doesnt really exist at Mt Scopus anymore. That “cringe” seems to have moved on to Bialik, which seems to be more similar to the old Scopus. For about 15 years now, some parents have been moving their kids out of Scopus and into Bialik, as they felt Scopus was now “too religious”. The Jewish education programs at Scopus are now many, varied and far more impressive than those of Yavneh’s. It would seem that Scopus is serving up a far better Jewish education and without the cultural cringe of yesteryear.

    Structurally, Yavneh does seem to be redundant. I have also heard many ex-Yavneh parents refer to the school as being “Top heavy”, (i.e being overstaffed) hence its constant need to “appeal” for funds.

    There is the point that Baum made, that some parents like the idea of sending their kids to a ’small’ school with a more ‘family style’ environment. But is this reason strong enough to retain Yavneh’s viability?

    I agree with David that there is also the cultural viability to consider not merely the economic viability. (although the economic viability is of primary concern in the face of the current crisis.)
    Schools like Beth Rivkah, for example, are also relatively small, however they serve a different ideological purpose than Yavneh, one which is not catered for elsewhere in Victoria, so culturally Beth Rivkah is definitely pertinent. Perhaps Yavneh was once pertinent when Scopus was not at the standard it is now, but is it still relevant today?

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  9. JL says:

    Having had kids at BRLC,Yavneh,Yeshiva and Scopus…..I speak with a little experience when I say Yavneh is an orthodox school yes… but teaches our religion/culture as a subject and not as a way of life, a serious failing, I believe, for an orthodox school.

    Yeshivah and Yavneh neither cope with nor have positive outcomes from kids who do not fit the norm. They do not have the facilities, as is to be expected from a small family type school. Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Scopus on the other hand, has far more facilities and facilitators to deal with kids who would suffer in the blinkered worlds of Yeshiva, BRLC and Yavneh…not in the religious sense, but in their limited educational styles. However, Scopus only pretends to deal with the religious side of things. Yes, Rabbi Kennard is somewhere on the long road to changing all this if he can possibly do it without upsetting his board and before they realize what he hopes to do for the (good) of the school.

    Thus each school has something to offer and yet how to merge them. I think Malki’s idea of joining Scopus with Yavneh,is still the best one, but also perhaps Heather Abramson’s(AJN Last week or so) of joining Bialik, Yavneh, Scopus and King David till Year 8 is worth a discussion.

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  10. mark says:

    An interesting topic. I was discussing this post with a number of people yesterday. I supported the merger for all the reasons you have outlined above, they didn’t. They supported a co-operation arrangement where different schools could share their facilities whether they be in the sport or artistic arena.

    The next question was…if for example Scopus offers a subject that Yavneh doesn’t then under a co-op arrangement one would assume the Yavneh student should be able to attend Scopus to do that subject. In reality it would be logistically impossible for the student to go from Caulfield to Burwood to undertake that subject and be back for their next subject at Yavneh.

    Should a new super facility at Bialik be used by students from another Jewish school…why not. Would the amalgamation of admin costs, one principal, less support staff where one can take advantage of economies of scale without reducing the quality of the education. Would that lower the cost of a Jewish education which would in turn allow more Jews to attend Jewish Schools who can’t currently afford it in the event of a merger? You would assume so.

    An great topic and congrats for bringing it up.

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  11. r says:

    an interesting idea, but something that only scratches at the very surface of a serious class issues within the australian jewish communities that are rarely, if ever, discussed.

    that is, within the socialised model of jewish identity that is actively cultivated and propagated (as in, the primacy of my jewish identity is that the people that i grew up with / went to school with / live with / marry / am facebook friends with / live in proximity to me / etc / all identify with the same ethnicity as i am) there is a significant, and unnecessary, cost hurdle to be met.

    the cumulative cost of sending children (and working on the assumption of more than a single child) to private jewish education from k – 12 amounts, at a very rough estimate, to a small mortgage. not forgetting that co-location within a specific geographic location (caulfield, for example) attracts its own price premium – and suddenly the perceived basics of what constitutes “membership” of the organised jewish communities becomes onerous.

    certainly, it is easy to retort that for those families that can’t afford the private education system there are always subsidies – but it misses the point that a subsidy system simply gives the high cost system a charitable face. it does nothing but reinforce a structure of socio-economic exclusivity.

    and perhaps, rather than asking “should school X be merged with school Y” the more critical question should be “why is private jewish education so important?” or perhaps, “why is our understanding of what it is to be (or “do”) jewish so entwined with the private schooling system?”

    and perhaps, if we started to seriously entertain ways of being / doing jewish that didn’t involve either geographic co-location and / or private schooling, we might start walking-the-walk of being inclusive communities.

