HAYIDION The Prizmah Journal


What if Our Schools Are Too Jewish?

by Dr. Marc N. Kramer Issue: Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?

In a certain sense, formulating this issue of HaYidion around the question of a school’s Jewishness is something of a red herring: Very few readers of this journal would claim to be in the business of reducing the religious and cultural tenor of a school, and to be sure, no one at RAVSAK wants to see Jewish commitments decline. Those of us committed in word, deed and purse to Jewish community day school education are in it for the Jewish bit – there are secular institutions of academic excellence for our children in both the private and public sectors, there are countless schools that dream of employing educators like us, and frankly, most non-profit organizations would give their eye teeth for lay leaders like ours. In our small corner of the universe, “too Jewish” reads as an oxymoron. The analogies are easy and there to be had by all: Too Jewish is like too pretty (di kale is schoin shein), too rich, too smart, and too good. All we want is for our schools to be a success.

“Would it kill you to cut just one period a week of Hebrew bible so my daughter could have a dance elective?”

Yet.

Yet, “success” is measured by increased enrollment. The vast majority of families who seriously consider a Jewish community day school will need to traverse the rocky waters of school choice, an experience framed by one’s own school experience (likely public school), what one’s peers are doing with their children (likely not a Jewish school), what the grandparents think and are willing to pay for (a crap-shoot, to be sure), and how much the values of the school resonate with life at home (and given the conflation of “values” and “behaviors,” this seems limited and limiting). Parents almost always choose schools that look and feel like what they know. Kippot, kashrut, Chumash, Mishnah, midot (or worse, midos) – behaviors and subject areas they do not necessarily understand, have the capacity to support, engage in at home, take away from math and reading, or have anything to do with applying to the Ivy League. Days off from school when the workplace is open. Rules about lunch that seem crafted for the rabbi’s kids alone. So much attention to a language spoken in only one country on earth? Would it kill you to cut just one period a week of Hebrew bible so my daughter could have a dance elective? If we want to increase enrollment and measure success by it, then perhaps our schools are too Jewish.

Plus, “success” is understood by the bottom line. Two teaching faculties are at least twice the cost of one, and the funds expended in search of Judaic teachers are extraordinary. Multiple sections of English lit might make some sense, but three levels of Hebrew? Please. How many charities do not support religious institutions? When is the last time your football team had a major corporate sponsor? How much of the actual cost of education is the result of the dual curriculum and increasingly costly Judaic staff and leadership? I’m sure that I could sell more tables at the annual gala if it was on a Friday night and served shrimp cocktail and good wine just like everyone else. The local prep school just opened a state-of-the-art science lab, but you want to spend even more on something called “Neta?” If we want to improve the bottom line and measure success by it, then perhaps our schools are too Jewish.

Yet, the real commodity of the school is where the students go next. Families, rightfully so, see day school tuition as an investment in the futures of their children. What can you do to guarantee my son a place at Fancypants Country Day? How many of your 3rd graders are early acceptance at Yale? If you can prove that Gemara will enhance my daughter’s chance at MIT, then fine, otherwise, she’ll need AP bio, chem., and physics. Parents will pay extra for SAT prep, a geometry tutor, a college application coach, and Suzuki violin, but a Hebrew tutor… I send my kid to a Jewish day school! What do you mean he needs help in Hebrew? Board meetings come to fist-to-cuffs over which grade will get a robotics elective or an in-class pottery wheel – these look great on a child’s resume; Rashi might open a child’s eyes to a world of wonder, but until it is a pre-requisite at Choate, it may not get much support. If where a student goes after day school is our real commodity, then our schools are too Jewish.

Also, teaching the particularities of Judaism in the global village is counter-cultural and potentially counter-productive. In a day where common ground is the real terra sancta, teaching a unique love for Israel simply does not make sense. More so, the Berlin Wall has come down, inter-Irish strife is a thing of the past, the Balkan states at peace, so why focus on the never-ended cycle of sorrow in the Middle East? Our children need to develop the skills and dispositions to be citizens of the world, and certainly this trumps any anachronistic notion of mentchlicheit. “Spanish is the new English” and untold fortunes are to be made in China and India, so what does speaking Hebrew and uncovering the treasures of Torah have to do with my child’s chance at being well connected and successful? The fostering of a positive Jewish identity is simply in conflict with the meta-trends of society. If we want our children to forgo Jewish peculiarities in the name of globalization, then our schools are too Jewish.

And really, the Jewishness of the school is designed to make a small but vocal minority happy at the expense of the rest of the families. By most accounts, the majority of the families we serve (and think of all the families we could serve), do not care deeply about the Judaic side of the school’s equation, but instead, begrudgingly accept the “religious” stuff in the name of tolerance, community spirit, or more pragmatically, for the sake of keeping seats filled. Most of our students keep kosher only at school. Most students never discuss G-d outside of the classroom. Many students only engage in formal prayer in school. Only a small fraction of our student body lives in homes of rich Jewish commitments. Why in the world should we be exposing/imposing on the majority of our constituents this way? Couldn’t the frum kids just have their own class? If policies of maximal inclusion are unpalatable, then our schools are too Jewish.

And most importantly, who really believes that the future of the Jewish People is dependent on one of our schools? Our teachers have an enormous task in trying to impart general knowledge in a rapidly changing world. Life is scarier and faster moving than ever before; our schools must be dedicated to giving our children everything they need to not only survive, but thrive. Is it fair to lay the burdens of Jewish continuity, religious purposefulness, a love of Israel, and more on our teachers and, to be sure, on our kids? There are only 1.5 million of them in North America, for Heaven’s Sake! Unless you think that your school has something to do with a vibrant Jewish future, then our schools are too Jewish.

Too pretty, too smart, too rich, too Jewish.

Dr. Marc N. Kramer is the Executive Director of RAVSAK. He is the recipient of the 2006 Covenant Award. Marc can be reached at mkramer@ravsak.org.

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Too Jewish? Not Jewish Enough?

At some point, most day schools find themselves confronted with the question, Are we too Jewish? If we confine Jewish studies to fewer hours in the school day, will more students come? Authors here agree that the “Jewish” part of the school’s mission and identity should be proudly front and center in defining a day school’s raison d’etre.

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