Looking Outside and Not Just Inside Jewish Day Schools for Their Value
What Really Happens at School?
One has to wonder why, at the start of the third decade of the 21st century, it is still necessary to establish the value proposition of Jewish day school education. The first day schools were founded more than 100 years ago; they’ve educated hundreds of thousands of young people; and their graduates include public officials of the highest rank, brilliant scientists, universally admired cultural creators and no small number of Jewish religious leaders and lay volunteers.
A recent study of families who transferred their children to day schools during the Covid pandemic opens a window on what keeps parents away. Until the exigencies of Covid prompted them to take a second look, these parents say they assumed schools lacked diversity, were educationally inferior and were religiously oppressive. Repeatedly, these were the reasons they gave for having first opted for public school.
It seems that unless you’ve attended a day school yourself or, to be more precise, unless you’ve spent time in one during the last 20 years, it’s hard to imagine what they’re really like. Call it a failure of imagination or an historical hangover, but many people really have no idea what it’s like to attend a day school today.
With the goal of addressing such preconceptions, the two of us embarked on an in-depth study of the contemporary Jewish day school. The study has just been released as a book: Inside Jewish Day Schools: Leadership, Learning, and Community (Brandeis University Press).
To be clear, we did not set out to make a case for day school education. Our goal was to learn how pedagogy, Jewish religious and cultural life, general studies learning, values transmission and interpersonal contacts between teachers and students currently occur in Jewish day schools. During our visits, we also saw firsthand how these schools contribute to the lives of children, their families and their communities.
We identified nine schools to study from across the denominational spectrum. These included traditional, non-coed yeshivas and pluralistic, community day schools; a small school serving about 50 families and large schools with thousands of students; schools from all geographic regions of North America, reflecting local cultures and educational marketplaces; historic institutions and newly established ones, too. Each school is described in a separate chapter. Collectively, they offer a rounded portrait of the populations Jewish day schools serve, how they fulfill their educational missions and the challenges they face.
As we’ve started to talk with people about the book, we’ve come to realize that for those who work in schools or who are deeply familiar with them, much of what we “discovered” is familiar. When we tell them about what schools contribute to the lives of children and parents, they say, “That’s a lot like what happens in our school.” We’re excited by these reactions. They reassure us that the schools we selected are not exceptional; they offer strong examples of widely occurring phenomena. People can see their own schools reflected in these accounts and depicted in ways that give them compelling language to talk about what happens: for example, how day schools make “cultural virtuosos” of their students; how they engage in the work of “caring for souls”; and how they serve as “repair shops” and as “guides for the perplexed” for parents.
In this piece, we highlight an aspect of what we learned that typically prompts a more surprised reaction from readers. The findings that prompt such a reaction concern what day schools contribute to the communities in which they’re situated, or to put it bluntly, what they contribute to those whose children or grandchildren attend other, non-Jewish schools.
Day schools once celebrated their isolation. They conceived of their role as “fortresses” designed to keep out the worst features of the outside culture. Critics accused them of being parochial in their concerns and exclusivist in their orientations. Their advocates embraced such charges.
Today, outside the charedi sector, such claims could not be further from the truth. School leaders recognize that if they’re to be financially sustainable, they depend on support from a community larger than the families who pay tuition. They have to be part of those communities, not apart from them. Moreover, they recognize how much they can offer even to those members of their community who hardly ever set foot inside their buildings. We have identified three ways in which day schools make this contribution and illustrate them with vignettes from our sample of schools.
Antidotes to polarization
Our nine schools provide evidence that day schools may temper some of the widescale polarization in the contemporary American Jewish community. Dozens of community day schools with a strong pluralistic orientation work to avoid privileging one understanding of Judaism over another. They nurture a culture of mutual appreciation and respect. In our sample, Hillel Detroit, Brandeis Marin and Akiva School in Nashville offer strong instantiations of this ethos. They expose students to different kinds of tefillah experiences; faculty hold a range of ideological commitments, thereby modeling pluralism; and families affiliate with a variety of synagogues, or with none at all. These are common characteristics in the community day school sector.