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  12. Liss says:

    R, I think you make an excellent point, especially at the end of your comment. But do you have any ideas for how such a “way” of being Jewish (and educating Jewish children about Yiddishkeit) could be actualised? In theory it sounds great, but I just don’t think it’s possible for the Australian Jewish community in its current incarnation, unless we were to fundamentally change the way we live, work, educate our children…
    And that simply does not strike me as being remotely possible. Australian Jews are not that revolutionary, they are by-and-large complacent and conventional.

    Jewish (well, Ashkenazi) education outside the shtetl/Europe is comparatively new, at least in Australia. I think for some (only some, not all!) parents a Jewish school is an “easy” option – hand over your 15-20K each year and Yavneh/Scopus/whoever will take care of it all for you. It fits very nicely with our Western-post-Industrial-revolution-Jewish-heteronormative-working 9 to 5-family-community model. And it makes up for the gaps in your knowledge – if you don’t know what Tzom Gedalia is, someone else will teach your kids for you! I personally wouldn’t want my children’s Jewish education entrusted to me alone. (I have no kids, so this is of course speculative/hypothetical.) There are big gaps in my knowledge (and I reckon I know more than your average Melbourne Jewish school graduate). That deficiency is what would motivate me to hand over hundreds of thousands of dollars in private Jewish schools fees. (Again – I have no money, so this is of course speculative/hypothetical.)

    In lieu of the shtetl, the pale of settlement, the enforced isolation of Jewish communities – there’s the Jewish day school. (A simplistic analogy, I know.) Geographic co-location is (an often annoying) necessity of being Jewish. I really don’t know how easy it is to be enduringly Jewish without a community of “like-minded” people living close by. Some people can be Jewish in isolation, but most can’t.

    I’m not saying that it’s not possible to go to a non-Jewish school and emerge with a strong knowledge of Jewish practice, history, ritual and identity. I have many friends who did and who have. But most of them worked very hard for it. They were motivated by a desire to learn about their culture/religion, their parents strongly encouraged them, they went to Jewish youth movements and camps. Likewise (or is it conversely?), a lot of Jewish kids go to Jewish schools and come out feeling disillusioned and wanting to distance themselves from Judaism, both culturally and religiously.

    But mostly – at least from my experience with my contemporaries – Jewish kids who go to Jewish schools come out with a stronger connection to Judaism. By a “stronger connection”, I don’t meant that they’re necessarily more religious, or more likely to make aliyah, or more likely to marry other Jews and raise their children as Jews. (Although that may be the case.)
    It’s something more amorphous… A sense of pride and confidence in being Jewish, corny as that sounds. They might end up working in public health in rural Australia, or as a Rabbi in Shanghai, or campaigning for same-sex marriage in California (or Canberra); but they’re happy being Jewish. It informs their identities and lives in some profound and positive way.

    I suppose that that’s why I’m ultimately an advocate of the Jewish day school system (if a fraught one, with lots of uhmming and ahhing and it-really-needs-changing on the side).
    From what I’ve heard, raising kids is a crapshoot, but if you want them to end up “Jewish” (however you define it) in galus, a Jewish school probably provides a greater chance of success.
    I think.

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  13. r,

    You make some interesting points in challenging the status quo regarding Jewish education in Melbourne. Is your objection on the basis that it puts people into classes, or because it puts a huge cost on the community?

    What makes Melbourne unique is its high proportion of Holocaust survivors, who (a) came here with a strong desire to establish Jewish continuity, and (b) were not far removed from Orthodox Jewish life in Eastern Europe. Contrast this with Jewish communities in the US, and that might give us a sense of where we might be headed in another 3-4 generations.

    What were the ingredients that held Jewish communities together in the past? The source for geographic proximity in Jewish communities was typically Shabbat. And Jewish education had such a high value in society that parents would put payment of teachers above all.

    Trying to find ways to “do Jewish” that dispense with what many consider to be core Jewish values may be a recipe for greater inclusion, but will also ultimately lead to dilution of Jewish identity.

