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BreakingforTradition

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In the 1950's, the Conservative school movement was born, but it didn't really take off for about 20 years.

But for many of the non-Orthodox Jews whose families immigrated from Europe in the early part of this century, having their children succeed in mainstream America was a top priority. Sending their children to all-Jewish schools would have seemed counterproductive.

"When he first came here, the American Jew was wedded to the public schools," Schiff says. "The public school was his initiation to the good life."

In the 1950s, the Conservative school movement was born, but it didn't really take off for about 20 years, says Rabbi Robert Abramson, who directs the education department for the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, a New York City-based policymaking organization for affiliated Conservative synagogues in North America. Now, there are 70 Solomon Schechter schools, which take their name from one of the architects of the Conservative movement, including Atlanta's Epstein School.

"For many of the Orthodox, they were looking for isolation from American culture," Abramson says. "That certainly is not what our schools were founded for. They were founded as a way to embrace modernity and tradition."

The nascent Reform school movement represents an even more significant break from past thinking. Many of the denomination's leaders once spoke out against such schools in the belief that they were an affront to the Reform ideal of living as much as possible within the larger society.

"The goal of living as a part of the community is still there," says Zita Gardner, the president of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, a group founded in 1991 as an advocate for the more liberal day schools. "But Reform Judaism teaches that you need to become knowledgeable in your traditions and in the Torah. There is personal choice, but that has to be made from knowledge and commitment."

Most Jewish parents still do not choose Jewish day schools for their children. Some education observers, however, say that the emergence of an influential core of non-Orthodox families who are considering the option may have implications for public schools.

"To some degree, the myth of the American public school has been shattered," says Bruce S. Cooper, a professor at the Fordham University graduate school of education in New York City. "The Jews have been for a long time among the strongest supporters of public education. So the fact that some of their children are now going to Jewish schools has significance even beyond what the numbers would indicate."

The mother of two students enrolled in the Epstein School, Jane Cohen says she went to synagogue only occasionally, and only on the High Holidays, when she was growing up in Flushing, N.Y. Once she had children, though, she knew she wanted to give them a strong foundation in Judaism as a way to strengthen their sense of identity and to help them "deal with what life throws at them."

Cohen also reasoned that if her children went to a Jewish day school, they wouldn't have to attend a supplementary program to learn about their religious heritage.

"I think we'd all like our kids to have it better than we did," she says. "And for us, this religious aspect was what we wanted to give."

Cohen also reasoned that if her children went to a Jewish day school, they wouldn't have to attend a supplementary program to learn about their religious heritage. And she knew that no supplementary program could provide as intense a course of Judaic studies as a school in which students spend half the day speaking Hebrew.

In addition to its dual-language aspect, the curriculum at Epstein includes extensive study of the siddur, the prayer book for the daily and Sabbath liturgy; the core part of the Talmud, called the Mishna; and Jewish law and ethics. Students also become well-versed in Jewish life cycle customs and holiday rituals. The hope is that students learn not just the mitzvahs--or commandments--but also their history and significance. All this is alongside English, science, mathematics, and social studies.

"We want our children to understand that we're in a covenant with God," explains Cheryl Finkel, the head of school at Epstein. "And that this goes back a long time, and that Jews are chartered with a responsibility to be a blessing to the world. ... I'm not interested in chauvinism. You can have that without the knowledge. I want kids to have the same depth in Maimonides as they do in Homer, and the only way you can do that is to take the time."

As she saw the maturity and depth of understanding her own daughter showed last month at her coming-of-age celebration, the bat mitzvah, Cohen was convinced she made the right decision.

"One thing they have learned from their school is that they are a product of ancestry, and that's in contrast to my own experience," Cohen says. "And I think they really do get it, that this is something that is continually passed on, and that they will pass it on. This idea that you're not the beginning and the end of the world is very important."

A Reform Jew who was bat mitzvahed when she was 40, Cohen says that having her children in a Jewish day school has raised her whole family's level of observance. Her family now lights candles at the beginning of each Shabbat, or Sabbath. They also celebrate not just the major holidays like Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, but they have also built a sukkah--a kind of four-sided lean-to--in their backyard to celebrate the autumn harvest festival called Sukkot.

In the months before her daughter's bat mitzvah, Cohen started meeting with other mothers every other week at her home to talk about what was expected of families. The meetings have since evolved into an informal workshop where the mothers examine what Jewish tradition says about the changing relationships between parents and their growing children. A family-outreach coordinator from the school helps them organize the sessions.

The study indicated that Jewish involvement rises most significantly for children who have had at least nine years of Jewish education.

Still, many non-Orthodox, and especially Reform parents, concede they were initially unsure whether sending their children to an all-Jewish school was the right thing to do.

"The big issue we wrestled with, the one we went back and forth on, was the diversity issue," says Jon Kleinberg, the 37-year-old father of a 1st grader at the Davis Academy. "Do we want to send our kids to a school where everyone's alike?"

But Kleinberg, a public school graduate himself, says he surmised that the public schools in the suburb where he lives also have relatively homogeneous enrollments. And in the end, he and his wife, a convert to Judaism, decided that a top priority was making sure their children got a solid background in their faith.

"If it were up to me solely to provide that, I don't know if it would have been enough," Kleinberg says. "And I really wanted my kids to be comfortable and not to have to wonder why they're different."

If there are any overarching fears leading more non-Orthodox families to seek out Jewish day schools, they are more likely the fear of assimilation and intermarriage than concern about the quality of public schools.

"My sense is that people have begun to realize, and each at their own pace and at their own moment, that you've got to make decisions now to even be relatively sure that your kids will be Jewish," says Abramson of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. "There's no question now that [Jewish] kids reflect America. We don't have to work at that anymore. But we may have to work more at making sure they're Jewish."

New research appears to bear out such apprehension. An extensive demographic study by the New York City-based Council of Jewish Federations in 1990 showed that 52 percent of U.S. Jews married members of other faiths, a conclusion that has had some religious leaders worried that they may be seeing the slow death of Judaism itself in this country. More recently, research commissioned by the Avi Chai Foundation found that "Jewish day schools are the best vehicle for implementing Jewish involvement and are the only type of Jewish education that stands against the very rapidly growing rate of intermarriage." The study further indicated that Jewish involvement rises most significantly for children who have had at least nine years of Jewish education.

"More people are realizing that if you give a kid a good solid Jewish education through grade 8, and then send him out into the so-called real world and say, 'Your Jewish education is over at the ripe old age of 14, even though you're talking about 4,000 years of Jewish history,' that that might not be enough," says Wagner of Atlanta's Greenfield Hebrew Academy.

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