Even some schools with strong denominational commitments provide a shared space for families with diverse Jewish lives. The Pressman Academy (a Conservative day school located on the premises of a Conservative synagogue in Los Angeles) and the Hebrew Academy in Miami Beach (described in its philosophy statement as a “Modern Orthodox Dati Tziyoni [religious Zionist] school”) fit this bill. Both schools draw a segment of families whose home observances differ from the practices observed at school and who affiliate—if they do at all—with congregations not aligned with the school’s ideology.
In both cases, parents periodically test whether the school is willing to give ground on certain principles, challenging school leadership from different directions. At Pressman, some less traditional parents object to the school’s insistence that food at birthday parties must be certified kosher; more traditionally oriented parents complain about their daughters being required to learn how to chant Torah. Similarly, at the Hebrew Academy, controversies have arisen over the school banning birthday parties that start before Shabbat ends or over coed classes in high school general studies courses.
These kinds of issues periodically surface, but they don’t poison the climate. Parents generally understand and respect the schools’ ideological orientations, and they appreciate their commitments to inclusiveness and respect for all students, regardless of their own home practice. At the Hebrew Academy, it is striking that the director of admissions is happy telling prospective parents, “We’re soup to nuts in terms of observance.” In other communities, that’s something an Orthodox day school would not advertise; in Miami, it’s a badge of pride.
TanenbaumCHAT offers a different model of how day schools contribute to a nonpolarized Jewish culture. The school is incorporated as a community day school, but its Judaic studies curriculum and its faculty have been critiqued for being too traditional. The school’s stance is that traditionalism is being confused with seriousness and that it provides students—whatever their ideological orientation—with a rigorous grounding in the foundational components of Jewish culture and Jewish living. If the school is proselytizing anything, it is the notion that all Jews who take their Jewishness seriously should be knowledgeable about their culture and should take responsibility for their community. This is a fiercely nonpartisan position, a characterization that sounds like an oxymoron. At the present historical moment, this stance is profoundly countercultural, which makes it of special value to the broader Jewish community.
Anchors of community
When middle-class parents choose to buy a house, the availability of good schools in the area is a significant factor in their decision. The presence of a good Jewish day school can have a similar impact on the life choices of some Jewish parents. The viability and intensity of the Jewish communities in which schools are situated is a second major consideration.
All of this was particularly evident in the Nashville Jewish community. Many of our interviewees, especially if they were traditional or observant, indicated that they would not have moved to Nashville to take up a job opportunity if the Akiva School did not exist. The same considerations influenced Jewish communal professionals, such as rabbis in all four of the city’s congregations and also some senior staff at the federation.
Yeshiva Darchei Torah offers an equally dramatic case of how a day school helps build Jewish community. When the yeshiva was established, few highly observant Jews were living in Far Rockaway, New York; even the rosh yeshiva preferred to commute every day from Brooklyn. As the school has grown, a vibrant network of synagogues, kosher shops and other facilities has sprouted nearby. In unusually entrepreneurial fashion, the school purchased and redeveloped local homes, selling them to mission-aligned families, thereby further stabilizing the neighborhood. It’s no wonder the yeshiva’s leadership likes to think of itself as having created a mini-Lakewood in this part of Long Island. As they see it, the yeshiva has been the heart around which an organic community has formed.
The Rav Teitz Mesivta Academy, the high school section of the Jewish Educational Center (JEC), a more-than-80-year-old educational institution in Elizabeth, New Jersey, can best be characterized as an anchor of Jewish life in a neighborhood that has seen dramatic social changes over the years. That some of the students are the fourth generation in their family to attend the yeshiva conveys the extent to which this institution binds members of the community together.
These instances are perhaps extreme, but parallels exist in other places as well. In Skokie, Illinois, the Modern Orthodox community is spread across four modest-sized synagogues. Because families don’t travel by car on Shabbat, they must live near their place of worship. These synagogue communities would have been fragmented and weak if not for the presence of Hillel Torah. The school does not so much serve as a communal heart as the capillary system that enables these groups to function as a more substantial and stable community. If Hillel Torah did not exist, families would have other options to the religious right and left. None would be a comfortable fit. The Modern Orthodox community probably would have moved on to another part of town or another city where life would be less complicated.
