Religious Purposefulness in Jewish Day Schools

Dr. Michael S. Berger

“Natural” and “Intentional” Judaic Communities

... to have other Jews accept their view of the ideal Jewish life, adopt their values and perhaps some of their practices, and designate members of the intentional community as their leaders.

“Natural communities” consist of people who share social, ethnic or national bonds, have common customs and practices, and recognize a set of basic symbols and beliefs as distinctly their own. Boundaries with others are usually porous, and there is generally tolerance for a wide range of practice and belief.

For instance, in the Second Temple period, most Jews believed in a single, invisible God, circumcised their sons, and kept the Sabbath as a day of rest and kashrut in some way. Jews tended to live near each other and worship or read Torah together, though many non-Jews, known as “God-fearers,” were loosely connected to Jewish communities. The traditional Jewish societies among Christians and Muslims, where individuals imitated their parents’ way of life (or simply knew of no other), were “natural communities.”

“Intentional communities,” on the other hand, are made up of like-minded people who self-consciously choose to live a life that they view as superior to others. The community’s sense of purpose can be based on many things: the belief in an imminent end of days, a utopian vision of society, or strict adherence to a set of rules. In contrast to natural communities, this community’s boundaries are clear, its observances are precisely defined and its discipline is much stricter.

Examples of this sort abound in Judaism (as in every religious tradition). The Dead Sea Scroll community was made up of messianic Jews preparing for a major battle between the Sons of Light and Sons of Darkness; 16th century Kabbalists in Safed believed daily practice, if done with the right intention, had supernatural, even cosmic effects; and the early Labor Zionists had a clear vision of the “new Jew” who would create a utopian classless society based on agriculture. In all cases, life was lived “deliberately” in the sense that individuals infused their daily behaviors with significance.

Understandably, intentional communities held an allure for only a minority of the Jewish population. Average Jews tended to inhabit natural communities, where they wore their identity more effortlessly, behaved less self-consciously, and perpetuated themselves simply by having families in which children imitated adults. Natural communities, however, tended to thrive when the surroundings set the Jew apart legally, socially or economically. Once those boundaries were lowered, natural communities historically found it hard to maintain their distinctiveness, and within a few generations declined.

The Relationship of Intentional and Natural Communities

Of course, throughout Jewish history these two types of communities interacted to varying degrees and in different ways. Some intentional communities, like the Essenes, moved far away from everyone else to build separate societies with minimal contact with other Jews; others, like the medieval pietists or kabbalists, created enclaves within the natural community, living among other Jews but maintaining separate institutions, like synagogues or study circles, and dedicating themselves fully to their vision of the ideal life.

Some intentional communities, however, were more integrated within the larger Jewish society. What enabled them to do this—maintain their distinctiveness yet be a part of the wider community—was their ability to become the “core” of the natural community: to have other Jews accept their view of the ideal Jewish life, adopt their values and perhaps some of their practices, and designate members of the intentional community as their leaders. Medieval Jewish society, particularly the smaller Ashkenazic communities of Europe, came to revere the rabbinic scholarly elite as their “core,” and Hasidic communities had the zaddik or “rebbe” and his circle at their center. In both cases, we can see the natural community arrayed in concentric peripheral circles around an intentional core, with mutual interactions across the boundaries. Thus, the core may share its intentionality with the natural community and thus strengthen or intensify the latter’s distinctiveness (think of a yeshiva’s or rabbi’s public classes or a Hasidic rebbe’s tisch, farbrengen or talks), while the natural community supplies human and material resources to help maintain the core. The relationship can be symbiotic and mutually fulfilling, though on occasion it can lead to elitist abuse and popular resentment.

Indeed, the intentional core need not be its own independent community. Particularly in our individualistic society, where membership in communities is elastic and ever-changing and most people feel part of multiple communities, establishing a vibrant yet stable core is a challenge. In a growing number of religious communities, a constellation of trained and talented individuals—not all with formal training—serve as an intentional core to a wider social circle. We see this in successful American churches and synagogues—inspiring, charismatic people who serve in multiple capacities within their community. They are its deliberate, thoughtful center.

Understanding Intentionality

By “intentionality,” I mean leading a Jewishly purposeful life in a self-conscious way: having the ability to explain one’s practice in Jewishly meaningful terms, to ground one’s decision-making in Judaism’s rich tradition, and lend “Jewish significance” to one’s daily or regular activities. What are the features of this intentionality?

