Commentary Magazine


Reflections on the Jewish Day School

The two most striking things about the statistics of Jewish education today are that enrollments are growing faster than the Jewish child population and that the enrollment in day schools is growing even faster. (Day schools should not be called parochial schools, since Jews have no parishes.) More than 42,000 children attend such schools—more than 7 per cent of all children receiving any kind of Jewish education at the moment, and 3 or 4 per cent of all Jewish children of school age. The number and the ratio are likely to continue to rise, at least in the short run. About two-thirds of the schools, with three-quarters of the students, are in the New York area.

The most useful way of classifying the schools is by religious sponsorship and official religious tone, though these can be misleading—more than one Orthodox day school was founded and continues to be operated by people whose real love is the Hebrew language and literature. Nearly all the day schools are Orthodox; the Conservatives have established some congregational and intercongregational schools and are thinking of establishing more, and there are even a few Hebraist and Yiddishist schools in which religion is quite secondary. Some Orthodox schools come as close as they can to the Jewish schools of Poland and Lithuania a hundred years ago, with the minimum of secular studies they can get away with, but the day schools I shall be talking about are those of the various shades of Modern Orthodoxy, so called, and of the Conservative movement.

The supporters of the day schools believe that only their schools can give the kind and amount of Jewish education that a Jew should have and provide the Jewish community with the learned laymen and professionals—rabbis, teachers, and the like—that it needs. They regard the Sunday school, with its thirty or thirty-five sessions a year, each lasting two hours or less, as worse than no education at all, because it encourages the illusion that some education is happening. (A recent nationwide study found that in seven of every ten Sunday schools the children never open a Bible, in Hebrew or English!) Afternoon schools, with their five or six hours a week, including Sunday morning, are held to be not much better. The old Talmud Torah, with its ten hours a week, has all but disappeared, squeezed out by the congregational Sunday and afternoon schools. Day schools offer fifteen to twenty hours of Jewish studies a week, besides general studies, and in that time a child can learn something.

An additional, unstated reason for establishing day schools is to employ as teachers and administrators some of the Orthodox seminaries’ graduates for whom there are no congregations.

Day-school parents are wonderfully diverse in their motives. Probably most enroll their children simply because they want them to have a sound Jewish education. The rest have other reasons as well: working mothers pleased that the day-school day is an hour or two longer than the public-school day; parents who prefer the day school because it interferes less than the afternoon Jewish school with their children’s play and because it leaves Sunday morning free; parents whose first choice would be a Talmud Torah if there were one, and the large group that would prefer a decent public school and find the day school better or less distasteful than a private school. Some decide between day school and private school on grounds like ease of transportation.

The long Jewish romance with the public school is beginning to cool (East European Jewish, not German; the rise of the German Jews preceded the consolidation of the public school in the latter part of the 19th century). I remember my mother telling me how her generation felt: “In Russia the Czar didn’t let us go to school. Here they not only let us, they made us.” If American Jews have come so far so fast, the public school has helped, and they know it. Yet today more and more Jews are turning to private or to day schools. In part they are disappointed with the public school; in part they are trading up, as the Cadillac salesman says of customers who used to own a Chevrolet.

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The disappointment comes from the transformation of more than a few schools that were once reasonably good into blackboard jungles set in asphalt jungles. Even in better public schools—even in the suburbs, where many Jews have moved because the schools are supposed to be better—children who can learn are often not encouraged or are actually discouraged.

In the day schools I observed, the children were learning, and they seemed to be enjoying it. They do well in their regular studies—in the elementary day schools they have a high rate of acceptance to the best public high schools, and in the few day high schools they appear toward the top of the lists of New York State Regents-scholarship winners—and they are much farther ahead in their Jewish subjects than the children in any other kind of Jewish school. (I had taken it for granted that to be admitted to a day school a child had to be intellectually superior. One principal I spoke with denied that that was true of his school, and doubted that it was generally true. In his school, he said, there are some children with an IQ of 95, and they get along; after the second grade his students are grouped by ability. It is the motivation and the atmosphere at home and in the school, he said, that help average children to achieve more—and enjoy it—than is normally considered possible or even fitting in the public schools. How general that is, I do not know. I suspect that if not in the lower grades, then in the higher ones, the childern are of more than average capacity.)

As for the trading up, I think it is of two kinds. The first is a matter of class and style of life. Educated businessmen, professionals, intellectuals, and academics want the best education for their children. Of such parents, some move to communities with a reputation for good public schools, some choose a private school, and some choose a day school. I think of a couple I met a year or two ago, with two children in an Orthodox day school in New York: the man is a graduate of an Ivy League college and a leading law school, the woman of a Seven Sisters college; both are students of the classics; the woman knew Hebrew and the man did not, but his avocation is linguistics and he was teaching himself Hebrew by Davidson-McFayden with the aid of Gesenius-Kautzsch-Cowley.

This is to be distinguished from a more snobbish kind of social-class motive. A parent feels that what is good enough for Kennedy, Stevenson, and Harriman is good enough for his child, and he has the cursus honorum mapped out from the beginning—the right private school, the desirable prep school, an elite college. A day school would be out of the question, even the one with the promotional literature that reads like an invitation to send your child to an American Jewish Eton, only coeducatonal and without the boarding.