    That said, I’m not confident that our current Jewish day school system will deliver the outcomes we need to ensure continuity. As a system, they certainly don’t deliver value for the huge investment that has been made, and some have morphed into schools for Jews rather than Jewish schools. This may be exactly the class issue you are referring to. I wonder sometimes: if we wiped the slate and could invest the same amount we have already spent on Jewish education on an entirely new system, what we might do instead.

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  14. Malki says:

    R, I would like to comment on your questions “why is private Jewish education so important?” or perhaps, “why is our understanding of what it is to be (or “do”) Jewish so entwined with the private schooling system?”

    I would firstly like to most strongly concur with David W on the points he raised, looking at how we came to be here and what holds us together as a community and as a people. Furthermore I would urge you to look at Judaism not as a mere hobby, as something to “do”. It most certainly is a “be”. Any less than this will and has resulted in the diluting of Judaism.

    Why do we need private Jewish day schools?

    Firstly, because there is no logistical way that a thorough Jewish education can be dispensed via the public system. And this needs little elaboration.

    Some public schools have attempted to run “religious programs” for certain denominations but they consist of extremely small windows of opportunity delivered over a period of a weekly session.

    On the whole, public schools do not engage in religious education. So R, I must ask you, if the slate was wiped clean, where would the Jewish education come from? Assumably you don’t believe it would be derived from the home? As even within ultra orthodox homes, parents lack the information and training to be able to sufficiently equip their children with a strong understanding of Jewish History, Texts and Halachic concepts. (Home schooling of any subject is quite a difficult ask.)

    Given the above, I believe it is clear why Jewish education is so very important.

    Frochel, there does exist a Jewish day school which identifies as Pluralistic. The King David School. However it is extremely difficult for a school to exist where ultra orthodox and non-religious can attend in the same environment and both be satisfied with the curriculum as delivering content which is either “sufficiently Jewish” or “not Jewish enough”.

    As I mentioned in my earlier post, for the past 15 years parents have been removing children from Scopus as they felt it was becoming “too religious”. Rather than seeing this as a welcome change.

    I believe that issues of class and pluralism exist because of those who see themselves as ‘better’ or ‘different’. It is a somewhat self-inflicted state.

    Ironically my own experience with Beth Rivkah, the place most would assume to be the most “blinkered” or “insular”, was one of an extremely pluralistic and varied student and teacher body. What is encouraging about BRLC’s ideology and practices is that (even while offering a strong Jewish and secular education, comparable or in fact better than many other schools) there is NO class division and no distinction is made between religious and irreligious, rich or poor. It always surprises me that people refer to BRLC as being “blinkered” or “insular”, when it is the most welcoming and the most all encompassing of the Jewish Schools in Melbourne.

    It is a shame when Jews start referring to their own institutions, which aim to prolong the life of our people, as “too religious”.

    As if we didn’t have enough fans already.

    Mark,
    I agree that the idea of pooling resources, such as proposed shared facilities would be ideal, except of course for the minor issue of logistics and timing. I also agree that this is something which would be well worth further discussion and investigation as it would certainly be a wonderful way to share the government funding more efficiently, create a better sense of unity and friendship in the Jewish Community and encourage all children and families to embrace all walks of ‘Jewish life’.

    I recall that BRLC used to make use of the Mt Scopus pool for swimming sports. I am unsure of the system now, but I believe this is no longer the case and that BRLC now has to pay to hire a pool in Sandringham. (If anyone has more up to date info regarding this issue, please feel free to post or email malkirose@yahoo.com).

    Surely not every single Jewish school needs to spend their funding on their own state-of-the-art Pool, but rather gestures of ’sharing’ can be made.

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  15. Frochel says:

    Hi Malki,

    The question of whether someone can receive a Jewish education without going to a Jewish day school depends on what you mean by Jewish education. Whilst it’s true that no one is going to learn how to study Talmud at UJEB, we believe that education at home, synagogue, and Jewish cultural institutions are perfectly sufficient for providing foundations for the development of Jewish identity. To the best of our knowledge there is no evidence that people who go to Jewish day school in Australia end up any more ‘Jewish’ than those who don’t. In depth education in Jewish texts (which most Jewish day schools in Melbourne don’t offer by the way) can come after high school.

    Jewish day school education is not a realistic option for many in the community because of the prohibitive price and the fact that there are people who are justifiably unwilling to accept subsidies. For that reason alone, it is absolutely imperative to find options outside the Jewish day school system.

