As much as I am a “Conservative” rabbi and educator, I try to get beyond labels and stereotypes in search of new ideas and synergies.
Nevertheless, my personal experience with community schools (as a head of school for seven years in California, and as a RAVSAK board member) has left me with the impression that many K-8 community schools are weak in terms of Jewish text-learning, ritual skills and commitment to observance as compared to Schechter schools. This is because people with diverse agendas tend to put aside the tough issues for the sake of shalom bayit. “Too much Judaic content” is, unfortunately, equated with “too religious.”
Community schools’ marketing puts great emphasis on fostering respectful dialogue, creating community, and integrating curriculum. All of these are valuable but they are rather generic “best practices” in the independent school world. At the very first organizational meeting of RAVSAK, one central agency professional warned that “Community schools are at best pareve.” Rather than use the word “pareve” I’d say the meal isn’t complete. As Kay points out, “Schools risk replacing robust, individual identity with a diluted sense of Jewish universalism.”
Equally important are the difficulties in accomplishing these goals—as Kay notes, “implementation frequently proves difficult” and “construction of a community that values diverse perspectives requires that participants demonstrate characteristics that do not come naturally to many people—especially to children and teenagers.” I believe that so much of what’s good about community day schools is better suited for the older grades. A more “essentialist” approach to the curriculum in the early grades would provide students with the Judaic knowledge needed to better engage in more sophisticated “community building” later on.
I fear that we have lost the sense of what it means to be an educated Jew. While Judaism has been an ever-evolving tradition, there was always a strong allegiance to our sacred texts that guided change. When we allow “the dialogue and the diversity” to become the main thing, we have lost our way. One advantage to being in a Schechter school is that at many levels our school’s ideology, curriculum and observances are tied to standards that serve as a baseline: these are the things you need to know in order to participate most effectively in the dialogue.
Does a denominational school like Schechter stifle dialogue or create “levels” of Jews? Not a chance! Families in my school come from 17 different congregations, from all denominations and patterns of observance. What they all share is a desire to give their children something they didn’t receive as children: a deep, meaningful connection to Judaism. Just as important, this diverse group of people models a true Klal Yisrael community of respect and learning.
Finally, Dr. Kay states, “Pluralistic community schools constitute the only sector of non-Orthodox Jewish day school education that is experiencing growth.” After many years of strong growth in Schechter schools, the current dip in numbers is, I believe, due to a weakening of the “branding” within Conservative synagogues. It will be interesting to see how current institutional reformulations within the Conservative movement will impact enrollment trends in both community and Schechter schools. ♦
Rabbi Jim Rogozen is Headmaster of Gross Schechter Day School in Cleveland, Ohio, and was a founding board member of RAVSAK. He can be reached at email@example.com.
Each fall, the seventh grade students in my Jewish social studies class begin the year by participating in the Jewish Court of All Time online simulation. JCAT is an innovative learning adventure that is a joint venture between the University of Cincinnati’s...[More]
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