Jewish education in Ottawa–looking back and looking ahead. Part 1

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. 

With the drop in day school enrollment generally, it would seem that there would be a natural increase in the supplementary schools. However the enrollment trends among the supplementary schools are for the most part stagnant as well.  There was a significant drop in supplementary school enrollment between 2006/07 and 2007/08 (-14%)  and the supplementary schools have yet to fully recover from that decline although OTC chabad has been growing considerably. (see chart 2).  Jewisheducationchart2
The trends indicate there is less appetite for Jewish education in general.
Schools with less contact hours generally speaking, have been growing in size, while the traditional supplementary school models have seen their numbers dwindle considerably. (see table below). In addition, a 2012 survey commissioned by Ottawa Jewish Federation found that half of parents who were not attending a day school, were not going to supplementary school.  So this supports the idea that there is less interest to attend the traditional supplementary school model among Jewish parents in Ottawa.
Although capturing 25% of our population in day school and 17% in supplementary school might not seem that low of a percentage, what is alarming is the rate of decline for both forms of schooling. The trend of decline has been there for at least 20 years if not more, but it is really only in the last 7 years where the alarm bells should be going off.
Part 2 of this blog will look at the reasons people are not finding what they are looking for in Jewish education and some suggestions for reform.  Stay tuned, and your comments are most welcome!!
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8 Responses to Jewish education in Ottawa–looking back and looking ahead. Part 1

  1. Jackie well done and I look forward to part 2. I remember being in Jewish day school in Winnipeg with you for at least 7 of those 12 years. As a federal public servant and a mom of two girls, and frum, I am torn on almost a daily basis – do I give my children French or do I give them a sense of who they are and what they are a part of? I opted for the second. I figured at one point the French could come. I can honestly say that I am making the right choice – even though I am suffering through French training now. Every day I think about the education we received in Winnipeg where the frum and non frum kids studied side by side at least for high school. I miss those times. Maybe just maybe – we will look at an alternative to what is going on right now to make Jewish education more attractive for all.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know about Winnipeg, but in Montreal day school education is highly subsidized by the provincial government (the province pays for the secular part of the curriculum) so that tuition fees can be much lower than they are in Ontario.

  3. ottawayenta says:

    Comments from Facebook (posted anonymously here).
    You argue we are past the point of no return, that we are 10 years too late to correct the trends of falling enrolment in Jewish education — but that we shouldn’t give up. How do you square that circle?

    Looking forward to reading part 2. I have some many thoughts on this from a supplementary school perspective. I would never have considered day school, but might have considered “hebrew school” had my husband and I not had such negative experiences (at 2 different afternoon schools). I think it is the same for many of our peers. It could be a historical artifact of our generation that is causing this decline, which could actually just be a dip if those that came after us had better experiences.
    I don’t feel 100% comfortable discussing all the issues in this forum but I will list a few – 1) unreasonable time commitment which precluded participating in certain other activities; 2) unsanitary, smelly facilities; 3) many teachers with poor classroom management skills in a class full of children who had already sat through a full day of school; 4) teaching prayers in a language that we didn’t fully understand without any context or translation beyond “this is what we chant at this time”; 5) an “us” versus “them” approach – tolerance would have been a better approach than “avoid assimilation at all costs”… I could go on. My husband talks a lot about hypocrisy (though he does know how to use a good yiddish expression now and then which my school didn’t teach). All that being said, I DO appreciate all that I learned about history, customs, and culture. I would like my children to understand that and I am doing my best to teach them myself. My grandparents were holocaust survivors. I understand the importance of Israel and the Jewish tradition. I just do not want them to spend 6 hours a week the way I did.
    I think that at least the hygiene/sanitation issue has much improved since the “old days”! I have visited most (not all) of the supplementary schools. And I, too, am sensitive to the “us versus them” thinking that has historically dominating a lot of Jewish teaching in my experience growing up. I do get the sense that this, too, is improving. The after-school, long-day issue is an ongoing challenge, to be sure. Sunday mornings, for that reason, are peak learning times, I think….

    Oh – I didn’t answer the second part: 1) Once or twice a week; 2) teach tolerance, ethics, morality; 3) teach history and culture as a hook at least for the first 4 or 5 years, and perhaps bible stories, 4) hire qualified, experienced teachers; 5) engage parents (somehow)… btw I’m sure hygiene is better . I know my friends in Toronto who’s children go to once a week school are really happy. I honestly don’t know anyone who have children here that attend…

    Very well written. Looking forward to reading part 2. My husband just had a conversation with the principal of Hillel about this a few days ago.
    Jewish edcuation in Ottawa is so important. Having been involved as both a parent and teacher, I see the effort at changing to meet the needs of parents and children. Parents often have unrealistic expectations, your child will not learn to read and write Hebrew in 2 hours a week if you don’t practise at home, for example. Education is a triad, child, school and home. All three need to work together, especially on something so important as culture and religion.
    – not to put you on the spot, but 2 hours per week plus working on it at home…would that equal 6 hours / week (in your opinion) of in-class instruction? We are enrolled at a 6 hour / week option. But I’m not convinced that that is necessa…See More

    Annette Paquin Learning a language is very complicated and people learn it differently. It depends on our expectations. Are we expecting our children to become siddur literate? That seems reasonable. Some people think their children will develop conversational sk…See More
    Regarding hours of contact- in a supplemental school with 4.5 hours of contact a week, which was what I was referring to, Hebrew would typically get no more than 2 hours of direct study though it might be integrated into other subjects such as music and Israel.

  4. Anonymous says:

    According to this week’s Suburban newspaper in Montreal, enrollment is in decline at Jewish day schools there too. I guess that’s despite the funding Jewish day schools receive from the Quebec government.

  5. Anonymous says:

    We’ve been in suspense for 6 weeks waiting for Part 2. Will you post soon?

  6. Pingback: A time for change– Jewish education in Ottawa, Part II | ottawashtetl

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