    Even though there are a number of Jewish day schools in Melbourne (possibly too many!), between them they still don’t cater to everyone. King David School might call itself pluralistic but I’d be surprised if they offer an Orthodox prayer option (or a no prayer option for that matter). The students and teachers at Beth Rivka may be diverse but the curriculum is clearly based on Chabad ethos.

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  16. Zara Cooper says:

    It just so happens that in our community, if you want your children to have a Jewish education, you are left with no other option but to send them to private school. Unfortunately, many families are unable to afford this, especially when they want to build families that are larger than one or two children. For this reason, a huge number of Jewish children attend non-jewish schools and therefore miss out on being educated in our customs and heritage. With the global financial crisis and private schools getting more and more expensive, I believe that this will eventually lead to a severe reduction in the number of observant Jews in our community. Something needs to be done about this whether it comes in the form of your suggested ‘merger’, or whether it comes in the form of community contribution etc.

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  17. JL says:

    Frochel, I beg to differ. I attended public schools and received approx 40 minutes of Jewish education per week for about 12 years. All I remember from this experience is the name of 3 of the teachers (good memory) and the Shema that one of them taught us in primary school. In terms of home education, if your parents aren’t able to give one…well you too can become a gourmet Jew, eating gefilte fish and matzo (with Vegemite, I may add…not kosher for Pesach!!) on Pesach and knowing not much else.

    I was one of the lucky few who had a chance, post high school, to discover my roots and now have a kosher home etc

    I do not believe that the current system of UJEB provides any where near enough to provide any sort of Jewish “Education”. It serves merely as a reminder to those kids that they are Jewish (and who else is in their class)and have some point from which to question further should they have inquiring minds.

    You may not see the need for Tanach, Torah and Texts, but the education provided by schools such as BRLC , Yeshiva, Yavneh and even Scopus definitely provide a much wider spring board when our kids grow up and make their own informed decisions about their future religious standing.

    Sorry, solutions I dont have!!

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  18. Baum says:

    I agree with JL.
    Having had the experience of teaching UJEB and knowing a few other UJEB teachers i know first hand how little preparation and content goes into UJEB classes. Colleagues of mine would get their students to colour in pictures of a Shofar for Rosh Hashana and do a word find to familiarise students with Jewish terminology. Just enough so that if they overheard the word “sukkah” they wouldn’t have to say “what’s that?”

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  19. Malki says:

    Zara, I agree with SJ, what a wonderful point you’ve raised. I hadnt even thought of it, but surely young couples must now be thinking long and hard about how many kids they can afford to educate in the Jewish School system.

    I suppose they’d be left with two thought process
    either
    1. Have fewer kids and educate them at Jewish Schools
    or
    2. Have more kids and send them to Public schools.

    Neither is a particularly great outcome for Jewish continuity. Although some might argue that point 1 is better than point 2 and vice versa.

    And Frochel, the point you make is precisely the concern of thousands of parents in the community. It is simply no longer financially viable for many to send their children to Jewish Day schools. But I don’t believe we need to resort to giving up on Jewish education as a result.
    To say that a public school, plus a little extra curricular help is “sufficient” to provide a student with a strong understanding of their heritage and their culture is simply INsufficient.

    Jewish education simply cannot be viewed as a part time hobby or a luxury only available to those with means.

    Jewish education is not a wide screen plasma TV, it is not a trip to Bali, it is not a Facebook status and it is not a manicure. It goes to the very core of who we are.

    How people choose to express their Judaism is of course a very personal thing ladled with interpretation and choices. But shouldnt every child at least be given access to all the information available so that they can have a healthy foundation upon which to base their interpretations and choices ?

    What we DO need to do, is look at ways of BETTER structuring the Jewish Day School system so that it CAN be viable for ANYONE who wants a proper Jewish education.

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  20. r says:

    i’d like to respond to a number of comments.

    while the commitment to revolution within the australian jewish communities might be questionable, the strong impetus that both class and cost provides will be the source of a great deal of ingenuity.

    while i don’t necessarily have a suggestion for ‘if not private schooling then X’, i’d like to suggest that discussing the institution of private education serves (amongst other things) to blinker our discussion. because it should be obvious that not every person in australia who identifies and practices jewish (in whatever meaning that might take) has been through / to a private jewish day school.

    and liss, with the exception of perth (i believe) the great push for the establishment of private jewish day schooling system came from the european migration immediately pre and post wwII. previously, the largely anglo dominated community was satisfied with a sunday-school model of jewish youth education. and it’s hardly coincidental that you mention the shtetl, because private jewish education was set up in australia along the lines of the european shtetl model.

