The Rise of Jewish Schools

The phenomenon comes at a bad time for the public schools—and opens up a new debate over the meaning of "integration."

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.

Why a growing number of relatively secular Jewish parents are abandoning the education model of their youth is a topic of considerable debate within the organized Jewish world. One clear answer is that the supplementary schools have largely failed to produce graduates well versed in Judaism. In the century's early decades, before the suburban migration, when Jewish children were less likely to take piano lessons or join soccer teams, the supplementary schools could require as many as twelve hours a week of study. But over the decades the hours were whittled down, with noticeable results. Rabbi David Shapiro, the principal of Maimonides, Boston's largest Orthodox school, says that often teenagers who have attended supplementary school for seven or eight years cannot read Hebrew as well as his school's second-graders. In addition to knowledge, the supplementary schools were supposed to inculcate sufficient Jewish identity to prevent intermarriage. Yet in 1990 the highly publicized National Jewish Population Survey made it abundantly clear that they had not. According to the NJPS, more than half of all Jews married between 1985 and 1990 married gentiles, and subsequent research has shown that graduates of supplementary schools are more than twice as likely as graduates of full-time Jewish schools to marry outside their faith.

All the talk about Jewish identity may also obscure a less high-minded reason for the Jewish-school boom: as Jews have moved up the economic ladder, their commitment to public education has waned. Jennifer Miller acknowledges that although Rashi's Jewish curriculum is an attraction, many parents choose the school for the same reasons that parents choose other private schools. "As the public schools have eroded," Miller says, "we are no longer being compared so much to public schools as to other independents." Jewish leaders argue that because Jews make up such a small proportion of the U.S. population, the growth of Jewish schools has no real impact on the overall health of American public education. But public schools rely more heavily on Jewish support than the numbers would suggest, in part because Jewish organizations, fearful of any breakdown of the wall between Church and State, have traditionally lobbied hard against school vouchers and other government aid to private schools. As awareness grows that voucher programs might benefit financially strapped Jewish schools, that opposition may diminish. Today most non-Orthodox Jewish groups still reject school choice. But Rabbi Robert Abramson, the education director of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, says that the Conservative movement is revisiting the issue. Rabbi David Saperstein, of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, admits that in his movement as well there is "a growing minority" of voucher supporters. In New York, where Governor George Pataki last year signed a law that permits charter schools, some Jewish leaders are proposing the first ever government-funded school of Jewish culture.

THERE is another, even more sensitive issue lurking behind the Jewish-school phenomenon. Earlier generations of Jews, according to Eduardo Rauch, of the Jewish Theological Seminary, in New York, sent their children to public school not simply as a means of ascending into the middle class but as a show of national loyalty. Today, in contrast, parents are willing to consider Jewish schools in part because they no longer fear being viewed as outsiders. They take their integration into mainstream America as a given. But what if earlier generations were correct -- that full equality in an overwhelmingly Christian country is, in fact, reliant on Jewish willingness to participate in a common system of education? In South Africa and Australia, where most Jews send their children to separate schools, discrimination is hardly pervasive, but the lack of a melting-pot ideology means that Jews remain more communally separate than they do in the United States. In fact, when discussing issues like Afrocentrism and bilingual education, American Jewish leaders sometimes bemoan the demise of the melting-pot ideal in this country. Yet separate religious schools both rely on that demise and exacerbate it. The Orthodox community, for its part, has rarely celebrated the melting pot, and generally worries less about total acceptance by the broader culture. But the mind-set is different at a place like New Jew, which aims to correct the troublesome aspects of Jewish integration -- pervasive intermarriage and religious illiteracy -- without accepting even the slightest diminution of the opportunities that full integration brings.

It is an ambitious venture -- based on the inspiring, and perhaps slightly naïve, premise that being a fuller Jew need never mean being a less complete American. And it will be tested in earnest starting next June, when the New Jewish High School sends its first graduating class out into the world.

Peter Beinart is a senior editor of The New Republic.

Illustration by Laura Levine.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 1999; The Rise of Jewish Schools - 99.10; Volume 284, No. 4; page 21-22.