Commentary Magazine


Day Schools

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer sharply criticizes the Jewish Council for Public Affairs (JCPA) for its opposition to vouchers, saying that this stance reveals an “almost palpable aversion to promoting so narrowly Jewish an interest as day schools” [“Who's Afraid of Jewish Day Schools?,” December 1999]. But even a cursory reading of JCPA documents over the last 25 years would demonstrate the inaccuracy of this charge. In fact, in its 1998 study on school vouchers, the JCPA concluded: “The Jewish community must ensure that all of its children, regardless of family income or denominational affiliation, have the opportunity to receive quality jewish education, whether it be at day school, summer camps, after-school programs, or Israel experiences.” Unlike Mr. Wertheimer, the JCPA sees no contradiction in supporting Jewish education while opposing its funding with public dollars.

The JCPA network, comprised of 122 local community-relations councils and thirteen national member agencies, overwhelmingly believes that vouchers for private, sectarian schools are (a) an unconstitutional violation of the separation of church and state and (b) a dangerous public policy that would result in the withdrawal of vitally needed resources from our nation’s public school systems, especially in our urban areas, which need more assistance not less.

Mr. Wertheimer’s argument that the JCPAs opposition to vouchers no longer reflects a communal consensus is not supported by the facts. The JCPA’s 1998 study was conducted by a high-level, representative committee, which held a series of meetings, reviewed a wealth of literature, and held discussions with both supporters and opponents. Having thus reexamined the issue, the JCPA (with only one dissenting voice) adopted a position reaffirming the community’s opposition to vouchers.

As the voucher study was proceeding, the JCPA also undertook a survey in fourteen Jewish communities—large and small, East and West—asking specifically whether “government aid (vouchers) should be given to families for tuition in private schools.” The respondents, drawn from lists of contributors to local Jewish federations, said no to vouchers for private schools by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent. And an even larger percentage, 76 percent to 24 percent, disapproved of vouchers for specifically religious private schools. Furthermore, a quarter of those who identified themselves as Orthodox opposed vouchers, as did 44 percent of respondents whose children attend, have attended, or are expected to attend Jewish day schools.

Faced with an erosion of Jewish affiliation, the community has recognized that an increase in formal day-school education is central to nurturing a strong Jewish community. But instead of abandoning core civic principles to chase public funds, we believe that the Jewish community itself has a profound obligation to meet this goal.

Lawrence Rubin
Jewish Council for Public
Affairs
New York City

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To the Editor:

By attacking the JCPA for its opposition to school vouchers, Jack Wertheimer shows himself to be out of touch with the prevailing views of the great majority of American Jews. The JCPA spent an entire year exhaustively reexamining its position on school vouchers, and its strong stance was approved almost unanimously by its national and local member agencies, including the Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith, the American Jewish Committee, the American Jewish Congress, and the governing national bodies of Reform and Conservative Judaism. Only the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations dissented.

In his article, Mr. Wertheimer artfully suggests that the JCPA’s opposition to school vouchers amounts to opposition to Jewish day schools. Not true. Clearly, there is not enough communal funding for the day-school tuition of poor and middle-class Jewish kids. But this financial dilemma should not be solved by savaging the First Amendment, risking governmental entanglement in religious affairs, or contributing to the destruction of the public schools.

Jordan C. Band
Cleveland, Ohio

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To the Editor:

It has proved true over many years that a pluralistic society committed to basic civil liberties for all its citizens is in the self-interest of the Jewish community. At a time when some in the Jewish community, even for a motive as worthy as Jewish continuity, would abandon this bedrock truth, thoughtful people like Mr. Wertheimer should be commending the JCPA for its principled stand, not condemning it.

Judah I. Labovitz
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

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To the Editor:

Most of Jack Wertheimer’s article is on target and represents a real contribution. It is strongest in reviewing the early attitude toward day schools within the Jewish community. I can recall the general feeling that these institutions were not only undeserving of communal support but also faintly un-American. Happily, that attitude has largely disappeared, and day schools are now, as he writes, “universally recognized” as a powerful force for transmitting Jewish identity.

Mr. Wertheimer’s real ire is reserved for today’s organized Jewish community, because it opposes school vouchers and remains strict on the question of church-state separation. As a staff member of the JCPA’s predecessor organization, I used to argue with my colleagues that they were too rigid on these issues, and that we were no longer facing the imminent danger of an “established” religion. Nonetheless, the Jewish community’s commitment to the separation of church and state has served it well. There are many thousands of American Jews who remember painful public-school experiences before this principle was so strong, and we should be wary of changing it.

Donald Feldstein
Teaneck, New Jersey

_____________

 

To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer cites the continuing resistance within the JCPA to any public-policy measure—from vouchers to tuition tax-credits to state subsidies for purchasing computers—that might benefit Jewish day schools. But when it comes to Jewish education, this is hardly the only evidence of the misguided views of much of organized Jewry.