    and again, its not remarkable to assert that there were multitudes of jewish identities and people who were educated outside of the european shtetl. my apologies to my shephardi cousins who have certainly been marginalised by all this discussion of the european shtetl – and whom, i suspect, have a very different experience and history of communal education (though this is beyond my own experiences.)

    what i want to suggest, beyond the poor investment value that private schooling represents for the perpetuation of jewish identity* (but high value for perpetuating class identity), is that rethinking the role of private jewish schooling requires rethinking what we mean by jewish.

    which brings me to challenge the logic (politely) in these discussions that somehow jewish schooling = more authentic / stronger connection / more thorough jewish education, and by extension that no jewish schooling = less authentic / more dilute / less thorough jewish education.

    this assertion is firmly grounded within a circular argument – because only if we assume that attending a jewish school is necessary for a ‘rigorous’ jewish identity, then do we understand those who don’t attend as having a less ‘rigorous’ jewish identity.

    because jewishness(es) and jewish identities are rich, varied and complex. and just as we should not confuse ‘membership’ of the formalised jewish community as equivalent to having a jewish identity, so to do we need to challenge how we think about being jewish.

    we all conceptualise, practice and actualise our own jewishness(es) and non-jewishness(es) differently. for some, this is bound with service of god and performance of commandments; for some, this is bound with support of israel; for some, this is bound to the memory of the holocaust; for some, this is bound with family and food; for some, this is bound to our genders and class; and for some, its not bound with anything at all (and of course, we can always be bound in multiple ways)

    i’m not advocating the destruction of the private jewish day school system** but rather that we call it for what it is – not the sacred carrier and protector of jewish identity – but rather a system for class-mobility (a proven outcome, i would suggest, that no one would argue against.)

    if you can imagine a hypothetical scenario where every student enrolled in a private jewish day school was guaranteed to fail VCE (or whatever the state equivalent is), i wonder how many would passionately back the private jewish day school system as an important factor for jewish identity (none? very few?)

    but the consequences of investing so much in the assertion and practice that private jewish schooling = better / more / jewish identity, leads us to a position where participation in jewish communities and jewish identity itself becomes cost prohibitive, exclusive, and more importantly sells the rich (excuse the pun) history, culture, breadth and vitality of jewish identity very, very short.

    - r.

    * i can’t locate any empirical research at the moment which qualifies this statement at the present, but if i recall correctly, there are a number of research papers which argue that (i) the home environment and (ii) youth movements have more significant influences on jewish identity than that of formal jewish schooling.

    ** as an aside, there is certainly an achievable solution to the high-cost nature of private jewish schooling without any structural reform required whatsoever (not a solution i’d champion.) i would suggest that a simple diversion of all donations and funding intended for israel (for, lets say, five years) be channelled into a communal (or national) fund which could then directly subsidise every student place at a private jewish school. kind of like a medicare for jewish education – to ensure that students can access private jewish schooling as a right and not as a function of class privilege. because clearly the issue in australia is not of availability of philanthropic funding, but rather of priorities.

    and david, not to poop on the romanticism of the figure of the jewish teacher – but the historic position (both paid and otherwise) of the jewish teacher in the shtetl suggests how little those who teach within the jewish school system are actually valued. our present day system, both within the wider public system and the private system, is no different and its not coincidental that pay increases and striking goes together in the education system.

    finally, sensiblejew, the idea that ethnic continuity is valuable in and of itself is something that i will strongly disagree with. jewish identity and practice is not a numbers games and should never (in my humble opinion) be used as the yardstick of value of what is worthwhile and not worthwhile. its akin to arguing that if a shule has more than X members then its obviously a successful shule – without ever asking if any of the members ever utilise the shule. the question is, for me, is being jewish an issue of quantity or quality? of course, you could always argue that one can never divorce the two – but i will strongly disagree (though in another post.)

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  21. SueDoeNim says:

    I have been following this E-discussion with a mixture of wonder and tremendous sadness.

    Do you know what happens to most Yavneh kids when they transfer to Scopus?
    Ever thrown an icecube into boiling water?
    Yeah, that’s how fast their spirituality usually disappears.

