Balancing “Too Jewish”with “Not Jewish Enough”
“You cannot avoid having your children be American… you can prevent them from being Jewish: just don’t educate them.”
His outburst amazed me but his message was completely clear: our school was “too Jewish” for him. Recently, I received a call from a current parent advising me that she had met the grandparents of a young child who said that the family was considering our school. “But they wanted to know if the kids have to wear yarmalkes,” she reported, “and when I said ‘yes,’ they said they really didn’t know if that ‘would fly’.” Needless to say, I didn’t place that family on the “likely to enroll” list.
What makes a community day school “too Jewish”? Many of us struggle with this issue. At the 2007 RAVSAK conference session on “Everything to Everyone,” many of the participants indicated that one of their major problems was being seen as “too Jewish.” Sydney Hart, of Northeastern Illinois University, has written that “one of the main dilemmas facing American Jews [today] is how to balance being Jewish enough without becoming too Jewish.” He notes that “Jews often struggle with the simultaneous experience of being too Jewish (and therefore not properly or fully assimilated) and not Jewish enough (because they and others often identify true Jews with Orthodox ritual practice). This struggle concurrently accepts and resists the notion of ‘Jew’ and ‘American’ as separate but related categories.”
At what tipping point does a community day school become “too Jewish” for some families? In addition to those that draw the line at the wearing of kippot, or those who object to ritual handwashing, there are those who claim that a dual curriculum cannot possibly cover all the “material” that a public school does, others who object to “wasting” time with prayer and yet others who believe that a day school cannot prepare students to compete in the modern world of technology and globalization.
The interesting thing about all these objections is that there is absolutely no basis for them, other than personal opinion and “conventional wisdom.” Like an urban myth, the allegations about a day school being “too Jewish,” and therefore inappropriate, flourish in the absence of anecdotal evidence or research studies that verify their validity. In fact, the many research studies that have been done prove the contrary, but are ignored by those who cling to this antiquated idea.
The dilemma faced by our schools – entities envisioned as independent schools – is made more complex by assumptions regarding private education. As noted by Dr. Marc N. Kramer (2000), “Stereotypes of private schools resonate strongly for many Americans: gold-crested blue blazers, ivy draped walls, English-accented headmasters, and towheaded ‘preppies’ sauntering across picturesque New England campuses. These images remain very much a part of the collective think of the American middle class, who despite a rather more complex reality, continue to envision private education in the exclusive realm of the Anglo-Saxon Protestant elite or religiously fervent Christian communities.”
The reasoning is historical. Day schools were originally and traditionally the province of the Orthodox community and, as such, were rejected by Jews in America in favor of public schools, which were seen as the entry to American society. As Rabbi David Wolpe has written, “Public schools Americanize….That was the traditional wisdom,” and it worked for the generations who grew up earlier in this century and sent their own children to public schools.
However, as Rabbi Wolpe goes on to note, “The traditional wisdom has betrayed us, and it is time to face the truth. First, you cannot avoid having your children be American. They live with movies and music and malls and sports and television. As long as they live in this country, they will be American. But you can prevent your children from being Jewish: just don’t educate them.”
The community day school movement is the answer for a new generation of Americans, those who want their children to be both American and Jewish. The research on the value of Jewish day school education is solid, of long-standing and validated. And the tide is changing. In a recent article, Rabbi David Ellenson, author of After Emancipation, wrote “Day schools are at the heart of where Jewish renewal and renaissance can be.” Just as the children of Israel had to wander in the desert for forty years to develop new ways of thinking, so too do American Jewish parents have to divest themselves of the idea of “too Jewish” in order forge a new identity as both Americans and Jews.
And, by the way, that father from the beginning of this article? His three children attended and graduated from our school and are very successful today.