A central, if not primary, component of intentionality is having a vision of an ideal Jewish life and being able to explain why working towards that goal is meaningful. At first glance, those with faith in the supernatural, such as revelation, divine reward and punishment, or mysticism would have an easier time articulating a vision. However, the history of Zionism and Mordecai Kaplan’s Reconstructionism both show that one can generate a deep vision of the ideal Jewish life without resort to supernatural or metaphysical claims.

Secondly, because I take intentionality to mean leading a deliberate life with Jewishly meaningful choices, it entails finding that source of meaning not within oneself or one’s needs, but in Judaism. In a word, the touchstone of one’s choices (broadly speaking) is Judaism, not the self. One rich mine for meaning is Judaism’s millennia-long textual tradition. The Bible, Mishnah and Talmud, midrashic compilations, biblical commentaries, the Zohar and other mystical texts, and medieval and more recent codes are rich sources of Jewish meaning. For those who observe Halakhah and see in Judaism a legal code, the purposefulness is embedded in obedience to that set of laws, though we should be quick to add that even among Orthodox Jews, rote performance without awareness of the reasons or significance of one’s behaviors would be a feature of a ‘natural’ Judaic community as existed widely in pre-war Eastern Europe.[2]

Non-halakhic Jews can also frame their view of the tradition in normative terms by deliberately engaging with the Jewish textual tradition. One’s decision-making must be reflective and thoughtful, not haphazard or convenient, and grounded in Jewish sources without necessarily being ipso facto subservient to them. Early Reform’s emphasis on the prophetic tradition is an example of an ‘intentional’ Jewish life, where textual sources of Judaism were the touchstone of one’s religious choices, even if Reform’s interpretive framework allowed them to reach conclusions quite different from those of Jewish tradition to that point. Jewish history can also be incorporated into this thought process, as the founders of Conservative Judaism and Reconstructionism sought to do, though I believe bringing in Jewish history as a “source” of Judaism is based on notions of Jewish peoplehood that in today’s environment of religious individualism cannot be assumed but must be articulated and defended.

A third feature of Jewish purposefulness is regularity and commitment—in other words, a life with ritual. Implicit in the notion of an intentional religious life is the assertion that religion makes claims upon us to which we must respond, that Judaism is not merely a resource for us when and if we want or need it. Like all great traditions, Judaism is able to teach us, challenge us, inspire us and elevate us—not just to affirm us. Admittedly, this may be at odds with our contemporary therapeutic American culture, where relevance to one’s own needs and aspirations is often the basis for significance. But as we saw, an intentional community is defined by some notion of behavioral standards and disciplined performance with the promise of a higher, richer, more meaningful life. A tradition is able to perform its instructive and elevating role precisely because it includes regular, consistent engagement and ritualistic behavior by practitioners for whom the only question is how, not whether, to engage. In an intentional community, members strive to retain the spiritual vitality of its rituals, but they never abandon them when not in the mood.

Living a Jewish calendar is thus an essential ingredient in the religiously purposeful life. Annual or more regular celebrations provide significance in embodied, even sensual ways and become occasions to dig into Judaism’s deep reservoir of sources and history for meaning. Jewish holidays that are essentially family reunions, or which lack ritual and reflection, may be enjoyable, but they are features of natural, not intentional, communities. As I noted above, purposefulness implies giving the tradition its voice(s), an activity that involves a degree of honesty and seriousness, acknowledging the presence of many voices and values within the tradition even if only one resonates with us.

Vision, engagement with Jewish sources, reflective performance of regular ritual—these are what I take to be the elements of a purposeful Jewish community.

The Day School as an Intentional Community: Ensuring the Core

We live in a time and place where Jewish ethnic and social bonds that 50 years ago seemed so self-evident and sustainable are proving to be thin and unstable. The individualistic, highly mobile and multicultural environment of North America, coupled with the abandonment of traditional Jewish social markers such endogamy (in-marriage), Shabbat and kashrut by the majority of Jews, has brought about the decline of the “natural” Judaic community. Put another way, the conditions that ensured the persistence of a large natural Judaic community for centuries—legal, religious or cultural exclusion from the wider society and thorough ritual distinctiveness—are gone, and a residual ethnic or even nostalgic identity is hard to sustain and will, according to most sociologists, be only partially successful.

