The Pros and Cons of Jewish Day School Education

Sermon given March 15, 1996, by Rabbi Barry H. Block

At Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, where I grew up, there is a Reform Jewish Day School called the Irvin M. Shlenker School. Irvin Shlenker was my grandfather. I am proud of the day school named in my grandfather’s memory, but I also feel a little bit funny about it. You see, I don’t think that my grandfather would have approved of having a Reform Jewish Day School at all, let alone one with his name on it. I think, instead, that my grandfather would have agreed with Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, who led the Reform Movement in my grandfather’s day, as President of our Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Rabbi Eisendrath argued that Jewish day schools would “compromise public education and ghettoize American Jewry.”

Both Rabbi Eisendrath and my grandfather might have pointed to the words engraved on the cornerstone of our Phillips’ Community Building, which houses the Barshop Auditorium. Those words read, al tifros min hatzibbur, “Do not separate yourself from your community.” By building and attending a Jewish Day School, they might have argued, Jews segregate themselves from American society.

They did have a point. Public schools were once the gateway to success for Jews in America. For immigrants who brought with them a commitment to education, quality schools, free of charge, made the United States a truly promised land. For Jews who met discrimination at every turn, the public school offered a rare opportunity to mix with all segments of American society.

Our concerns today are somewhat different. Our battle for acceptance in American society has largely been won. Jews are found at the highest levels of leadership in government, business, and education throughout the United States. If our families and Jewish communities can afford private education, we Jews may not need the public schools any more.

The public schools, though, need us more than ever. With disastrously low budgets, public schools must struggle to provide a decent education to the children within their walls. We must be concerned about the effects of withdrawing some of the most motivated students and families from our public schools. Surely, we harm our public schools if we take away from their budgets to fund private education. Some proposed tuition voucher programs would help parents to pay for private education by allowing them to take money away from their local public school. When the private school is religious, even Jewish, this plan would permit expenditures of public funds for religious purposes. These tuition vouchers violate the first amendment’s separation of church and state. The words ring out from our cornerstone: Al tifros min hatzibbur. We must not separate ourselves from the community. We share a responsibility to support education for every child in this land.

On the other hand, we must be concerned, not only with the future of American society, but with the future of Judaism. Shall our concern for the public schools force us to forego a great opportunity for Jewish education?

Typically, in a Jewish Day School, about half of the day is spent in secular studies, with the other half devoted to Judaic and Hebrew courses. Most Jewish Day Schools are known for their excellence in secular education. They also provide a stronger foundation in Hebrew and Jewish knowledge than even the best congregational Religious School can possibly offer.

Temples and Synagogues can only teach so much in the small amount of time allotted, five hours each week, at most. Day Schools, on the other hand, teach Judaism half a day, every day, five days a week. Moreover, children and parents are apt to take Jewish education more seriously — to see that homework is done and that achievement is excellent — because Hebrew and Judaica are every bit as much of the curriculum as are English and Math. Both secular and Judaic studies are critically important. Adult Jews need to be able to balance their checkbooks and read Hebrew, know about the American Revolution as well as the Spanish Inquisition, understand the origins of both Thanksgiving and Sukkot. Day schools communicate this important message implicitly.

Perhaps, then, if we fail to send our children to a Jewish Day School, we violate our cornerstone’s admonition, al tifros min hatzibbur, by separating ourselves from a centuries-old community of knowledgeable Jews. We may still be a people of books, but we may separate ourselves from our people of the book.

For any parent, the choice of a school is a difficult one. Many factors must be balanced, most of them quite individual. I would not presume to tell others how to make that decision. I do know, however, that there are pros and cons to each choice. Choosing a Jewish Day School may be good for our Jewish community, but bad for our public schools. Choosing a Jewish Day School may have positive effects on a child’s Jewish and secular education, but may negatively impact that child’s integration into American society. Fortunately, in our free country, parents may make their own decisions based on their values and on the individual needs of their children.

Here in San Antonio, parents may choose our local Jewish Day School, the Jonathan Netanyahu Academy, or J.N.A. Our Jewish community is rightfully proud of this school, which offers quality education to growing numbers of students.