    Yavneh is a school which, for a certain kind of kid, is the only school they would consider.
    (Yes, granted, there are a sizable number at Yavneh who come from families which do not live by the school’s ideology. For them it might be torture being at Yavneh. One wonders why their parents put their children into such a situation. But I’m not going there.)
    The argument that Yavneh is redundant because it is “ideologically similar” to Scopus is,
    to put it bluntly, like saying that Finland, Israel and Greece must be identical, because the flags they wave are composed of the same colours.
    That’s just it – the flags might be the same, but take a long hard look at the Yavneh families, and the core values with which they emerge and you’ll realise there’s more to a school than its flag, or a cute one-liner from its website.

    At Yavneh (and I know – I studied there during primary school), during the Batmi/Barmi years, not one function started before shabbat ended, and they were all catered kosher, so everyone could eat and enjoy themselves.
    At Scopus (and I know – been there too), during the Batmi/Barmi years, it’s not uncommon for functions to serve SHELLFISH (not even having “kosher” as a tick-able option on the invitation.) And the more Observant kids had a real test when the Barmi function of a classmate was held on Tisha B’Av.
    If you were part of a shomer-shabbat, shomer-kashrut family, would you serious want to subject your kid to a faith challenge like that? What about the Maccas birthday parties held on shabbat? Does the observant kid walk there and just have a Coke? Is it good enough that your kid comes out of the school and not only has no clue what Tzom Gedalia is, but has little concept of 95% of the Tanach, Talmud and Jewish values?

    No. Yavneh serves a very important group in our community. Anecdotal evidence suggests they need to beef up their Jewish studies (curriculum AND teachers) and self-pride. But in terms of producing literate, proud Jews, they are graduating a very different class of young adult.

    If the global financial crisis is stretching community funds, mergers are not necessarily the answer. (If they were, however, merging Scopus, Bialik and King David makes much more sense. They could each have their own Judaism stream, each with its unique degree of dilution!)
    Perhaps the answer is more clever fundraising and fund-spending. Whilst Jews aren’t all loaded, there are some with serious money, and of those only a small percentage are making serious contributions to Jewish education. Being seriously generous is not the cultural norm. Yet. As for the spending of available money, there must be ways of rationalising how it is all spent. No idea. I’m not in schools ATM.)

    A bigger issue than the cost of education is the cost of NOT educating. And here I refer to parents. Schools can only support – not replace – what is valued at home. Whilst these issues are really complex, sometimes, when kids hate graduate as self-hating / non-committed / ready-to-assimilate Jews, it’s more about what the parents, rather than the school failed to stand for.

    SDN

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  22. frochel says:

    Some people cannot afford to send even one child to a private school.

    And even if one of the schools in Melbourne was shut down, merged, or acquired, and a communal funding body helped to reduce school fees by 20%, there would still be Jews in Melbourne who couldn’t afford to send their children to Jewish day schools. Just as there are Jews in Sydney who can’t afford to send their children to the comparatively cheap Jewish day schools there.

    This is not a new problem. It has always existed.

    Not all Jews are religious (Orthodox or otherwise), nor do all Jews aspire to be religious, but even within the Orthodox religious paradigm there are those who believe that education need not be central to Jewish identity or practice. To Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (to take a particularly pertinent example) the tam (simple Jew) who is observant without being educated is not only sufficiently Jewish but is actually an ideal.

    I would have to agree with R, that this community cannot be inclusive if it maintains attendence at a Jewish day school as the only way of being Jewish.

    Finally, if some of the donation and funding money that goes toward running the Jewish schools was routed to programs for Jewish education in state schools, then this could dramatically improve the Jewish education opportunites for students in state schools. The fact is it would cost only a small fraction of the money that goes into subsidising Jewish schools to make a huge improvement in state school Jewish education programs.

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  23. JL says:

    by all means, do as frochel suggests in the state school system (in her last paragraph),it sounds like a great idea in theory!

    I cant imagine the state education system allowing more time out of their curriculum for “religious studies”. Nor can I imagine those same kids wanting to, or being pushed by their parents to stay at school late every afternoon, when the non jewish kids go home to relax, just so they can improve /maintain their jewish identity!

    Frochel is right however that many young couples cant and wont afford our current private school fees.

    Sorry still dont have a solution….but with all this blogging going on maybe some power that is, will come up with just the right amount of jewish education at some reasonable cost to all…the medicare type comparison sounds promising!

