One Additional Thought on Schooling

I posted recently a broadside at the supposed panacea of Jewish day school education as a means of keeping Jews Jewish. There was an additional thought that, because it wasn’t squarely about the merits of the argument as a means of advancing Jewish affiliation and identity, I omitted. But I think it’s important, and it deserves a post.

The hidden thought in all this–the thing that most bothers me about the day-school-for-all proposition–is this: faced with a need to balance the particular and universal, Cohen, Wertheimer, and Leibovitz seem to make no effort to balance at all. Their response–and Cohen voicing part of this response concerns me greatly, given his position as more or less “the” sociologist of the American Jewish world–is to simply run to the particularist end of the spectrum.

This is a kind of twisted response, I think, in a world where there is apparently more worry among Jewish community leaders about anti-Semitism than there had been ten or twenty years ago. It is also bizarre, I think, to respond to the rejection of more conservative denominational strictures–and how else are we to read the borderline collapse of the once-dominant Conservative movement!?–by running to the “right wing” of the movement?

Do accusations of clannishness get fixed by separating further, removing Jewish children from community schools of all types and placing them into Jewish schools en masse (or even in significantly larger numbers than before)? Do Jewish schools have the ability to really accommodate the various needs of Jewish children of all socio-economic backgrounds? What about children with varying educational and neurological and medical and emotional needs? Will this only have a chance of working in really big Jewish communities like those in New York, LA, Chicago, Atlanta, and the Palm Beach-to-Miami corridor?

Would schools like this damage relations not only between Jews and non-Jews, but also between Jews who will and Jews who won’t send their children to these schools, no matter how affordable they may be? That may seem unproblematic in big Jewish communities. Try that in Indianapolis, where family members often won’t go to one another’s synagogues even for major events like a child’s bat or bar mitzvah ceremony, and see what happens.

Where, exactly, will all these schools come from? Not for nothing, but if the funding were to come from the people Leibovitz is busy poking at, they may not be especially pluralistic schools. And they may be run in a manner that just seeks desperately to make sure Jews date and marry other Jews (that’s always been one of the primary purposes of the Birthright trips). Would they err particularist? It seems quite possible.

I would love to see an increase in the funding available for Jewish education and children’s activities. There isn’t enough–and often there is nearly nothing available in Jewish communities in the Midwest and South. For Jews in those communities, it’s not so easy for social and economic purposes to just take your kids from their community schools and put them into Jewish schools–unless you’re comfortable severing significant, and often essential ties to the non-Jewish world in the process.

At bottom, measures that will only divide Jews from their non-Jewish neighbors are misguided. If those measures are your answers to problems of Jewish continuity and identity, you need to go back to the drawing board–or maybe spend some time talking to Jews trying to make a go of Jewish life in “flyover country.”

Jews will not stop loving non-Jews. We have already assimilated. You’ll need to make a better case for Jewish day school to convince me and others who really care about pluralism.

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