School and Shul—Conflict or Synergy?

But three years of Early Childhood Education that just happened to include Judaica at every available point, joining the Parent Association “Apple & Honey” distribution before Rosh HaShanah, learning to make latkes so she and other moms could make them in class for wasn't difficult to sign Taylor up for the full K-8 program at the day school.

End of meaningful Jewish life for Karen Bloom? Not exactly. She went to Israel with her high school—a Christian tour of the Holy Land true, but still the Holy Land. There were lots of Jewish kids and counselors at her secular summer camp, even more at university. Not that she did much that was obviously Jewish, but retained a sense of Jewish identity, and felt that it mattered, even though she didn’t know how. Then she met Jonathan, similarly Jewish—which is to say similarly estranged yet similarly connected—and went to synagogue for the first time in fifteen years: to get married. Synagogue was nice, in the sense that it was a lovely ceremony, a chance to wear white and make her vows in a properly formal way; the rabbi was very supportive, and tried very hard to convince Karen and Jonathan to become members, even offered free Hebrew classes at the synagogue and an opportunity to join his weekly Torah chavurah. Learn your way back in. Find a community. Jonathan and Karen declined. They still weren’t sure what they meant by Jewish, but they knew this wasn’t it.

Two years later Karen took maternity leave from her law firm, and six months after Taylor was born she became a regular in the Mommy & Me class at the local Jewish day school, chosen because of its reputation for care and quality, not because it was Jewish. But three years of Early Childhood Education that just happened to include Judaica at every available point, joining the Parent Association “Apple & Honey” distribution before Rosh HaShanah, learning to make latkes so she and other moms could make them in class for Chanukah, watching her little Taylor singing Hebrew songs at Kabbalat Shabbat (at 10:30 am on a Friday it’s true) and waving her Israeli flag on Yom Atzma’ut…it wasn’t a difficult decision to sign Taylor up for the full K-8 program at the day school, and two years later Karen’s president of the Parent Association, and six-year-old Taylor’s teaching mommy and daddy aleph-bet and persuading grandpa to join the fundraising committee for the new Torah scroll, and four-year-old Daniel (“We really should have given Taylor a properly Jewish name”; “Well, her Hebrew name’s Batya, and that’s what her Hebrew teachers call her, so why don’t we ask her if…”)—four- year-old Daniel’s teaching his older sister Batya how to play Hatikvah with just one finger on the electronic keyboard…

No need to tell more of this story. It’s one that every Jewish head of school could tell, in a hundred variations, but all of them on the same theme: and no, not the theme of Jewish day school being, for many people, a way back into traditional Judaism, though it’s often that too. Much more significantly, it’s the theme of Jewish day school becoming the center of Jewish life, replacing the synagogue. Because Karen and Jonathan still aren’t interested in joining a synagogue, though let’s give credit to the rabbi who hasn’t stopped trying, and who knows that in just a few years time bnei mitzvah will bring the Blooms in, at least for a little while, and then, maybe, he can sign Batya and Daniel up for youth group, and who knows, maybe...But we know the rabbi is over-optimistic. At least, as far as Karen and Jonathan are concerned. At least, for as long as they still have kids in Jewish day school.

What is it that makes the day school so attractive that it can fulfill their Jewish needs where synagogue can’t? Partly it’s the negatives of synagogue—endless repetition of the same ceremony, the same prayers, in the same order, sitting next to the same people, and very little else offered at the shul by way of meaningful Jewish life. But at day school, they love the joyful celebration of Kabbalat Shabbat in school, with kids dancing on the bimah and wearing costumes for their home-made play about Abraham and Sarah, even if you do have to elbow your way through the lines of paparazzi parents to get your dozen photographs and your quota of nachas. They love the tzedakah presentations, complete with Power Point, every grade showing off what they’ve done for tikkun olam, this one raising money for blind kids in Israel, that one recycling batteries, a third visiting the Jewish elderly at the Moshe Cohen retirement home on Thursday afternoons. They love the Pesach food drive (they always volunteer to drive the kids with the grocery boxes to the food bank), and the Yom HaZikaron video conference with the 8th graders who are in Hod ha-Sharon on their graduation trip, and that extraordinary old man who’s been talking to the 6th grade every year about his experiences in the Holocaust. They love the way the math teacher uses Hebrew letters rather than Roman numerals for problem-solving games, the way the art teacher manages to get Chagall and Soutine and Modigliani into the 20th century artists curriculum, the way the social studies teacher, required to teach the American system of government, does it by comparison with the modern and ancient Israeli systems. They love the fact that their kids daven every morning, recite Birkat every lunchtime, sing Hatikvah alongside the Star-Spangled Banner. They love the fact there’s Judaica in everything their children do, meaningful and practical Judaica, with a sense of the entire secular universe being linked in with the Jewish universe, and vice versa, so that Batya and Daniel can grow up knowing what it means to be Jewish, fully capable of leading any service from the bimah if they choose that route, fluent in Ivrit and knowledgeable about Israel if they wish to make aliyah, immersed in culture, history, social action, values, comfortable in their Jewish bodies.