With few alternatives, I submit that the Jewish community as a whole must look to ensuring a more vibrant intentional community that can accomplish two things: serve as the current ‘core’ for the wider Jewish population, and help cultivate “intentional Jews” who will make up the core of their own communities when they are adults. I believe that Jewish day schools across the denominational spectrum can fill that vital role—but only if they are Jewishly purposeful themselves, and empower and encourage their graduates to be the same.[3]

I hope I have already successfully sketched out the critical ingredients for a purposeful Judaic community. As applied to day schools, it means first and foremost the articulation of a vision—stated clearly and unabashedly —how leading an intentional Jewish life adds meaning and richness to one’s existence, both as a Jew and as a human being. As in all mission-driven schools, these need to be the polestars for every decision within the school, and if necessary, taught to the wider school community through parent and board education.[4]

If the Jewish tradition is to be, in some form, the touchstone of one’s decision-making, then students must achieve familiarity with it. The Judaics curriculum must aim at a reasonable level of literacy, by which I mean knowledge of the rich and lengthy textual tradition of Judaism and the history of the Jewish people as well. Judaic courses must both teach and model reflective practice, noting the basis for school practice and cultivating in students the capacity to make those intentional choices themselves.

To achieve this level of literacy, I think day schools cannot shy away from the goal of Hebrew fluency in their students. Only knowledge of Hebrew will enable day school alumni to engage the manifold Jewish sources in the original. If our graduates are to be able to hear Judaism speak in its own voices, they must understand the language—otherwise, they are handicapped and dependent on others to tell them what the tradition says and even means (translations are helpful, but only up to a point, as they necessarily miss the nuances of the original and impose the translator’s interpretations on the reader). The importance of Hebrew can be underscored in school communications, in speeches at graduation, and of course the curriculum itself. Serious engagement with Jewish sources depends on language study driven by standards rather than sentimentality.

Moreover, the day school calendar must be rich in regular, consistent Jewish observances, including holidays, commemorations and other events. To be clear: I am not insisting that these practices all assume Orthodox or halakhic character, but they do need to be purposeful: based on knowledgeable engagement with the tradition, reflecting commitment, and based on an underlying belief in the value of a Jewish life. I believe that in pluralistic, non-Orthodox settings, a reflective, transparent process whereby communities develop their rituals, understand their bases and meaning and stick to them with some consistency has the capacity to produce an intentional Judaic community.

This type of work does not have to wait until students can grapple with texts; teachers can present stories and concepts to younger children that allow them to begin this intentional activity earlier. However, the curriculum must ultimately evolve developmentally and bring the students to knowledge of, and engagement with, the sources of Judaism and model an increasingly sophisticated, nuanced encounter with the tradition that characterizes an intentional Jewish community. Shabbatons or other experiential activities are additional opportunities to develop this capacity in children.

As Alex Pomson and Randal Schnoor recently showed,[5] this type of Judaic experience also has an impact on adults, both parents and others. Their book illustrates how a day school, a mini-intentional community, helps bring older, more “natural” Jews to greater purposefulness about their Jewishness, without having an explicit outreach agenda. As I noted, natural communities are in search of identity markers, and in the case study presented in the book, the day school became the “intentional core” for the concentric circles around it. Similar anecdotes abound.

Of course, day schools can choose to be “natural communities,” extensions of Jewish communities where ethnic identity is strong and a sense of Jewish distinctiveness assumed. Their curriculum will understandably be very different, as there will be no need to cultivate a deliberately Jewish life in the way I described. The ritual life of the school will likely be unreflective, seamlessly connected with that of the home or community—simply based on “this is what we do.” There is certainly a place in the American landscape for such schools. I believe, however, that America’s current climate of religious choice, personal journeys and multiculturalism will mean the decline of natural Judaic communities, and the day schools on this model will leave most alumni unprepared to affirm or embrace a Jewishly purposeful life in adulthood.

Day Schools as Incubators of Intentional Jewish Adults

Aside from being an intentional community itself, the day school also has the capacity to “incubate” intentional Jewish adults.

Day school alumni—and likely a minority of them—have the potential to serve as the “core” of their future communities, the axes around which people and institutions of a more ‘natural’ Judaic character can gather or rally. Their knowledge of sources and Jewish tradition, their ability to elevate practice by articulating its meaning and giving it depth, their skills at leading services, reading Torah, conducting ceremonies and giving divrei Torah—in a word, living a committed Jewish life—is unique among their peers, and can be the ‘intentional core’ around which more natural communities coalesce.