Consider this as a communal bellwether: at the JCPA’s last biennial meeting, the Orthodox Union, joined by representatives of the Reform and Conservative movements, proposed a resolution that endorsed increased communal support, through local federations and other private mechanisms, for Jewish schools of all denominations. This proposal—advocating not government aid to Jewish education but a commitment of more of the Jewish community’s own resources—failed to pass.

Mr. Wertheimer concludes by characterizing the organized Jewish community’s attitude toward day schools as “indifference and neglect.” But at least in some precincts of our community’s leadership, there seems to be a much more troubling attitude—antipathy. One can only hope that the views and activities of rank-and-file American Jews will overwhelm the views of these elites, and that Jewish education will receive the level of communal solicitude it deserves.

Nathan J. Diament
Institute for Public Affairs
Orthodox Union
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

Kudos to Jack Wertheimer for his thorough examination of the evolution and importance of Jewish day schools. He sorely misses the mark, however, in suggesting that vouchers can solve the financial problems of these schools.

Even if vouchers were constitutional and made good public policy, they would not be a panacea for Jewish day-school funding. With tuition, books, trips, and meals, the average Jewish day school costs nearly $10,000. A voucher of $250 or even $500 would not make an appreciable impact on whether a family could afford this expense.

Mr. Wertheimer is absolutely correct to conclude that access to Jewish day schools should not be limited to the well-to-do. But the answer lies in financial support from the Jewish community, not in the illusory promise of government vouchers.

David A. Baram
Bloomfield, Connecticut

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To the Editor:

Jack Wertheimer correctly identifies “ongoing financial worries” as a shared concern of all Jewish day schools, but he fails to mention other, equally critical concerns. For example, many day-school principals are now in the unusual situation of having to spend more time recruiting Jewish-studies teachers than recruiting students. There is no institution in the U.S. or Canada graduating significant numbers of teachers qualified for such posts.

And this problem can only get worse. In the last several years, some fifteen new Jewish high schools have opened in North America. Four or five additional schools are scheduled to open next fall, and even more are planned. At present, most of these schools are still very small, and seem to be finding staff from within their own communities. But as soon as they grow to appreciable size, they will face intense competition for teachers.

Another problem facing Jewish high schools is the lack of teaching materials. Jewish-studies teachers do not have access to the basic professional tools available to teachers of all other subjects—commercially produced textbooks and course materials as well as opportunities for in-service training and conferences. As a result, these teachers are often required to write their own material and design their own curricula.

These problems are welcome to a degree because—as Mr. Wertheimer points out—they are problems of success. But they also demonstrate the need to strengthen drastically the professionalism of Jewish high-school education.

Paul Shaviv
Community Hebrew Academy
Toronto, Ontario, Canada

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Jack Wertheimer writes:

In their defense of the implacable antivoucher position espoused by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, Lawrence Rubin, Jordan C. Band, and Judah I. Labovitz fail to address the question I posed—namely, are the policies supported by the JCPA congruent with the larger communal agenda of strengthening Jewish “continuity” through day schools and other programs of intensive Jewish education? What we learn from their letters is that, whereas the JCPA is deeply committed to certain policies when it comes to the needs of public schools, it is prepared only to express the pious wish that somehow someone in the Jewish community will support Jewish day schools. As Nathan J. Diament attests, when representatives from the three major movements of American Judaism brought forward a resolution strongly endorsing more communal spending on day schools, the JCPA voted it down. Apparently, the public-affairs arm of the Jewish community cannot bestir itself in behalf of the community’s most vital internal needs.

These letters show that it is unhealthy for the Jewish community to have its position on such questions formulated by extremists on the issue of church-state separation. Mr. Rubin flatly declares school vouchers “unconstitutional.” Fortunately, our nation’s courts have not generally taken this view,1 and according to Mr. Rubin’s own survey research, between a quarter and a third of the American Jews in whose name he claims to speak do not share it, either. In truth, despite the rhetoric of the JCPA and its supporters, for much of American history jews enthusiastically supported some breaches in the “wall of separation”—including prayer in the public schools. It is precisely because Jewish communal policy on these issues has been formulated in the knee-jerk fashion described by Donald Feldstein that I cannot share his positive assessment of it.

As things stand now, many states already mandate some types of support for students in religious schools, including funds for remedial education, food for the neediest, transportation, and textbooks. Why should they not be able to extend such support to the general-studies portion of the Jewish day-school curriculum?

David Baram dismisses this suggestion because current voucher plans would put too little money into the hands of parents. But his recognition that the affordability of Jewish education is a central issue in Jewish life today brings us closer to a serious discussion about the plight of families that pay steep taxes to support the public education of their neighbors’ children while also paying an average of $10,000 for each child who attends a Jewish day school.

I am grateful to Paul Shaviv for focusing attention on the dire personnel crisis in the field of Jewish education and the related problems of inadequate course materials and in-service training for teachers. For Jewish communities in North America that now speak of creating a “renaissance” of Jewish living, these are some of the most serious challenges ahead.

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Footnotes

1 For more on these questions, see Gary Rosen’s “Are School Vouchers Un-American?,” p. 26—Ed.

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