My Vision of a Secular Jewish Day School

“If we want to expand enrollment beyond a paltry ten percent, we need to create a school that speaks to the values of contemporary Jews.”

For all the much-touted accomplishments of the Day School movement in the past two decades, the fact remains that they currently appeal to about ten percent of non-Orthodox Jews. Why have we not succeeded in convincing the larger Jewish community of the benefits of day schools?

The obvious answer is the community’s ever-widening rates of assimilation. If parents do not see Judaism as a living and breathing source of daily sustenance, it is no surprise that they refuse to invest in rigorous Jewish education for their children. After all, day schools today are essentially religious institutions in an age when religion is in decline.

Some say the problem is the high costs of day school tuition. Although affordability is certainly a factor, recent data suggests that high tuition may not be as strong a disincentive for the non-Orthodox as some might think. After all, many Jewish parents send their children to private schools - even to schools with a Catholic background.

Unfortunately, our day schools have generally not succeeded in offering the kinds of superlative-quality offerings, both in terms of educational excellence and top-notch facilities, as non-Jewish private schools. If the main goal among today’s parents is not religious instruction for their children, but acceptance into the finest colleges, it is no wonder they choose the best schools in the non-Jewish realm.

But the main reason is the issue of values. The inert, Bible-based Jewish concepts taught in Orthodox and Conservative schools do not resonate among most American Jews. If we want to expand enrollment beyond a paltry ten percent, we need to create a school that speaks to the values of contemporary Jews. From this perspective, the question of whether current schools are “too Jewish” or “not Jewish enough” is off target. In an overwhelmingly secular age we must refashion our education system to reflect what is meaningful today. For all the time that is spent studying the words of Rashi, how much time do day schools invest in secular role models from Emma Lazarus to Hank Greenberg to David ben Gurion? My feeling is far too little.

This is particularly relevant given the overwhelming Jewish embrace of democratic values in America. Many Jewish parents who do not send their children to day schools perceive the idea of day schools as a violation of the universal values they cherish. They want to believe they are not segregating their children from life in the open society, and they often perceive day schools as parochial and as a step backwards in their families’ integration into America.

Ultimately, we must transform what is taught in our day schools. I have long dreamed of creating a secular Jewish day school that will impart the finest and most compelling Jewish values. It will teach Hebrew, the historic and contemporary language of our people. It will teach Jewish history, including the Bible and its attendant religious texts, but it will also teach the extraordinary secular blossoming in every field Jews have entered in the past 300 years. It will teach the amazing contributions Jews have made to our contemporary secular reality - from Baruch Spinoza’s philosophy to Albert Einstein’s science to Milton Friedman’s economics - and it will explore the Jewish undercurrents of their work.

A secular Jewish day school will not remove the existence of God, or indeed deny the importance of God in the formation of Jewish tradition. But it will emphasize tangible Jewish values that have guided our people for centuries: for instance, the primacy of education in Jewish history not only to impart knowledge but as a means of individual and collective liberation; or tzedakah, in all its forms, as an expression of our responsibility for our fellows; or the priority Judaism places not on living for the sake of eternity, but on our embodied, mortal lives in the here and now; or our history as idol-smashers and outsiders providing independent critiques of contemporary society and conventional wisdom.

A secular Jewish day school that is proud but not doctrinaire about our history, culture and religion has the potential to dramatically increase the enrollment of Jews in day school. That is a goal I think we can all get behind.

Michael H. Steinhardt is the Chairman of the Jewish Life Network/Steinhardt Foundation, based in New York, NY.
Michael H. Steinhardt
Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?
Published: Summer 2007