Of course, this means that the day school experience must ensure that these intentional young Jews not merely stick to themselves after graduation, as the medieval mystics did, or move out to their own communities, as the Qumran community went out to the Dead Sea. Instead, the day school must do its best to instill a sense of arevut (responsibility) to the broader Jewish community, which it can do by encouraging leading services in their synagogues or at elder residences, helping out mourners during their grieving period (possibly by teaching or leading services), taking a lead in designing Jewish community events, serving as youth movement directors, camp counselors, etc. These youngsters, often with better Judaic training than their parents (especially in non-Orthodox schools), should be incentivized to undertake these responsibilities with respect to their fellow Jews (e.g., reduction in day school tuition if they serve as youth movement leaders or camp counselors). With limited resources, Jewish philanthropists can choose to pursue each and every Jew wherever s/he happens to be on the periphery—a costly and high risk approach—or they can wisely invest in strengthening those who can serve as the intentional core of the future Jewish community—provided the schools cultivate and reinforce Judaic intentionality.

To be frank, in light of what we know about the developmental, social and psychological aspects of identity formation, with more enduring life choices in most cases occurring only after college or marriage, I am unsure what we can realistically expect of the K-8 day school framework, which ceases when children are 13 or 14. Given the nature of adolescent development, I think a Jewish high school is even more vital in ensuring an “intentional” Jewish adult, though even here the story continues to be written into college and beyond. After all, Birthright’s success is at least partially attributable to its focus on 18-26 year olds, not adolescents. But I leave that for another discussion.


I hope I have provided a strong argument for the formation and support of Jewishly purposeful day schools that help cultivate intentional Jewish adults. I admit this runs counter to the notion of an inclusive Jewish school that reflects the diversity of the community by welcoming all those who identify as Jews and wish to practice it at their own levels whatever those may be. That, in essence, is a legitimate brief for the day school as an extension of a “natural” Judaic community, as the “public school” of the Jewish community.

However, I believe the success of Jewish education ought to be measured not by those who seek personal affirmation in their religious education, but by what RAVSAK indeed calls “its client”: the Jewish future. A day school model that merely reflects the extant community will, by definition, share in the latter’s fortunes, which for most of contemporary American Jewry means demographic decline, growing alienation, and a struggle to recruit the young.

The current realities, as I see them, call for reversing those trends by forming and supporting intentional Judaic communities that can serve as the “core” for concentric circles of Jews and actually help produce a population of purposeful Jewish adults to lead the wider Jewish community in and into the future. Day schools, like few other institutions, can meet that challenge, but they must pursue a robust Jewish purposefulness in everything they do to guarantee their students emerge as intentional Jewish adults with a sense of responsibility for other Jews. Our client—the Jewish future—deserves no less. ♦

Dr. Michael S. Berger is associate professor of Jewish law and ethics in Emory University’s Department of Religion and Tam Institute for Jewish Studies, and serves as a program officer to the Avi Chai Foundation. He can be reached at

[1] I first encountered this helpful distinction in Martin S. Jaffee, Early Judaism: Religious Worlds of the First Judaic Millenium (Prentice Hall, 1997), pp. 134f.

[2] Haym Soloveitchik characterizes the natural community as “mimetic” and the intentional community as a “text tradition.” See his “Rupture and Reconstructions: The Transformation of Contemporary Orthodoxy,” Tradition 28:4 (1994): 64-130. While I find his distinction helpful for a description of Orthodoxy, I feel the distinction of “natural” and “intentional” communities cuts across all denominations, and is thus more helpful for the purposes of this essay.

[3] I believe Jewishly purposeful summer camps do succeed in creating intentional communities, but their limited nature (four or eight weeks) limits their ability to produce a lasting intentional community or enduring intentional Jews, unless these young people come back each summer for several years or continue their engagement with Judaism in other ways.

[4] Seymour Fox z”l insisted on the centrality of vision in day school education. The volume he co-edited Visions of Jewish Education (New York: Cambridge U P, 2003) includes the effort of several educators from across the Jewish spectrum to articulate realizable Jewish visions in day schools.

[5]Back to School: Jewish Day Schools in the Lives of Adults (Wayne State University Press, 2008).

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