Point: Jewish Schools, for Everyone
In 1965, Shlomo Bardin, the visionary educator and founder of the Brandeis Camp Institute, articulated his case for establishing a college preparatory high school at the site in California. He declared that “the new Academy at Brandeis, California, is based on the premise that Judaism has something to say and to offer in regard to the conduct of [hu]man[ity] in our world.”
Believing that all people had something to learn from Judaism, Bardin called for the school to “be open to all Jews and non-Jews, to black and white, to students from the United States and other lands.” His dream was not realized during his lifetime, but today there are at more than 20 Jewish schools in North America that admit Jews and non-Jews. It is now time for all American Jewish day schools to consider welcoming both Jewish and non-Jewish students and families into their classrooms, playgrounds and communities.
After all, Bardin was right: Jews do have something offer to humanity. As Abraham understood when he heard the divine voice for the first time, we can be a blessing to all the families of the earth (Gen. 12:3). However, because of the particular way Jewish history has unfolded over the past 2,000 years, we have had few opportunities to share that blessing without fear of reprisal. Today things are different. Even though there has been a recent uptick in anti-Semitism, it is still the case that Jews in America feel safer, more respected and more welcomed than Jews have felt at any point in history. Surely this is the time to shine what light we can onto humanity—while, of course, affirming that we can be illuminated by others also.
But we should not reconsider our enrollment policies only because we the have the opportunity to do so; we should also do it out of a sense of obligation. We live at a time like no other in human history. Today, the ravages of war have resulted in a refugee crisis that has resulted in a permanent precariat of approximately 65 million people. The lives of hundreds of millions more are impacted by terror, abuse, poverty and the other innumerable ills that have come to define our societies and the world. We are also feeling the devastating effects of human-induced climate change, the fear of nuclear war, and the unanticipated and destructive power of unfettered industrialization and technological advancement that combine to threaten to bring the miracle of human existence to a premature end. The fundamental question that confronts Judaism at this time is, therefore, do we have something to bring to the advancement of humanity, or do we not?
I believe emphatically that the answer is yes. As such, we have an obligation to share the wisdom, values, beliefs and practices of Judaism as widely as we possibly can. One avenue for achieving this is through opening the doors of our Jewish day schools to all students and families, Jewish or otherwise.
To those who are resistant to such a proposal, here are some other arguments in its favor:
Jewish day schools already include many who do not self-identify as Jews. Parents, faculty and staff members, board members and donors often include non-Jews. If we are comfortable accepting non-Jews in those parts of our school communities, why not in our student body?
In many day schools that only admit students that self-identify as Jewish, the student body often includes those that are (lamentably) not considered Jewish by other members of the school community. Examples include students who are Jewish by patrilineal descent, or whose parents, or themselves, converted to Judaism in a manner not in keeping with the standards of other streams of Judaism. In such cases, what is the meaningful difference between one type of “non-Jew” and another?
Regarding concerns about dating between Jews and non-Jews, we need to face the realities of contemporary American Jewish life. Jewish families that include Jews and non-Jews are more the norm than the exception these days and, despite the scare tactics of the prior generation and establishment leaders, it has not been a death knell for Jewish life in America. In fact, the opposite has been true. (See the 2013 Pew study, Karen McGinty, Still Jewish: A History of Women and Intermarriage in America, Marrying Out: Jewish Men, Intermarriage, and Fatherhood, and Samira Mehta, Beyond Chrismukkah: The Christian-Jewish Interfaith Family in the United States.)
In a related way, as American Jews have become more integrated into the rich and diverse tapestry of American life, the simple binary of “Jew” and “non-Jew” has become a less than accurate way to understand American Jewish identity. In truth, most American Jews are now hybrids, possessing multiple and overlapping identities. Our enrollment policies must reflect the complexity of identity in contemporary American life and welcome not only those who self-identify as Jewish, but also those who wish to participate in the life of the Jewish community, just as so many Jews participate in the larger American reality.
Finally, it is unfortunate that a community with such a tragic history of exclusion would want to maintain exclusive policies for their own institutions.
Now, inviting non-Jews into Jewish schools is not simply a question of policy. There are also a number of practical considerations that must be considered. The presence of “non-Jews” (in quotations to remind us that the binary isn’t all that meaningful anymore) in our schools will also force us to reconsider our formal and experiential Jewish curriculum.
We will need to identify those aspects of Jewish wisdom, values, beliefs and practices that will serve humankind in the pursuit of a more just and compassionate world. And yes, we will have to rethink the place of Hebrew language so that the learning is accessible to all students. In addition, we will have to invite those families from other religions and wisdom traditions (including unchurched atheists) to share the best of their own knowledge and experience so that our Jewish schools are open to the talmudic view that truth is found in many places (Shabbat 104a).
This kind of Jewish school would be a paradigm shift for Jewish education and would be a meaningful step towards achieving the ultimate goal of all Jewish schools (even if they don’t use these exact words): to bring blessing to all the families of the world.
It is time for the lay and professional leadership of these 20-plus schools, and any others that are considering a similar move, to hear from each other and learn about the opportunities and challenges that face our diverse communities. Then, the findings should be disseminated to all Jewish day schools so that they can make informed decisions about their own enrollment policies. To do anything less, I believe, is to underestimate the power of Jewish day schools to influence the world for the better and would represent our failure to deliver on the biblical charge to be a light unto the nations.