The J.N.A. faces special challenges because it is the only Jewish Day School in town. By contrast, the Shlenker School is but one of several Jewish Day Schools in Houston. The Shlenker School is specifically a Reform Jewish Day School in a community that has Orthodox and Conservative Day Schools as well. In San Antonio, the J.N.A. must serve our entire Jewish community.

The J.N.A. is publicly committed to teaching “historical, traditional Judaism,” rather than any particular modern branch of our faith — Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, or Reconstructionist. The result, however unintended, is that worship services and many other practices of the School closely resemble Orthodox practices, and are very different from our own. A few of these practices are repugnant to many Jews who are not Orthodox. For example, boys recite the prayer thanking God for not making them females, while girls recite a blessing praising God for making them “according to God’s will.” In addition, teachers have been forbidden from using textbooks or sending home materials that depict women as rabbis or engaging in other rituals not practiced by Orthodox women.

Other practices, while hardly repugnant, make us wonder whether the Reform perspective is truly welcome at the school. The most obvious example is the requirement that all boys and male teachers wear head coverings at all times. Kipot or yarmulkes do not bother us. Some choose to wear head coverings here at the Temple, and all Reform Jewish men gladly don head coverings when entering an Orthodox or Conservative synagogue. Failure to do so would be a rude refusal to follow other Jews custom in their home. If the Day School is our own home too, though, we should be allowed to choose whether or not to cover our own heads there.

These practices, while certainly part of Judaism for several hundred years, and part of some expressions of Judaism to this day, can not truly be said to represent a single monolithic “historical, traditional Judaism.” The woman’s blessing thanking God for making her “according to God’s will,” and even the yarmulke itself, were not originally, historically part of Judaism. In fact, Judaism has undergone many changes throughout all of history, and there have always been significant regional differences. Certainly, Judaism appears in many forms in San Antonio today. The “historical, traditional” Judaism that the J.N.A. tries to teach is not one thing that exists.

Our San Antonio Jewish Day School must provide legitimately Orthodox Jewish education for its Orthodox students, and for others who choose it, as it does today. Our whole Jewish community shares a responsibility for offering this Orthodox Jewish education. Were we not to do so, many Orthodox families would doubtless leave San Antonio, further shrinking our small Jewish community. Worse, we would violate those words on our own Temple’s cornerstone, al tifros min hatzibbur. We would separate ourselves from a vital segment of our community, leaving them to fend for themselves, which they are ill prepared to do.

But we must also ask our community Day School, al tifros min hatzibbur, do not separate from us, for we, too, are of this community. We ask the J.N.A. to consider with us the possibility of creating two tracks for Jewish education within one school, an Orthodox track as well as a more liberal approach. We ask the J.N.A. to consider with us the dream of a school that is as pluralistic as the Jewish community which supports it, as diverse as the entire community which it seeks to serve.

Soon, God willing, in two years’ time, the J.N.A. will be on the proposed Jewish community campus. That glorious facility will have the ability to attract countless families who might never previously have considered a Jewish Day School. But it will only do so if it recognizes the full variety of legitimate expressions of Judaism.

We have opportunities of which my grandfather could never have dreamed. We Jews can celebrate our distinctiveness without separating ourselves from our larger communities. We may choose to send our children to Jewish Day Schools, knowing that they will not be ghettoized, and confident that our tax dollars continue to support our public schools. Others may send their children to public schools, without fear of alienation from Judaism. Moreover, here in San Antonio, we Reform Jews may celebrate the commitments that proudly distinguish us as Reform while maintaining friendships and close community ties with Orthodox, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Jews.

In this atmosphere, very different from the one in which my grandfather lived, I am confident that Irvin Shlenker would be proud to have a Reform Jewish Day School called by his name. I am equally confident that, here in San Antonio, our Jonathan Netanyahu Academy may be a Community Day School of which he, and we, would all be proud.

We will do so, though, only if we carefully heed those words engraved on our cornerstone: al tifros min hatzibbur, let none of us separate ourselves from any aspect of our community. Amen.