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  24. Anonymous says:

    Mount scopus and Yavneh may be similar in their theoretical ideology but in its practice they are very different. Yavneh offers a greater range of religious subjects and has a stronger emphasis and dedication to its orthodox ideology. If parents felt that their were greater opportunities at Mount Scopus, Yavneh would have become redundant by a lack of enrolments. The fact that Yavneh is now education 700 children, and has the need to turn potential students away due to space limits demonstrates Yavneh’s need and place in our community.

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  25. rozumim says:

    The schools are not ‘private’ schools. They are independent schools offering all people a choice. If the independent school students were to appear en masse on Day One of the New School Year at the threshholds of the Government Schools, then there would be discrimation the likes of which no-one has seen. Who presumes a merger of any two businesses satisfies all? A choice is not between one school or another; it is between one belief or another. Qui bono?

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  26. Pes E Mist says:

    I think at the end of the day, even if you could find two identical schools, the board, powers that be, etc would not want to lose their jobs, prestige and power. Anyone knowing how Y-BR works behind the scenes, for example, would probably agree.

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  27. Pes E Mist says:

    Hi Yvonne

    There is nothing that can remedy this situation at Y-BR – corruption, nepotism, hedonistic and unsympathetic people are well entrenched and cannot be changed or dislodged. (Told you I was pessemistic.)

    My only solution is for the primary school to teach kids how to be truly kind and caring. (Not sure if you can teach this or if it is genetic.) Then in 40 years things may change.

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  28. Pes-E-Mist,

    SJ isn’t your “agony aunt”, although be comfortable in the knowledge that you’re not the only one who has been prompted by the PR surrounging this blog to express negative sentiments about aspects of our community that may have been latent for a long time! :)

    Yes, Y-BR has some serious problems. I think a lot of the kids coming out of the school are indeed kind and considerate, but they aren’t the ones being invited to take a leadership role! Here is probably not the place to vent about such specific community issues (although frankly, venting on Aussie Echo or other such blogs hasn’t gotten anyone anywhere). I’d like to see more stakeholders discussing the issues, but this needs to be more than just a bitching session – to achieve anything it needs to be focussed on actions that can improve the place.

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  29. Pes E Mist says:

    Sorry Alex,

    I’v pobably said too much, but some honest ‘interviews’ with ex-students may demonstrate, as mentioned above, the misery some students have suffered at school at the behest of their parents, who had no choice where to send their kids. Some parents with money and family overseas opt to send their kids o/s at age 13 for eg. Good luck with Don Chip’s motto.

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  30. Pes E Mist says:

    I agree with David Werdiger, but I think even he has very little idea of the minute by minute goings on in the background at Y-BR and the deleterious (big word for bad) effects on the kids. David ask a primary school teacher whats really flying there. Ask about how the 30% of kids with behavioural problems in the school are helped (not) and how many will have long term problems which could have been picked up and addressed had anyone been half interested. As you said Alex is not my agony aunt and I will not be commenting any further. I can see that change is almost impossible at the schools.

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  31. Pes E Mist,

    I know more than enough about ths issues at Y-BR, and won’t comment any further in a public forum such as this. Feel free to contact me directly if you wish.

    My point is that discussion on a blog like this one is not going have any impact on school policies at Y-BR – discussions here about Jewish education are more likely to be at a macro level, and may not even be relevant to a niche school like Y-BR. SJ: if you think the communal leaders at the JCCV have their heads in the sand, you ain’t seen nothing yet!

    As a parent who would like to see positive change at Y-BR just as much as you, I think we need to find other ways to lobby for this and ensure our voices are heard in a way that facilitates change.

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  32. I (and many others) have banged my head against the wall with regard to leadership and governance structure within the broader Yeshivah community (by which I include most affiliated orgs).

    The biggest problem with the schools is that a majority of parents don’t have any alternatives where they can send their kids. Competitive pressures between schools like Scopus, Yavneh, KDS & Bialik help keep them all on their toes. This is almost non-existent when it comes to Y-BR (particularly Y).

    So I would say the better approach is bottom-up: parents talking to each other about issues, and escalating their complaints up. True, many parents have done this and also got nowhere. But it’s the only way I can think of.

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  33. Ron O says:

    Melbourne should have merged its Jewish schools onto one campus years ago. If we were a smart community, we could provide secular education together and religious education as each current school sees fit. It all becomes a matter of timetabling. The benefits of this would be enormous to the community but our school and community leaders are far to interested in their own positions and status to even consider this (although it has been suggested a number of times)

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  34. Ron & SJ,

    1. Sensible Practical or Realistic
    2. The schools have a good understanding of the economies of scale associated with their businesses, and quite a few are operating well in this respect. Super schools aren’t automatically better. That said, there is certainly scope for more sharing of infrastructure.

