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.
Jewish day schools could be, like synagogues themselves, for the entire Jewish community. They should be the place where people come to study, a home for everything from early childhood education to traditional day school study, b’nai mitzvah prep and adult education. Imagined this way, day schools would have a much larger base and a much greater opportunity to build lifetime relationships. Why shouldn’t day schools take the lead in lifetime learning?
I can easily imagine how a day school might open its doors to the community. Not just obvious stuff like text study with the great Judaic studies teachers on staff, or “Hebrew for Hebrew School Dropouts” (given by the parents whose lousy Hebrew school educations prompted them to choose day school for their own kids). Why not do a lecture series using the smart writers and professors in your local community? Why not bring in the business owners and entrepreneurs to talk innovation? Why not provide professional development and networking classes to people in your community who might need them? How about robust after-school programs? On-campus camping?
Some might think that I’m suggesting we turn a day school into a Jewish community center. Not so. Yes, JCCs do offer education for the community — but day schools are different. They are dedicated to education in a way that community centers, with their wider mandate, are not. Day school students spend half of each day speaking and living Hebrew. Does that happen at your local JCC? And it’s also a matter of time. At a day school, kids are in a Jewish — and not necessarily a religious — learning environment all day long, five days a week. The day school experience is an all-out Jewish experience, one of the few that our kids will ever get while walking on American soil.
The question of cost will inevitably arise, as day schools have a reputation for being unaffordable to many. Should a school give away all this after-hours learning for free? That’s not what I’m suggesting. It might be feasible to offer a carefully selected activity or two to the public gratis — the value of getting certain prospective parents or families in the door might outweigh the lost revenue — but in general, one would expect schools to charge a fair price for the high-quality learning experiences they offer. I leave it to individual schools to crunch the numbers and determine just what parents can afford to pay. Perhaps a local donor or two, sensing that the community is already overburdened, might want to help by subsidizing some adult education. Remember, I’m suggesting that day schools will provide the services that synagogues are not — and think of what people pay for synagogue memberships just so they can go to the High Holiday services twice a year.
The secret sauce here will be synagogue-averse Jews. For them, congregational life isn’t part of the equation. While they won’t be swayed by a religious appeal, they just might go for a cultural one. An intellectual one. If these people were keyed in to the close, warm learning communities that day schools embody, it just might change the way in which Jewish life in America constitutes itself.
What would it take to expand our day schools’ area of operation? It would take some smart, vigorous programming. It would take people who understand local social networks. And it would take visionary educators who see why daring to place learning at the heart of Jewish life is exactly what’s needed right now.