And when the rabbi calls Karen, three months after Daniel’s bar mitzvah, to say how sad it is that we haven’t seen you in synagogue since the great day, and with your fundraising skills could we get you on the committee that’s helping us replace the Aron ha-Kodesh…but Karen’s sorry, she’s just been appointed vice president of the school board—she would have done it sooner, but Jonathan’s been serving as board treasurer and they don’t allow both husband and wife at the same time. But maybe, maybe we’ll come to the Rosh HaShanah oneg this year.

What is it that makes the day school so attractive that it can fulfill their Jewish needs where synagogue can’t?

How typical is Karen and Jonathan’s story? We simply don’t have the statistics to answer that, but anecdotally—it’s very typical. And if it is typical, several questions of considerable importance are inferred. How can we build stronger bridges between shul and school, so that the great strengths of each can further reinforce the other? Can and should day schools function as portals to the larger Jewish community? Should day schools guide parents toward synagogue membership? Or toward other organizations and events in the Jewish community? Should day school students also be leaders in synagogues and youth groups?

The answer is an obvious “yes” to all of these, because both shul and school have everything to gain and nothing to lose from “yes.” But it also needs to work the other way around. Should synagogues be advocating for their congregants to send their children to Jewish day schools rather than non-Jewish schools, public or private? Should synagogues offer reduced membership dues for those who attend day schools? Should other organizations and event organizers in the Jewish community be reaching out to day schools for support? Should synagogues and youth groups and camps be positively marketing inside day schools, for counselors and faculty as well as customers? Yes. Unquestionably yes. And most importantly of all, should synagogues be finding new and better ways of delivering the traditional rites and ceremonies, so they can get the same excited response that day schools are getting, and have people lining up to get their membership the way some day schools with wait lists do?

The danger behind Karen and Jonathan’s story is that it tends to set up day schools in one corner and synagogues in the other, combatants in a modern-day Penuel, in which neither side is quite sure who’s Jacob and who the angel; but since the result’s going to be stalemate anyway, it probably doesn’t matter. But Penuel’s the wrong analogy. Synagogues and day schools need to be in synergy, not in battle. There is no absolute definition of a meaningful Jewish life, but even if they don’t go regularly to shul, everything else in Karen and Jonathan’s story, and even more the case in Batya and Daniel’s, suggests a thoroughly meaningful Jewish life. And yes, they now keep a kosher home. Yes, grandparents now join them every Friday evening for a Shabbat meal, and the children lead the brachot over the wine and candles. And Batya’s going on March of the Living next summer, and Daniel to Jewish summer camp. So many centers. If we can agree that all centers are equally valid, and then join them into a glorious Venn diagram, how much more meaningful Jewish life could be for every one of us?

That last sentence, of course, appears to be grammatically incorrect—I closed with a question mark, not a period. But it is a question, because it requires action, both by schools and shuls, both of whom need to reach out to each other in ways that are positive. How do we do it? If the school and shul are on the same campus, and under the same board, it’s much easier. Our temple clergy teach in our schools as well as leading tefillah, the temple’s leadership development program identifies and trains candidates for the school board as well as the temple board, our school and shul committees for mitzvah days and tzedakah projects and social action overlap. Where the school merely rents space from the synagogue it’s more complex, but there’s still no reason why those same structures can’t be in place.

And for the stand-alone school—how many times a year do your local rabbis lead tefillah, teach class, attend your fundraising events? When did you last invite a rabbi, with no personal connection to your school, to attend a curriculum night, or simply take a tour during the school day, so he/she knows and understands and appreciates the quality of your school’s work? When did the local cantor last come into a music class, or help with the singing for your school play? When did the president and senior lay leaders of your local synagogue last come round, to tour, to be your graduation speaker, to participate in a focus group or your strategic planning? When did you last take a busload of kids to visit the local shul, just for a historic tour or an excuse to use their Torah scroll for Hebrew instruction?

Karen and Jonathan see no reason to attend the shul; but if their kids are singing from the bimah one Friday evening or Succot morning…but if the shul’s strategic planning committee reaches out to school leadership…but if the school’s tzedakah projects are tied in with the shul’s…but if the local rabbi is such a regular visitor to the school that parents start forming relationships…but if the synagogue religious school starts doing shabbatons with the day school, and its youth program director sees regular attendance at the day school as key to his/her recruitment drive…but if the school’s weekly newsletters include information about activities in the shuls, and photographs of day school students actively involved at shul (“I didn’t realize so many of your friends were doing it already….”), and school and shul are working collaboratively on bnei mitzvah (“Dear Mr. and Mrs. Bloom, mazal tov on Daniel’s Bar Mitzvah at Temple Jerusalem next month. We would love to invite your family to join us in school tefillah on the Thursday before, so that all Daniel’s friends and teachers can celebrate with you, we can give you an aliyah, and he can have a free public rehearsal into the bargain…”). There are literally hundreds of ways in which shul and school can become not a single unified center, but an overlapping Venn diagram. In the end it depends on two things: recognizing the intrinsic value of both centers, and getting out of the closed box that focuses inwards all the time and never outwards. ♦

David Prashker is Director of Education at Temple Sinai of North Dade, Florida, which hosts a religious school, ECE, day school and summer camp. He is President of PARDeS, the Progressive Association of Reform day schools, and serves on the Lifelong Learning Commission of the Union of Reform Judaism. He can be reached at

David Prashker
Strengthening Community
Published: Fall 2010