    As they are now, the schools have too much inertia, and as Ron says, there is plenty of self-interest holding back reform.

    Just like it took a cataclysmic event like the Six Day War to facilitate the shift in the Sydney community’s funding model to a communal appeal, it would need a similar event to cause any major structural reform to our school system.

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  35. There is definitely an element of not wanting to “treyf up” – a lot of the importance of a Jewish school relates to the ambiance, and the hashkafa of all the teachers, which is imbued to their students no matter what subject they teach.

    Bear in mind also that “treyf” is very relative.

    I liken Jewish observance to the ATP tennis rankings, which are a bit logarithmic: the higher up the rankings you go, the greater the differences between the ranks.

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  36. sensiblejew says:

    Malki, you’re spot on. My experiences with the kids I mentioned are between 10 and 15 years old. Things have certainly moved on since then. It’s a real surprise to hear the news that Scopus is outpacing Yavneh in the Jewish studies arena, in which case, Yavneh’s big selling point is also its biggest weakness: it’s small size.

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  37. sensiblejew says:

    R, that’s a really great comment! People have been mentioning inclusion vs exclusion and related issues on this site, and socio-economics have come into the debate a bit. Your questions are really original. Can a family that sends its kids to a state school be just as integrated in the community (via other institutions/activities) as families with kids at Jewish schools? I really hope others respond to your comment.

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  38. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Zara, and welcome!

    I particularly like your point about those who may wish to have more than one or two children. For the average couple, affording a Jewish dayschool education for even two children presents many difficulties. I wonder whether such expenses are factored into people’s decisions on family size.

    If they were, then the Jewish school issue becomes central to questions of Jewish demographics and continuity at a purely ethnic level. Observance levels may be a secondary concern if we are pricing ourselves out of our own market.

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  39. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Pes E Mist and welcome.

    Is there anythiing you would recommend to remedy this situation?

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  40. sensiblejew says:

    Hi Pes E Mist.

    Actually, I’m Alex, Yvonne’s daughter.

    There may need to be a cultural shift in the Jewish schools in general. I hope to write about the various problems I’ve seen Jewish kids suffer over the years. My strong feeling is that something is not right.

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  41. sensiblejew says:

    Hi David.

    Actually, this blog could be a bit of an agony aunt in some ways.

    There are all sorts of problems in the community that we are discouraged from discussing. Their hidden nature often generates shame and anger, which in turn leads either to self-destructive behaviours, or outright departure from the community.

    So I’ve always hoped this blog could act as a forum for people to express their concerns. Constructive solutions can only come if we know what the problems are in the first place. Please don’t discourage Pes E Mist or anyone else from expressing their misgivings.

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  42. sensiblejew says:

    Pes E Mist, I think interviews with current and former students of all the Jewish schools might be a very important idea.

    I’ve been wanting to write about self-destructive behaviours among Gen X/Y Jews for a while.

    The only problem is that my experiences with young people are about 10 years old, so there are probably quite a few developments I’ve missed out on.

    I’m going to email you and if you like, we can discuss your thoughts further.

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  43. sensiblejew says:

    Pes E Mist, please do not take David’s suggestion to heart. Your comments are a valuable element in the discussion of the role Jewish schools play. I have emailed you, btw.

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  44. sensiblejew says:

    David, broadly speaking, what might these other ways be?

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  45. sensiblejew says:

    David, thank you for that. I appreciate your candour.

    I think it’s extremely important that we encourage a degree of openness about the structures that might not be doing our kids justice.

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  46. sensiblejew says:

    Ron, your suggestion really does seem like the only sensible way to go. What do you think is holding up the rationalisation of our schools?

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  47. sensiblejew says:

    David, I am absolutely inexpert in the schools’ structures and business models.

    What you say makes sense as well, even if it is somewhat disheartening.

    Do you think, though, there is also an element of the more religious school communities not wanting to “treyf up” their kids by exposing them to the more secular students?

    Is it perhaps a case of eventually having two separate Jewish systems: one very religious, and the other less so?

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  48. sensiblejew says:

    David, I never thought about religiosity in logarithmic terms. It’s quite fascinating.

    I suspect secular parents might also be invested in maintaining a particular environment as well.

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