Who Will Support the Reform of Jewish Supplementary Schools?

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March 1, 2002
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By David Schoem

In “Rethinking and Redesigning the Religious School,” Isa Aron and her colleagues describe a series of sensible, innovative, and high-quality approaches to Jewish education. Their multifaceted approach to improving supplementary Jewish schools, one that engages Jews in the life of their Jewish community, is right on target. It is clear that as congregations and other Jewish communal institutions are revitalized, so too will Jewish supplementary schools.

I sincerely hope that the organized Jewish community moves ahead with Ms. Aron’s recommendations. But I find it difficult to share her confidence that today’s “Jewish community leaders… cannot avoid dealing with congregational education.” In fact, Jewish community leaders have a long history of doing just that – successfully avoiding supplementary Jewish schooling. A flurry of in-depth research studies nearly twenty-five years ago pointed quite clearly to the issues of identity and community underlying the poor quality of these schools. Yet, despite those and subsequent studies, the organized Jewish community has shown little sustained interest or commitment to improving Jewish supplementary schools over the past quarter century.

The ideal of the Jewish supplementary school, as set forth by the early and influential leaders of Jewish education and Jewish life in America, including Isaac Berkson, Alexander Dushkin, and Horace Kallen, was to balance the dual identity and dual consciousness of Jewish Americans. Jewish children would learn the ways of secular American life through public education and sustain their Jewish knowledge, culture, and religion through the supplementary school.

The majority of Jewish families hold true to this ideal, as evidenced by their continued attendance at such schools. And this ideal is as important today as it was throughout the 20th century. The American Jewish community depends upon a strong, diverse democracy and needs to contribute to the strengthening of public education and the public good of all Americans to maintain the sense of safety and support that Jews in this country enjoy.

At the same time, the concerns raised about Jewish identity and continuity since the 1990 National Jewish Population Study are very real and should not be minimized. How we maintain our Jewish identity while thriving in a pluralistic America is an exceedingly difficult challenge. It requires enduring commitment, support, and creativity from everyone in the organized Jewish community.

Unfortunately, the organized Jewish community has had a single-minded emphasis on Jewish day schools as the educational response to Jewish continuity concerns. While day schools certainly offer an environment for in-depth Jewish studies, they also bring their own set of problems. In my classes at the University of Michigan, for instance, students who have attended Jewish high schools typically are among the most intellectually parochial and socially inexperienced. They rarely have met people who are not Jewish, they are filled with stereotypes about non-Jews, and they are fearful of social contact with people of color.

Unlike Aron, I am less than certain that the neglect of afternoon schools in the past twenty years was “benign.” Many Jewish leaders adopted the hyperbolic and divisive language delineating those Jews who were at the “core” of the community (read: those who send their children to day schools) and those who were peripheral (read: those who send their children to supplementary schools or to no Jewish schools at all).

Not only did congregational schools become the pariahs of the community, but even the Jewish parents and their children who attended these schools – representing the majority of the Jewish community – were seemingly discarded as irrelevant to the continuity and survival of American Jewry. Can anyone expect Jewish congregational schools to be successful when their congregational rabbis and Jewish education directors send their own kids to day schools and look upon those involved in congregational supplementary schools (their own congregants) as the margins of the community?

The organized Jewish community must urgently reconsider its lack of support for both supplementary schooling and for those large numbers of Jews who place their Jewish futures there. Aron, Lee, and Weinberg’s specific five models are excellent, touching on adults and children, day care, Shabbat havurot, camping, and community events. But, as the authors themselves acknowledge, these need not be the only models. Their point, rather, is that with the support of the organized Jewish community, supplementary schools can break out of the stale and failed approach that we all know too well and respond by building a bright educational future for Jewish children living in a pluralistic America.

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David Schoem teaches the Sociology of the American Jewish Community at the University of Michigan. His newest book is Intergroup Dialogue: Deliberative Democracy in School, College, Community and Workplace. He is also the author of Ethnic Survival in America: An Ethnography of a Jewish Afternoon School.

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