Breaking for Tradition

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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.
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.

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."

Vol. 17, Issue 27, Page 36-42

Published in Print: March 18, 1998, as Breaking forTradition
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