One of the most significant ways to imbue Jewish children with the knowledge of and commitment to Judaism is through formal education. However, local day schools find themselves facing new challenges as they try to stay relevant, affordable, and high quality — especially as secular private and many public schools become more competitive. “In previous generations, Jewish day school was a more normative, obvious choice,” says Lisa Colton, a consultant who has worked with many Jewish day schools, including several in Greater Seattle. “Today, there are many more variables in play.”
Nowadays, Jewish day schools need to position themselves strategically to compete. For Northwest Yeshiva High School and its new head of school Jason Feld, that means buttressing strong academics with immersive experiences and leadership roles, including trips to Israel and Poland, says director of institutional advancement Melissa Rivkin. “NYHS is a school where values and character matter,” Rivkin says. “NYHS students are prepared to be civically engaged and leaders in campus life.”
A common talking point among Jewish day school leadership is values-driven education combined with strong academics. Schools “are becoming conscious of and responsive to the families who are considering multiple important variables when choosing private school, and positioning themselves to be ‘yes and,’” Colton says.
Seattle Jewish Community School, a K–5 in North Seattle, prides itself on a strong social-emotional philosophy paired with Judaics that are responsive to the diversity of its families. SJCS is one of two pluralistic schools, both of which have new leaders this year. The Jewish Day School of Metropolitan Seattle, a K–8 in Bellevue, is celebrated for its inquiry-based curriculum, a student-centered approach “where teachers guide children to actively explore answers to their questions,” says Vivian Scheidt, JDS’s head of school.
Another critical factor for many families is the link to community. Attending a day school “is about becoming a part of a community that you might very well be a part of for the rest of your life,” says Rivy Poupko Kletenik, Seattle Hebrew Academy’s head of school. SHA, a Modern Orthodox K–8 on Capitol Hill, is, at 70 years, the most established of the day schools. Karen Treiger, who attended the school and sent her four children there, echoes Kletenik’s sentiment. “There is a symbiotic relationship between school and community, each strengthening the other,” she says.
The Orthodox-affiliated schools have a pipeline of families that by and large are not considering outside options. But as that community grows and changes, its educational needs evolve. In addition to SHA, NYHS, and Chabad’s Menachem Mendel Seattle Cheder (started in 1974 in the North End), Torah Day School opened in 2006 as an Orthodox K–8 in South Seattle with a mission focused on individualized learning. A desire in a segment of the Orthodox community for single-gender education produced Derech Emunah girls high school in 2012 and the Torah Academy of the Pacific Northwest (TAPN), an affiliate of the Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens, for boys, in 2018.
TAPN is the “final piece” in a 12-year process to establish separate-gender educational options that are a “critical need” for Seattle’s Orthodox community, says Ezra Genauer, TAPN’s president and TDS’s treasurer. Genauer believes TAPN will inspire more religious Jews to move to or stay in Seattle. “I believe very strongly that a rising tide lifts all boats,” he says. “Everything affects everyone.”
The tide might be rising, but some schools find themselves dumping water as they figure out the current. Time will tell how Seattle’s Jewish education scene will shake out.
“Choosing a school that’s a great fit for your family is an emotional decision as well as a rational one,” Colton says. “It can be a hard needle to thread.”