TORONTO (JTA) — Toronto’s Jewish community long has been known for punching above its weight.
With some 180,000 Jews — nearly half of Canada’s total — this city continually outperforms other major urban Jewish centers in North America when it comes to key indicators like institutional affiliation, fundraising, levels of involvement and population growth.
When it comes to Jewish education in particular, Toronto stands out as a model at a time when communities across North America are struggling with the vexing challenge of how to keep quality Jewish education affordable during tough economic times.
More than half of all Jewish children in Toronto receive some form of Jewish instruction, whether at day schools or in supplementary classes.
“That’s no doubt among the very highest [rate] in North America,” says Paul Shaviv, director of the transition committee at Mercaz, formerly known as the city’s Board of Jewish Education.
Community leaders say there’s a simple reason Toronto holds this distinction: The community provides significant tuition subsidies to parents who can’t pay full school fees. UJA Federation of Greater Toronto allocates $13 million annually for day school education in Toronto, $10 million of which goes to direct subsidies. Roughly one-third of all children in Toronto’s Jewish system are subsidized.
“No one even approaches us,” Ted Sokolsky, president and CEO of the Toronto federation, said of the federation’s tuition subsidies. “If you lined up New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, the total wouldn’t even come close to $10 million.”
In Chicago, by comparison, day schools receive funding from several sources, but the direct allocation from the UJA campaign to the city’s 16 Jewish schools is $3 million.
Even in the absence of government funding, a deep recession, and the fact that parents have to contend with an annual average tuition increase at Jewish day schools of 5 to 6 percent, Sokolsky said he expects no drop-off in enrollment this year.
A 2007 federation task force found that between 2000 and 2005, enrollment in high schools affiliated with Toronto’s Board of Jewish Education rose by about 15 percent.
Affiliated elementary school enrollment dropped by about 9 percent from 2001 to 2006, but elementary school enrollment as a percentage of the total number of Jewish children available in that age group remained relatively unchanged, at nearly 29 percent.
During that same period, the number of elementary schools jumped from 13 to 19 — a phenomenon the task force called “boutiquing;” that is, the opening of smaller schools.
Shaviv, who is also the director of education at the Community Hebrew Academy of Toronto, a Jewish high school known by the acronym CHAT, said it’s too early to tell exactly what full-time day school enrollment will be for the coming academic year. But he and other officials expect it to hold steady at 11,000 in grades K through 12, with an additional 4,000 children in afternoon or supplementary classes.
There are 70 day schools and supplementary programs and 1,700 Jewish educators in the greater Toronto area.
“In Toronto, sending your kids to Jewish school is not just acceptable, it is fashionable,” Shaviv said. “And what makes it even more remarkable is that it’s all private.”
If the Ontario government provided funding, enrollment would dramatically increase, he said.
Public funding of faith-based schools long has been a political hot potato in Ontario, where the government funds Catholic schools in addition to public schools. Jewish schools, however, receive no government funds. Ontario is the only province in Canada to fund one religious school system to the exclusion of all others.
Canada’s Supreme Court has ruled that the Ontario government has no legal obligation to fund non-Catholic schools. But in 1999, a United Nations committee ruled that Ontario’s policy violates the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
In Montreal, which at 90,000 individuals is the second-largest Jewish community in Canada, the Quebec government subsidizes tuitions at 60 percent the rate it allocates to the public system. Those subsidies range from $3,000 per child per year at elementary schools to $4,000 at secondary levels.
Montreal has 7,000 students in 19 Jewish elementary schools and 14 Jewish high schools, and 500 students at four supplementary schools.
Tuitions at Toronto’s Jewish elementary schools range from about $11,000 annually to $18,900, which is what CHAT charges. Shaviv said that enrollment at CHAT has doubled over the last 10 years to 1,500 students. The school says it has a retention rate of 93 percent.
Wayne Levin, a Toronto engineering consultant and longtime critic of Jewish school fees, pulled his three children from Toronto’s day school system because, he said, the schools are poorly run and too expensive.
Levin, who runs a blog called Federation Watch, says tuition rises have outpaced the rate of inflation for well over a decade.
“There are thousands of kids who are not getting a Jewish education who otherwise would,” Levin complained.