Turning to Day Schools When Synagogues Just Won't Do

Let's Expand a Successful Institution To Include Everyone

Working Model: Day Schools are serving needs that synagogues simply aren’t anymore.
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Working Model: Day Schools are serving needs that synagogues simply aren’t anymore.

By Ken Gordon

Published January 23, 2014, issue of January 24, 2014.
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My name is Ken Gordon, and I don’t belong to a synagogue. When the Pew Research Center reported that two-thirds of American Jews are in the same situation, I didn’t break out into a cold Jewish sweat, as did so many of my colleagues. I thought instead: I’m not alone!

My wife and I send our kids to a Jewish day school. It’s an intense, joyous, valuable experience, and that’s really all we need or want. It’s our Jewish institution of choice. Period.

Recently, a rabbi tried to change my point of view. She basically tried to guilt me into joining her synagogue. I had inquired about doing an independent bat mitzvah for my daughter.

“We often find that day school families are looking for a community and clergy connection that complements the deep sense of community experienced at day school,” she wrote in an email. “We also know that (most unfortunately!) day school years do not last forever, and it is important to establish communal Jewish connection post b’nai mitzvah and post day school.”

At first, this infuriated me. It implied that I was cutting my kid off from Jewish life, that the only road to communal participation was through membership at a synagogue — and that day school was, at best, a short-term investment. In other words: I was walking my little girl down the royal road to assimilation.

The email didn’t change my mind — in fact, it made me that much more determined to figure out an alternative way to make an independent bat mitzvah happen — but it did suggest something to me: Day schools don’t last forever, but they should.

Here’s the typical pattern: Parents send their kids to a day school. The kids graduate. The parents become uninvolved. The kids, well, they grow up. They get married, have kids and, if everything goes as hoped, send their children to day school.

This is a flawed model. The huge gap in a family’s active day school engagement is one reason that schools face such serious sustainability issues, and why they serve only a small fraction of the population. The solution to this problem — and perhaps to the problem of Jewish day schools in general — is that the schools need to think bigger.


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