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Hebrew School Daze

May 9, 2009 | by Jonathan Rosenblum

Are Jewish day schools undemocratic?

After seven years of thrice-weekly Hebrew school, I could haltingly read the prayers and had a vocabulary of about 100 words. That Hebrew verbs have past and future tenses remained a secret to me. When Lech Walesa was elected president of Poland, I wondered if we were related: I had been told lech achutsa (get out of here) so many times that I thought it was my name.

I was, in short, a fairly typical, if not terribly distinguished, product of the afternoon suburban Hebrew school.

If I had known as little French after one semester of high school as I knew Hebrew after seven years of Hebrew school, I would have been grounded for three months. Parental expectations of Hebrew school, however, were next to nil.

Apparently it has always been that way. On the Lower East Side, as depicted by Irving Howe in The World of Our Fathers, parents were content if their sons learned to recite kaddish for them. In the after school cheder, boys who wanted to be outside playing baseball, and an underpaid melamed (teacher) confronted each other in an atmosphere of mutual loathing.

The boys viewed their chief purpose in cheder as tormenting their melamed. And the poorly paid melamed was typically free with the ruler and whatever else came to hand to silence his unruly charges.

"I hated it, you'll hate it, and after your bar mitzvah, you can quit."

The more things change, the more they stay the same, as the French say. Eric Yoffie, president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (Reform) got it pretty much right in his recent biennial address, when he described the typical parental attitude toward after school or Sunday religious education: "Many of our parents look upon religious school as a punishment for being young. ...It is the castor oil of Jewish life, a burden passed from parent to child with the following admonition: 'I hated it, you'll hate it, and after your bar mitzvah, you can quit."'

The weaknesses of after school and Sunday school education are inherent -- resentful students who would rather be anywhere else, lack of content, and incompetent teachers. Yoffie nevertheless called upon his Reform brethren to breathe life into a system with a 100-year record of failure.

One can't blame Yoffie. He has to play the hand he was dealt, and he knows that only a minuscule number of Reform congregants would ever consider a more intensive Jewish education for their children.

What is indefensible, however, was Yoffie's attack on Jewish day schools. Nearly 200,000 Jewish children are currently enrolled in day schools. That is 40% of Jewish children receiving Jewish education. Those day schools constitute the best, if not only, hope for Jewish continuity in America. Every study shows that graduates of day schools, no matter what the school's denominational affiliation, are much more likely to observe Jewish rituals and holidays, and are far less likely to intermarry than those who do not attend day schools.

Nevertheless, Yoffie criticized Jewish philanthropists for their infatuation with day schools. Worse, he denounced all initiatives designed to lessen the crushing financial burden on day schools and parents through school vouchers, tax credits or direct government funding of the secular learning components.

Yet virtually every day school is in dire financial straits. Teachers are paid less and receive fewer benefits than public school teachers, and parents with large families struggle under tuition burdens of up to $70,000 a year.

Far from being too well supported by the Jewish community, the day schools are poor stepchildren. Less than 5% of Federation giving goes to day schools, and the initiative of Chicago philanthropist George Hanus to have every Jew designate 5% of his estate to defray the costs of day school education has not yet caught on with the wider Jewish public.

Yoffie's denunciation of those "self-interested" individuals who would destroy American public education hearkens back to the early days of German Reform, whose chief purpose was to show that members of the "Mosaic faith" were fit for emancipation. To that end, German Reform renounced any Jewish national identity.

Yoffie professes to be "ashamed" of his coreligionists who support school vouchers, just as German Reform leaders once saw their more traditional brethren as an embarrassment who would doom the push for emancipation.

American Jewry, said Yoffie, must not turn its back on public education, which provided the ladder on which it climbed to affluence. Day schools, or at least any effort to make them financially viable, he argued in effect, are un-American.

That charge too goes back to a day when American Jews were far less securely ensconced in American society.

The chairman of the board clarify himself: Only Jewish day schools are undemocratic.

When Sender Gross and Bernie Goldenberg, two of the founders of Torah Umesorah, first broached the idea of a day school with the Buffalo Board of Jewish Education, the chairman of the board labelled it "undemocratic and un-American." The next day the Buffalo paper ran a banner headline, "Parochial Schools Called Undemocratic." Only when the Buffalo archdiocese responded with a large ad listing all the Catholic school graduates killed in action did the chairman of the board clarify himself: Only Jewish day schools are undemocratic.

In fact, there is no credible evidence that vouchers or tax credits would destroy public education, which is better funded today than ever. At the same time, there is a good deal of evidence that those most benefited by a program of school vouchers would be inner city black children - i.e., those most badly failed by the public education system.

And there is something callous about Yoffie's condemnation of the "self-interest" of Jewish parents struggling under immense burdens to provide their children with a real Jewish education - something they view not as a luxury but as an imperative. Their self-interest is no more an argument against vouchers than the self-interest of teachers' unions is an argument for vouchers.

The American public schools provided many American Jews with a path to success, and for that we should be grateful. But affluence is not by itself a Jewish value, and that affluence has done little to assure the future of American Jewry.

Jewish leaders should stop worshipping at the wall separating church and state, and stop trying to be more pious about that separation than the US Supreme Court.

Let them focus their energies instead on the preservation of a 3,500-year tradition.

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