IT'S Wednesday, third period, at the New Jewish High School, in Waltham, Massachusetts, and Susan Tanchel's tenth- and eleventh-grade Bible class has taken an unexpected turn. A discussion of prophetic verses contrasting God's treatment of Saul with his treatment of David has erupted into an attack on the text itself. "God is a nutcase idea," exclaims a young woman with dyed-blonde hair and headphones dangling around her neck. "Do you think I believe in this? This is a fairy tale." It's a subversive moment. Tanchel admonishes the young skeptic to respect the beliefs of her classmates, and suggests that she will find a kindred sensibility when the class reads the cynical Ecclesiastes, later in the year. But no one seems fazed by the outburst. After all, the New Jewish High School is a rather subversive institution itself. Founded in 1997, atop a suburban bank building, it is helping to erode a century-old consensus about the way American Jews educate their children.
That consensus, once affirmed by all but a small Orthodox minority, held that separate schools for Jews were a relic of the Old World, a happily discarded vestige of societies in which Jews lived apart. As Samson Benderly, later the director of the Board of Education of the New York Kehillah, an early Jewish communal organization, put it in 1908,
What we want in this country, is not Jews who can successfully keep up their Jewishness in a few large ghettos, but men and women who have grown up in freedom and can assert themselves wherever they are. A parochial system of education among the Jews would be fatal to such hopes.
In 1956, the year the American Council for Judaism restated its opposition to schools that "take children out of the general American environment and train them to lead segregated lives," Benderly's vision seemed secure. Fewer than five percent of Jewish children attended Jewish schools.
Preparing children for "the general American environment" meant public education as both practice and ideology. "The public school," says Alvin I. Schiff, the Irving I. Stone Distinguished Professor of Education at Yeshiva University, in New York, "was considered sacred, holy. It was the method and setting by which Jews could become Americans." Religious education, which had dominated the yeshivas of Eastern Europe, had to be reconciled with the new commitment, and so a peculiarly American institution was born: the supplementary school. First in the crowded apartments and storefronts of immigrant neighborhoods, later in the suburbs to which Jews moved after the Second World War, religious learning was consigned to Sundays and weekday afternoons. Even as the public schools fostered upward mobility, the supplementary schools would instill in Jewish children sufficient knowledge and group attachment to prevent integration from becoming assimilation.
That model, which served for most of this century, is today coming apart at the seams. Since the early 1960s the number of children attending supplementary schools has fallen by half, to about 270,000. And the number in full-time Jewish schools -- the kind that many Jewish leaders once scorned as self-segregating -- has more than tripled, to about 200,000. Currently the population of Jewish school-age children numbers roughly a million. The proportion enrolled in public schools has declined from more than 90 percent in 1962 to about 65 percent today. The rise of institutions like the New Jewish High School represents something close to a renegotiation of the terms of American Jewish life. And for America's battered public school system it could not come at a worse time.
THE New Jewish High School -- or "New Jew," as the students call it -- is an institution virtually without precedent. The standard images of Jewish school -- ultra-Orthodox boys in white button-down shirts and velvet yarmulkes poring over the Talmud in a strictly all-male environment -- do not apply. A few of the boys at New Jew wear yarmulkes, but others sport sunglasses, headphones, and the occasional goatee. Almost none of the girls wear the long sleeves that symbolize Orthodox modesty. The students look like public schoolers, and a generation ago most of them would have been. Indeed, Daniel Lehman, New Jew's bearish headmaster, notes that only a minority of his students' parents attended Jewish schools themselves.
Most of the parents at New Jew associate themselves with the Conservative movement, and many are less than strictly observant. Indeed, a 1995-1996 study of Conservative parents with children in Jewish schools found that fewer than half kept kosher in their homes, and fewer than a quarter kept kosher outside them. Jennifer Miller, the head of The Rashi School, a Boston-area Reform elementary and middle school founded in 1986, estimates that only 10 to 15 percent of parents with children at her school can read and comprehend Hebrew. Yet such parents, by choosing Jewish schools, are preparing their children to lead more observant, less assimilated lives than they do. Some even describe the phenomenon as an inversion of a practice in nineteenth-century Europe whereby parents would remain Jewish but baptize their children.