Day Schools: Preparing Students to Engage with the World’s Diversity

Even more than they express misgivings about the cost of day school education, parents worry that sending their children to a Jewish day school may socially cripple them or leave them ill-equipped to deal with the diversity so prevalent—and so exalted--across North American society. To many, the day school appears to be only a sheltering cocoon, at best a place for young children to receive a foundation in Jewish culture and values before joining the rest of their peers in that ever-bubbling melting pot, public high school.

As we consider this concern about day schools, though, a few voices resonate.

The first voice is from remarks of a recent graduate of Gann Academy, a pluralistic Jewish high school in Waltham, MA:

“During Shabbatonim, school wide holiday celebrations, Judaic classes, and morning and afternoon prayer, we are forced to confront our diversity in order to achieve religious experiences that are acceptable, comfortable, and religiously legitimate for each student and faculty member. This process is not easy and is something that the community as a whole has been grappling with for as long as I’ve been a student. The Gann community will continue to struggle with it for years to come because this struggle is the essence of this kind of education. While in many public schools students need to tolerate diversity, here, each student needs to navigate through the many religious options in order to formulate his or her own Jewish experience and identity.”

The author, who was educated in Jewish day schools from kindergarten straight through high school, captures the tension of what diversity looks like in Jewish schools. Even at schools that are not religiously pluralistic in mission, we know that students from different socio-economic or cultural backgrounds are forced to confront differences among themselves. Jewish day schools are certainly more diverse than meets the eye.

When prospective parents mention diversity, it is almost always linked to a concern about how their children will manage in life beyond “the bubble” of Jewish day school. The second voice, then, emerges from groundbreaking research on day school alumni that PEJE just released, together with Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies. Analyzing surveys from over 3000 Jewish college students, researchers found that:

The “social bubble” of day school is not a sealed social network but is more akin to a safe foundation from which day school students venture forth to meet new friends. Even as they maintain strongly Jewish social networks, undergraduates with a day school history are also immersing themselves in all aspects of campus life and making friends through these activities.

Along with the entire day school field, we at PEJE celebrate these findings. Having data that proves that day school graduates not only survive but thrive amidst the cultural smorgasboard on college campuses validates anecdotal stories like the Gann graduate’s with solid evidence. If we want our children’s education to prepare them for diverse environments, day schools are a great choice.

The third voice is a bit more provocative and counter-intuitive. The concern about lack of exposure to diversity usually emerges from a belief that living in a more diverse community makes people more tolerant and more engaged with the challenges of multiculturalism. Good citizens, we have been convinced, are at their best in diverse environments. Erica Goode, a science editor at The New York Times, recently spotlighted surprising research conducted by social scientist Robert Putnam, the well-known author of Bowling Alone. Putnam’s research upends the conventional wisdom that being in a diverse environment makes one more accepting and open to diversity. Goode, responding to Putnam’s finding that diversity seems to trigger social isolation, ponders this idea:

But what if diversity had an even more complex and pervasive effect? What if, at least in the short term, living in a highly diverse city or town led residents to distrust pretty much everybody, even people who looked like them? What if it made people withdraw into themselves, form fewer close friendships, feel unhappy and powerless and stay home watching television in the evening instead of attending a neighborhood barbecue or joining a community project?

Goode paints this “unsettling picture” based on Putnam’s nationwide research. If living in a diverse environment can have these unintended consequences, perhaps “diversity for the sake of diversity” is a less compelling argument. Instead, strong in-group bonding, such as day schools promote, prepares young people to embrace the diversity they will inevitably encounter with self-confidence, tolerance, and a grounded desire to make a positive difference in the world.

So the question of diversity and day schools is complex. By only scratching the surface, we know that day schools are in fact more diverse than meets the eye, first of all. And second, if the unspoken fear behind the concern for diversity is how day school graduates will function in “the real world,” we now have quantitative evidence that supports the day school case. Finally, we are urged to reconsider the late 20th/early 21st century assumptions about living in a diverse community.

Let us celebrate the diversity within our schools—and the cohesiveness of the day school community--as we prepare our students to participate actively in the mosaic of life which lies beyond the day school walls. And let’s get the word out to more potential parents! ♦

Rabbi Josh Elkin, Ed.D. is the Executive Director of PEJE. Rabbi Elkin can be reached at
Suzanne Kling is PEJE’s Communications Officer. Suzanne can be reached at
Rabbi Josh Elkin, Ed.D. and Suzanne Kling
Published: Fall 2007