Breaking forTradition

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To help preserve their rich heritage, more Jews—even those from the more liberal sects—are enrolling their children in Jewish day schools.


Simcha Pearl is about to explain why the dozen parents seated before him should consider a new school that has just 19 students, still meets in a set of double-wide trailers, and charges more than $8,000 a year in tuition.

Thrusting his hands into his pockets and adopting a somewhat professorial air, the 39-year-old educator recounts a discussion he led with the 9th and 10th graders in his Tanach class, where they learn about the Hebrew Bible. It's about the origins of Passover, one of the most central stories in Judaism, in which the Israelites are told an angel will fly over Egypt and destroy their oppressors' firstborn sons. As told in Exodus, God instructed the Israelites to mark the doorframes on their homes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb so the angel would know which families to pass over.

"So the question is, if God is so all-knowing and omnipotent, why does he need this mark?," says Pearl, now pausing slightly between each sentence. "And--to cut to the chase--he doesn't need it. God doesn't need it. It's for us. We need it to meet our God--our heritage--halfway."

Pearl, the principal of the New Atlanta Jewish Community High School, knows these parents, most of whom are professionals, have

plenty of options. Indeed, they wouldn't even begin to consider the fledgling school were it not for its highly charged academic program. The founders worked hard to recruit talented faculty members, all students are given laptop computers, the science lab boasts the latest technology, and the administration promises to bring in Ivy League recruiters come college-application season.

But these parents are seeking more. Helping their children get into competitive colleges and lead successful lives is of obvious importance, but for many of them the goal of ensuring that they stay Jewish as adults is paramount.

They, in fact, are part of a growing number of parents in North America who are coming to see a Jewish day school education as one of the best ways to foster the continuity of Judaism into the next generation--and the one after that. Even parents in the more liberal Conservative and Reform denominations have joined Orthodox parents in being drawn to such schools. Recent studies on the incidence of intermarriage by Jews and on the effect a religious education can have as high school graduates move into adulthood have helped rouse such interest. The Atlanta region alone now hosts seven Jewish day schools.

"Our generation is probably the least well educated in terms of our Judaism," says Andy Kauss, a lawyer whose twins are in the 8th grade at a Jewish elementary school here. He's also considering the new high school for next fall. "What you're seeing in Atlanta is a generation that is bringing their children back to an intensity of Jewish education that they didn't have themselves."

In the past six years alone, some 40 Jewish high schools have sprung up, sometimes with just a handful of students.

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