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BreakingforTradition

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Efforts are under way to encourage more local Jewish charitable organizations to make the financial support of day schools a higher priority.

That realization is generating more support for Jewish high schools, too. In recent years, Avi Chai has given grants to help high schools intensify their marketing, provide better training for their school leaders, and create new preparatory-track programs that help students who did not attend a Jewish elementary school catch up with their classmates in Judaic studies. Avi Chai also has lent support to a new venture, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, which last fall announced it had raised $18 million to offer grants to help as many as 30 fledgling elementary and middle schools get off the ground.

Despite such support, leaders within the Jewish day school community argue that more needs to be done to guarantee both the financial security of the schools themselves and to ensure that the cost of tuition doesn't prohibit parents from choosing such a school. Efforts are under way to encourage more local Jewish charitable organizations to make the financial support of day schools a higher priority.

The Atlanta Jewish Federation, which considers itself on the leading edge in directing more support to Jewish education, gave the area's day schools about $1.2 million of the $11.1 million total it generated from its annual fund-raising campaign last year. The federation this year has also pledged more than $11 million to four of the day schools as part of a capital fund-raising drive to help Jewish organizations.

Yossi Prager, Avi Chai's executive director for North America, points out that while schools, and especially high schools, have become increasingly expensive to open, Jewish schools are even more costly. Their dual-language programs require many essentially to double up on instructors. And as the demand increases, many administrators are saying it's harder to find and recruit talented instructors for their Judaic-studies programs.

"It's going to take a communal realization that day school education is a communal responsibility, and not a consumer product," Prager says. "If there is this shift in thinking, if that happens, then there is enough money in the American Jewish community to solve this problem."

An anonymous gift of $2 million, which helped get the school off the ground, has encouraged organizers of the New Atlanta Jewish Community High School to believe they have enough to pay for the first three years of operation. At that point, the school could receive federation money and expects to be serving 100 or more students.

For the time being, the school is housed in six mobile units on the grounds of a local Jewish community center in DeKalb County. The trailers, in fact, used to be at Epstein, until the elementary school completed an addition that doubled the size of its building. While many of the new high school's students are Epstein graduates, six of them had no previous Jewish day school experience.

Another draw for many parents is the school's orientation, which organizers call "transdenominational."

The students' parents cite a variety of reasons for choosing the new school. Some, whose children had attended a Jewish elementary school, wanted to continue with a day school but wanted something other than the Orthodox orientation of the area's only other Jewish high school. Others, like Paulette Fuchs, whose daughter Ana had always attended public schools, wanted to give her more of an opportunity to be around other Jewish children as a teenager.

"We didn't ever rule out the public schools," says Fuchs, who has always maintained a high level of religious observance in her home. "It wasn't a running away from something. It was a situation of wanting her to know who she was, especially when she was in this important age."

Initially somewhat resistant to the idea of going to an all-Jewish school, her 15-year-old daughter has since become one of its biggest boosters--so much so that she now often meets prospective parents. Although she appreciates the chance to study more about Jewish traditions, what she says she likes the most is the school's high academic expectations, the talent of the school's faculty, and the small classes.

"I used to do my homework in 15 minutes and get straight A's," Ana Fuchs says. "I enjoy the Jewish studies, but it's not what's making me want to stay."

Another draw for many parents is the school's orientation, which organizers call "transdenominational."

The school's top two administrators reflect its eclectic mix of Jewish orientations and academic excellence. Often called "Dr. Pearl," the principal's advanced degree is in dentistry. The school's founders recruited him from a two-year fellowship that sends Jews interested in education to study in Israel. In contrast, the head of school, Richard Hanson, is not Jewish, but, in fact, the son of a Methodist minister. A graduate of Exeter, Harvard, and Columbia, he brought with him a wealth of experience in administering independent schools in the greater New York City area.

In a somewhat controversial move, the new school's founders decided not to restrict enrollment to Jewish children, though they expect all those who choose the school will be Jews.

Few experts in Jewish education are hazarding guesses at whether the interest in day schools will continue to flourish.

"As soon as you get into saying who is a Jew and who isn't, then we are really compromising our mission," Simcha Pearl says. He points to a fierce debate raging in Israel between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Jews over who has the right to perform marriages and conversions. As he tells those gathered at the recent coffee for the parents of prospective students, "Our hope and prayer is that the kids will come to appreciate themselves as Jews, and to see their membership in the Jewish community in an entirely different way, and in a way we believe is sorely needed, given the divisiveness that's out there."

The school's transdenominational nature is evident at a recent prayer service. Of the 10 students in attendance, one boy and one girl wear both the ritual prayer shawl, called a tallit, and the tefillin, the small black boxes containing passages from the Torah that they strap to their arms and forehead. By contrast, several other students sit during the amidah, a part of the service when congregants stand in silent prayer. Although an Orthodox child would not likely want to participate in such an egalitarian service, Pearl says this has yet to become a problem because the school has only six boys, and, by Orthodox standards, prayer is not communal until there is a minyan, meaning at least 10 males are present.

"We cannot ask any child to violate their principles or norms," Pearl says. "So we were all praying individually, out loud. We found a way for Conservative kids, and Orthodox kids, and Reform kids to sit down and pray together. So the next step will be world peace."

Few experts in Jewish education are hazarding guesses at whether the interest in day schools will continue to flourish. To be sure, the vast majority of American Jewish parents still opt to send their children elsewhere. And most parents who want their children to get a Jewish education still do so through a supplemental program--although that number is dropping.

A 1990 study commissioned by the Atlanta Jewish Federation found that just 15 percent of the area's Jewish 6- to 12- year-olds attended a Jewish day school. Among 13- to 17-year-olds, the attendance rate was only 7 percent.

At the same time, scholars of Jewish education point out that just 25 years ago no one would have predicted that as many non-Orthodox families would be embracing Jewish day school education as they are today.

"It's not realistic to say that most Jewish children are going to be in day schools," says Avi Chai's Prager. "But the ones that are in Jewish day schools are the ones who are most likely to be Jews into the next generation, and their children in the generation after."

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