It is common knowledge that Jewish day school enrollment across North America has been on a steady decline. There are many factors that affect this trend, and most Jewish press will tell you it’s high costs of tuition, high levels of assimilation, and high levels of interfaith marriages. To my knowledge there are only a couple of cities in Canada that have defied that trend (Winnipeg and Montreal where enrollment is increasing at their respective day schools).
I am not writing here to comment on the global trend (although it’s important for reference), instead we need to have an open discussion of what is really happening to Ottawa Jewish schools. The results of my analysis here will show you that I think it’s probably past the point of no return; we are likely 10 years too late to “correct” these trends although that doesn’t mean we should give up. But in order to think of new ways of educating our children Jewishly (if we care), we need to truly understand the trends of what is happening, here and now. If we continue to ignore them, then we will definitely hit a critical roadblock in a few short years.
Disclaimer: I would like to preface this by saying that I am big proponent of Jewish day school. I am a graduate of a day school in Winnipeg (grade 12) and I firmly believe that a day school education up to and including the high school level provides lifelong organizational, analytical and critical thinking skills that no private or other type of public school can provide. Despite this, I still believe that we will have to seriously revolutionize what we are doing in Ottawa for Jewish education (I will explore this topic in part 2). My opinions here are my own and the analysis is my own. The data comes from a combination of sources, 2001 Census data, as well as published education allocation reports that are available on the Ottawa Jewish Federation website. I have no other source of data (other than anecdotal) and so there are definite limitations and gaps.
What the demographics tell us
In Ottawa, the Jewish community is very diverse and spread across the city. Unfortunately I am still having to rely on old Census data from 2001 but a population projection report was done in 2009 by the Jewish Federations of Canada that attempted to estimate the population in Ottawa. In 2001, Census data showed there were 2690 children aged 0 to 14 years. By 2011 that was projected to be about 3336. Unfortunately the projections were not broken down into the school aged groups but this gives us a sense of what we are dealing with in terms of population numbers. The main point to take away from these numbers is that the Ottawa Jewish population is growing but our capture of children in some form of Jewish education is shrinking.
My estimate using 2001 data was that there were about 1500 Jewish kids in Ottawa between 5 and 14 years of age, I can only extrapolate this up to the year 2006 or so this is a very limited estimation. However based on this estimates done by Jewish Federation of Canada and the 2001 Census, I would argue we capture about 25% of our population in Jewish day school and an additional 17% in supplementary schools. (see Chart 1).
Between 2004/05 and 2011/12, the number of children in a Jewish day school between K to 8 has dropped 28%. This is significant considering this is only in a matter of 7 years. The drop is caused mainly by the lack of enrolment at Hillel Academy (now OJCS), which dropped 39% in that time period. Rambam and Torah Academy although not growing in size, their numbers are at least stable. This points to the fact that Orthodox families continue to send their children to day school in Ottawa. However, their numbers are not necessarily growing either.