May 22, 2023 - Education

As enrollment dropped, more Hebrew schools opened in San Francisco

Children sit at picnic tables decorating cardboard boxes on a school playground.

Freedom School students at The Kitchen make move-in boxes for newly housed San Franciscans. Photo: The Kitchen

Student enrollment in Hebrew schools in the San Francisco Bay Area fell by nearly 30% between 2006 and 2020, despite an increase in the number of schools, a new report has found.

Why it matters: Enrollment in supplementary Jewish schools — which students attend in addition to public or secular private schools to learn Hebrew and Jewish rituals and history — has dropped sharply nationwide and comes as membership at some synagogues is also falling, Axios’ Russell Contreras writes.

Zoom in: There were 31 Hebrew schools teaching 2,863 students in the San Francisco Bay Area in 2020, according to the latest data in a study recently released by The Jewish Education Project, a nonprofit that supports Jewish educators.

  • In 2006, there were 3,977 students enrolled in 27 schools.

By the numbers: While most schools and students are in the mid-Atlantic, California ranks second in the U.S. with 188 schools enrolling about 19,500 students.

  • Four California cities were included in the study for the 2019-20 school year: Los Angeles, San Francisco, East Bay/Oakland and San Diego.
  • LA, which has the largest number of schools (63) and students (nearly 8,000), saw a 31% decrease in enrollment and a loss of nine schools overall.
  • San Diego has the smallest segment with 16 schools and 1,634 students.

Of note: 12 U.S. cities were analyzed over time, including San Francisco and LA.

  • Six saw increases in the number of schools.
  • 10 saw declines in student enrollment from 2006 to 2020.

The big picture: Total enrollment in Jewish supplementary schools dropped by nearly half nationwide and the number of schools also dropped as hundreds closed and others merge.

Yes, but: The number of Jewish Americans increased during the study’s 14-year period, keeping pace with U.S. population growth.

What they're saying: In San Francisco, more families are turning to Jewish community programs that aren’t connected to a synagogue or affiliated with a particular movement, according to Kathy Schwartz, senior director of professional learning at Jewish LearningWorks, an organization that helped gather the data for this study.

  • That’s in part due to the independent, entrepreneurial culture in the Bay Area that gives parents and their kids a variety of options when building community and delving into their Jewish identity and education, Schwartz told Axios.
  • Independent Jewish religious programs, online communities and new Jewish centers are challenging the synagogue as the sole center of engagement, Miriam Heller Stern, a professor at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, told Axios’ Russell Contreras.

The intrigue: The Kitchen’s Freedom School in San Francisco brings kids and their parents together to learn and pray on Shabbat morning (Saturday), which isn’t common.

  • The school is not affiliated with a particular movement but acts as a synagogue by teaching the Torah and guiding families through major life and religious moments, such as the birth of a new child, the death of a parent, bar mitzvahs and weddings.
  • About 75 kids attend the Freedom School, according to senior family educator Joel Abramovitz, and enrollment is growing.
  • "Part of the issue we're facing is that 15, 20, 30 years ago, kids would just go to religious school; there was no question about it. Now, every family is thinking about 'what does this add to my life?'" Abramovitz told Axios.
  • "The programs that are the most successful and impactful have a clear answer to that question."
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