In an effort to build conversation and generate ideas around what would make Jewish day school more attractive to non-Orthodox parents, the AVI CHAI and Steinhardt foundations have opened a discussion here on AVI CHAI’s blog where we will be sharing a series of guest blog posts. These posts represent the personal views of the authors and should not be regarded as statements of the views of either foundation.
By: Irene Lehrer Sandalow
In February of this year the AVI CHAI and Steinhardt Foundations posed the question: What would make day schools more attractive to non-Orthodox parents?
If Jewish day schools were known as institutions that meaningfully instill students with social justice values, would more non-Orthodox parents send their child? As a day school parent and a Jewish social justice activist, I believe that the unique merit of day schools is its ability to shape the next generation of menschen who are proudly rooted in Jewish tradition and actively engaged in the social issues of our time.
Day Schools Should Represent the Liberal Values of their Families
A 2008 study about the perception of Jewish Day School among non-Orthodox Jews notes that “[t]he perceived religiosity, scholastic singularity, and social structure of Jewish day schools are leading non-Orthodox parents to believe that, Jewishly and academically, day school education ‘isn’t for people like me,’ ” The study also points out that one of the key barriers for these parents is the perceived lack of diversity.[i]
What would it mean for a school to feel more “like them” to prospective parents? Day schools need to shift the perception of being a community that is insular and does not prepare them to engage with the diversity of a global society. According to the most comprehensive study of American Jewish attitudes toward social justice engagement, the vast majority (about 90%) of American Jews agree with the following statements: “Jews have a responsibility to work on behalf of the poor, the oppressed, and minority groups” and “When Jewish organizations engage in social justice work, it makes me feel proud to be a Jew.”[ii] If day schools want to attract non-Orthodox families, they have to demonstrate that they are committed to passing on the progressive values the parents deeply cherish.
Teaching Midot as Building Block for Caring about Social Issues
Jewish social justice education is not only attractive to parents but it is also integral to the mission of Jewish education. Jewish education is about learning our heritage, ensuring the continuity of Jewish practices, supporting of the State of Israel, but most importantly it is producing the next generation of upstanding Jews who improve our society by bringing our Jewish ethical values to the public sphere. Social justice education is an extension of the study of compassion, humility, generosity, and honesty. Many schools already find learning these midot, or character traits that are at the core of leading a moral and religious life, to be important. In no way do I underestimate the importance modeling these values at home; however, the school has the potential to strongly reinforce them. Teaching good midot are the first step and the building blocks to develop students with upstanding moral character and to develop their sensitivity to injustice. Social justice education would help them understand that poverty is the failure of our system to take care of all people in our society, that when we do not protest against the transgressions of our community we are liable for its transgressions. It would also provide with models of how Jews can affect the public sphere. We want our children to respond to Isaiah’s call of justice we read on Yom Kippur “to break the chains of injustice, get rid of exploitation in the workplace, free the oppressed.”
Jewish Social Justice Education and Action Core to the Curriculum
Jewish social justice education should not be treated as an optional extracurricular activity. I suggest that day schools develop a curriculum from early childhood to graduation to study and implement social justice values. The calendar should include days dedicated to service and advocacy. The Jewish and secular holidays provides with ample opportunities to incorporate these ideas. The great news is that there has been a significant growth of social justice educational programs for the day schools to draw from (AJWS, JCUA, Panim El Panim, Mazon, RAC, and many more.) Day Schools do not need to reinvent the educational programs. There are also many opportunities to partner with Jewish social justice organizations.
Diversity in Your Own Backyard
Day schools can address the issue of diversity in their community through Jewish social justice education, but also by highlighting the diversity in their own school. In class, my son is exposed to diverse economic backgrounds, color of skin, countries of origins including Iran,Israel,Russia, and different approaches to practicing Jewish life. The students learn how to negotiate and appreciate these differences in their own classroom. Some schools might not have the benefits of a diverse Jewish community, but it does not mean they cannot seek it out in other ways. Schools can partner with other schools with a diverse student body to create programs that provide for encounters, exchanges, and relationship building.
Socially Conscious Individuals Prepared for the Diverse American Community and Global Society
Rabbi David Ellenson and Michael Zeldin wrote in a 2004 editorial poignantly made the claim for the benefits of Jewish Day Schools in preparing students for diversity:
[…] Reform day school education indicates that a significant number of liberal Jewish parents now regard our tradition as a precious source that will allow our children to anchor and explore their personal and communal identity as Jews in a meaningful way. Such education permits many of us as parents to express our confidence that the values and teachings of Jewish tradition that our children will learn from a liberal Jewish perspective in such schools will cause our children to contribute as Jews to the American public square in an authentic liberal Jewish voice.[iii]
Day Schools students who are firmly grounded in Jewish culture, tradition, and history, develop the confidence and backing to deal with diverse communities and become outspoken advocates on issues they care about. If day schools can make that a visible priority of their school’s philosophy, the parents will feel more at home in their institution and find comfort to see their values celebrated and passed on to their children.
[i] 2008 UJA-Federation of New York Study “To Go or Not To Go: Perception of Jewish Day Schools Among Non-Orthodox Parents in Manhattan and Long Island”
[ii] Cohen, Steven M. Fein, Leonard. American Jews and Their Social Justice Involvement: Evidence from a National Survey. Amos – The National Jewish Partnership for Social Justice. 21 November 2001: http://www.bjpa.org/Publications/details.cfm?PublicationID=4692