Hillel Day School in Detroit plays a similar role for a more liberal population. Proximity to places of worship is not the issue here but rather the potential fragmentation of a web of community institutions. Over generations, Hillel has enabled a network of families, many of whose members have played central roles as volunteers or professionals in the wider Jewish community, to form relationships with one another. The school is part of a larger system that includes Camp Tamarack, the community’s overnight camp, and half a dozen Conservative and Reform congregations. Parents talk about the school being part of a system. It might not function as the heart or even the capillary network, but it is a vital organ for maintaining the general health of Detroit’s Jewish community.
The case of Brandeis Marin is noteworthy in a different way because it is situated in an unusual Jewish community. Half of the families are not members of other Jewish institutions at all. For many, the school is their Jewish community. Sharing a campus with a Reform congregation and with a Jewish Community Center, the school has become a portal to Jewish engagement and education for children and adults.
Seedbeds of leadership
Where schools have been in existence for more than 40 of 50 years, it is apparent that their alumni play a critically important role in Jewish communal life. How much the current activism of alumni is a consequence of what they gained at school or how much was inculcated by the families in which they were raised is hard to determine. But there certainly is a relationship between a day school education and subsequent activism in Jewish life among alumni, a relationship one of us probed in a previous study of emerging Jewish leaders.
This phenomenon was most observable at TanenbaumCHAT in Toronto, a community where the quality of life is such that young people are frequently inclined to settle in town, close to where they were raised. The school’s pride about the high proportion of current faculty who are alumni is evident. The same is true for the alumni who serve as professional and volunteer leaders in the city’s federation, schools and synagogues. There is a virtuous circle here: This community high school, with its intense commitment to Jewish culture and Jewish life, is supported by alumni animated by the goal of enabling future generations to assume a leadership role in the city’s Jewish life. A similar pattern exists at Hillel in Detroit, where local community leaders often began their interviews with us by stating, “You do know I’m an alum of the school.” Hillel’s alumni have been both beneficiaries of and contributors to the richness of local Jewish life since the 1950s.
A related and particularly intriguing pattern exists at the two Modern Orthodox schools in the sample, Hillel Torah and the Hebrew Academy, both of which also have been in existence for more than 60 years. Alumni of the two schools are active in welfare, educational and religious institutions in their region, within the Modern Orthodox community and beyond. What’s different in their cases is how many alumni have emigrated to Israel. In these explicitly religious Zionist institutions, this outcome is as much a source of pride as the number of alumni who are activists in the local Jewish community. These olim (emigrants to Israel) are enacting the schools’ Zionist ethos in the fullest possible sense. This phenomenon also means that a sizable proportion of graduates are not sending their own children to their alma mater. Such is truly the price of success.
It’s tempting to compare the active roles played today by alumni in their local communities to the outcomes we observed among the current population of students. Day school alumni are likely to become Jewish cultural virtuosos, meaning they have learned the skills, imbibed the content knowledge and acquired the self-confidence to lead religious services, assume communal roles, and speak with conviction to Jewish concerns. They also continue to be closely connected with their Jewish peers; and they share a commitment to values such as chesed, ahavat Yisrael and torah lishma (caring for others, love of the Jewish people, and Jewish study for its own sake). If indeed their schooling has provided a springboard to academic and personal success, then they are the kinds of people one might expect to play a leading role wherever they settle, whether in North America or Israel. By contributing in powerful ways to the lives of individual students, day schools are increasing the human capital of Jewish communities.
Time to Broaden the Value Proposition
When day school leaders promote the virtues of their schools, they rarely highlight these far-reaching achievements. In truth, these features may not matter much to prospective parents who want to know first and foremost that this school will take care of their own child’s welfare and are less focused on the role of the school in the wider community.
That’s unfortunate. Highlighting how day schools make an impact on their communities might enhance their appeal to a wide range of stakeholders and ultimately to parents too. Isn’t that what public schools emphasize? Doing so would certainly help establish why day schools are better placed than ever to make a special contribution to the quality of Jewish life in America.