All Things to All People?

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October 1, 2001
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Yossi Prager

One of the more interesting recent develop-ments in day school education is the large number of new schools that aim to serve a broad spectrum of Jewish families. Most of the non-Orthodox elementary schools – and 10 of the 12 non-Orthodox high schools – that opened in the past decade are trans-denominational (sometimes called Community or pluralistic). In most of these cases, the overwhelming majority of the student bodies are from Conservative, Reform and unaffiliated families, with a sprinkling of Orthodox-identified children.

In some cases, the decision to open a pluralistic school is ideological, driven by a laudable desire to unify our people through education. In many communities, a more practical motive drives the decision – the need to attract enough students to fill a class. While the Orthodox routinely send their children to day schools, only 5 percent of the non-Orthodox currently do, and the numbers are even smaller at the high school level. As a result, new non-Orthodox schools must service a broad population in order to draw the critical mass of students and financial support.

Whatever the reason, new Community schools are sprouting across the country, and many Jews are applauding this model for klal Yisrael. Less frequently discussed are the challenges inherent in this pluralistic model.

Community schools are inevitably affected by the religious diversity of the families they seek to attract. One of the critical, early decisions is whether to admit students of Jewish fathers and non-Jewish mothers. By Reform standards, these children are Jewish; by Conservative standards, they are not. From a Conservative family’s halachic perspective, a patrilineal standard – the one that many transdenominational schools adopt – has the effect of mixing Jews and non-Jews in the same school. It should not be surprising if these two groups consider marrying into each other, a problem for parents committed to a matrilineal standard.

Another challenge to transdenominational schools arises from their responsibility to instill in students a passion for Jewish practice. The question is then raised: whose practice? For example, will birkat hamazon be communally recited after lunch? If so, which version? Daily prayer is also an issue. Given the range of practices and the spectrum of families serviced, some high schools offer several prayer options, ranging from meditation to a traditional service. Other schools view some of these options as Jewishly unacceptable and dodge the issue entirely by not offering daily prayer.

Finally, there are educational issues that stem from differing parental conceptions of the schools. In theory, parents expect day schools to do it all: provide a first-rate general studies education, comparable with the best available elsewhere, and also a quality Jewish studies program. However, there is a limit to what can be taught in a school day that ends no later than 3:30-4:00. Invariably, schools must rank their priorities: A foreign language or rabbinics? Drama or Jewish history? The specific questions vary among the schools, but every day school must decide on the length of the school day and the allocation of scarce teaching hours. These decisions are of obvious concern to parents, and transdenominational schools, with their diverse parent body, are often the most challenged by competing parental demands. As a result, it is critical that new Community schools articulate a plan for their Jewish educational program that is substantially more concrete than the standard mission statement. The burden of crafting and promoting this educational plan falls primarily on the headmaster, creating the need for exceptionally talented educational leaders.

Ultimately, Community schools excel at teaching about options and instilling in students a tolerance for Jews from different backgrounds. Rather than merely resting on these strengths, these schools must work to clarify the critical issues of their own identity that emerge from decisions about admissions, the practice of Jewish ritual, the length of the school day and the curricular and co-curricular program. They owe this to themselves, their students, and us, the Jewish public.

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Yossi Prager is the North American Executive Director of The AVI CHAI Foundation.

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