Today is the first day of school — and with that, my sixth year conducting Admissions comes to a close.
When we first started Lamplighters, admissions consisted of me trying to sell parents on a dream. Of course, we had many incredible elements in place, but mostly, we were peddling Vision — and either you felt it was possible and wanted to join in, or not.
I can remember every single conversation I had with those pioneering families of the beginning years. Their questions about curriculum, teachers, sustainability, leadership. What was really unique about this school? Which ‘type’ of student was the yeshivah primarily geared toward? How were we planning on funding it? Why was tuition so high?
I don’t know how I managed to convey to these inquisitive families that we were a viable option for their small children, especially when there were so many unknowns for me, too. I pushed hard — very hard, sometimes — and I felt like a salesman, through and through. But something clicked: they believed change was viable, too.
Over the years, things shifted. The school became stronger. Our educational leadership expanded. Our methodologies crystallized. Our impact — on our students and community at large — grew.
And with that, admissions changed, too.
Now, we have about four applicants for every available spot in our program. We conduct extensive tours, presentations, conversations, class visits, interviews, and more to try to ascertain if a family will be the right fit for our school — and equally important, if we’ll be the right fit for them, too.
Many times, we get to say “yes” to a family that wants to join our yeshivah, “yes” to a child that will, with G-d’s help, benefit from our school community and dynamic education.
Many times, too many times, we have to say No.
And it’s really, really hard.
It is so difficult to tell a family they are not accepted into your yeshivah. So tough to reject a child. So excruciating since we started this school only so that every child could have a place to blossom, and yet, we have to turn this child away.
How is that fair?
I sit at my desk and I imagine this child somewhere down the road, how his or her future might look. And of course (I tell myself), G-d will watch over this child. Of course, there is Divine Providence and they will be more than OK (right?). Of course, I am only doing my job (that can be so rough sometimes).
But still, I wonder what kind of responsibility I will hold if there are bumps along the way for this child — if somehow, I will be to blame if this outcome engenders him or her any kind of pain.
Sometimes, a family will accept our decision and move on to another choice. But many times, there are phone calls and emails and trying to find all different ways to pull (non existent) strings. All sorts of guilt trips and promises and more nudges.
And I hold absolutely no judgements. I would do the same thing for my child — without a doubt in my mind. Who wouldn’t fight for their child if they had to?
Yet as heart-wrenching as it is, as cruel as I feel sometimes, I know we cannot take every child that applies to our school. And sometimes, its not about the fit of the family or the child or the educational resources we have. Many times, we reject a child because we don’t have the capacity.
We say no to potential students because we lack the physical space.
There’s simply no room.
And I know we are not the only school with this challenge.
There are so many crises facing Jewish Day Schools today: The Enrollment Crisis. The Affordability Crisis. The Engagement Crisis. The We-Don’t-Measure-Up-To-The-Local-Private-Schools Crisis. And, of course, The How-Do-We-Stop-Our-Students-From-Leaving-Orthodoxy Crisis.
We discuss pedagogy and best practices until we’re blue in the face. We lament the lack of funds available to expand programming. We attempt to inspire and motivate our teachers with increasingly sophisticated professional development.
And in the community I live in, we talk about what it truly means to give our children a Chasidic education: whether that could indeed include general studies, what is the appropriate emphasis on Yiddish, how to teach Alef Beis according to our Masters, and the like. (These are details that seem innocuous, perhaps even inconsequential, but hold tremendous meaning.)
So many problems. So many conversations. So many attempted solutions.
But for me, there’s a level of irony here. Because while we’re pontificating Big Questions and sweating Big Crises, there’s a problem way bigger than all the others staring at us in the face: in many major communities, we do not have enough room in our schools for all the children of our neighborhoods.
Come today, the first day of school, there are children who have no place to go.
So we have boys and girls home schooled by parents who are not up to the task. Or toddlers ‘held back’ in play group another year, pushing off preschool until next year when parents will beg and cajole yet again to get their child into school. Or students, Orthodox children, sent to public school where there is space (and more resources for their child — for a fraction of the price of yeshivah). Or the child is sent to a school, finally, that is absolutely the wrong social, emotional, or educational fit for him or her (but there’s one spot left!).
We are in desperation mode.
And we, the greater community, are looking the other way — because we are at a loss for a solution.
Perhaps we need more schools! One on every block!
Or maybe our existing schools need bigger buildings with bigger classrooms? And of course more qualified teachers to teach in these bigger buildings!
More money must be the answer!!
Or maybe we need to embrace public schools as a viable alternative for our children. There are always tutors for Jewish studies!
Perhaps our communities are growing too fast! Are we having too many children? Maybe smaller families are the answer!!
Somehow, these solutions don’t feel completely right.
In truth, I alone have no idea how to fix this.
So here’s what I am suggesting: Whether you are an educator or parent or community leader or philanthropist or someone who cares, let’s get together in our shuls, schools, community centers and homes and face this problem. Let’s talk about THIS crisis until we can actually figure something out. Something possible. Something real and tangible.
Maybe it does involve more schools, more flexible learning programs, more resources for our existing schools, more creative options for parents like homeschool cooperatives.
Or maybe there is a solution we haven’t even entertained yet.
The time has come to pool our resources and clean up this mess.
Because as long as any Jewish child is not accepted into a Jewish school, as long as parents are stripped of their privilege to choose the right educational environment for their child, as long as our communities have even one child who is not in school, we are all failing.
So who’s in?
It’s the first day of school- and there are children with no place to go.