As for the second direction that trading up can take, I am less sure, but I think I discern a kind of Jewish imitation of the Catholics, analogous to what may be an Italian imitation of the Irish. I have an impression that Italians—the children and grandchildren of Italian immigrants—as they become more prosperous and more Americanized, are increasingly taking their children out of the public schools and sending them to parochial schools; and since the typical Italian church, significantly, does not have its own school, the children go to the “American” (Irish) parochial school. Historians say that the Irish provided a model for Americanization to the immigrants who came after them. If the parochial school is the right thing for those indisputable Americans the Irish—the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of the Irish immigrants—it must be the right American thing, and therefore the right thing for rising Italians.

Similarly with some Jews, Some of the public schools they see about them are not more American, they are less American than some of the Catholic parochial schools—less middle-class, more foreign, having fewer of the surnames that sound right. Who is more American than the Irish, and does not every Irishman who can afford it send his children to a parochial school? From this point of view, to send Jewish children to day schools is a way of showing that the Jews too feel that they have arrived as Americans.

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Why does there continue to be so much strong Jewish objection to the day schools? The movement’s literature is full of complaints about the hostility of many Jews and Jewish institutions, and it constantly shifts from sounding like the wave of the future to sounding like an embattled minority. The very advocates of the day schools usually are quick to say that they would not want their schools to be for more than a minority of Jewish children. It is apparent that they say this not only to disarm criticism, but also because of real uneasiness.

The first major criticism is that the day schools weaken the public schools, a foundation of American democracy. Since the Jews’ welfare depends so directly on American democracy, they of all people should not undermine the public school by withdrawing their children and their devotion from it.

The argument is not conclusive. After all, Jews are fewer than 3 per cent of the American population, and it is unlikely that the absence from the public schools of 3 or 4 per cent of that 3 per cent, or even 15 per cent of it, can make a difference nationally, or even much of a difference locally. And why single out the day schools for criticism? Why not criticize private schools too? No one knows exactly, but I should be surprised if there were not rather more Jewish students in private schools than in day schools.

I have asked some people of the kind who are active in the Public Education Association how they reconcile their zeal for the public schools and their dislike of parochial and day schools with the private-school education of their own children. The usual answer is that they are not happy about having to send their children to private schools, that they are working to make the public schools good enough for their grandchildren, and that in a real test like a school-bond referendum, the supporters of parochial schools tend to vote against the public schools, while the parents of children in private schools are enlightened.

My guess is that the parents of day-school children are as enlightened and pro-public school as the PEA people, because most Jews are. In New York City last year a proposed bond issue for new schools, chiefly in Negro neighborhoods, was defeated by a combination of Negro indifference or opposition, taxpayer resistance, and, probably, Catholic objection. The Jewish neighborhoods voted for the issue. (I think the Catholics get a raw deal and I am not sure that I would act very differently in their place.)

What some of these critics seem to mean is that to patronize independent schools should be the prerogative of the enlightened and prosperous—like the young duchess on her honeymoon who thought that marriage was much too good for the common people.

The second major criticism of the day school is that in a country like ours, children should be helped to learn by experience to get along with people who are racially, religiously, and ethnically different.

Though day schools do not give their pupils a school experience with children who are not Jewish, the pupils are apt to be taught respect for others quite insistently. There is research to show that an essential part of the defensive ideology of the day schools, hammered home to their students, is an emphasis on American pluralism. A few years ago an astute researcher found that as far as he probed in the direction of ultra-Orthodoxy, the day-school children he interviewed were fully committed to intergroup liberalism, among the other articles of the American Creed.

In a public school the average Jewish child is not likely to get much more of an experience of associating with other kinds of children. When I was in elementary school, experience by itself would have led me to believe that there were two kinds of people in the United States, a Jewish majority and an Italian minority, and a child in that school today would be led to believe the same thing. Public schools are neighborhood affairs, and in the neighborhoods of the cities where most of the Jewish children in America live, there is racial, religious, and ethnic lumpiness. Some neighborhoods have a high concentration of one group, others of another. I doubt that the public schools attended by most Jewish children are also attended by Nordic Protestants in appreciable numbers, and I doubt that the private schools are very different. A friend of mine used to call his son’s private school the biggest yeshiva in the United States.

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Every piece of research I have seen confirms that there is no difference in intergroup attitudes between day-school and other Jewish children, when age, social class, parents’ education, and the like are the same. Robert Cohn in The Sun Also Rises, who made the Gentiles so uncomfortable, was a Princeton man; he had not, I think, gone to a day school. On the other hand, I know a philosopher, a historian, and a sociologist—all from the same day school—who have taught in various universities at one time or another and who have no problems and cause no problems with Gentiles. (If intergroup experience is thought of in terms of class and culture rather than of race, religion, and ethnicity alone, it can be argued that some day schools are quite broadening. Central day schools—not congregational or local—can bring together the children of near-Hasidim and of the Ivy League-Seven Sisters couple I have mentioned.)

Conversely, there is no hard evidence that day-school children have more positive attitudes toward Jews and Judaism than other children of generally the same background.

Some groups of day-school graduates are rather self-righteous and aggressively pious, but there are others like that who do not come from the day schools, and besides, it is a permanent human type. I would not include in this category the day-school graduates at Columbia College who pray together daily, have brought about the introduction of vending machines stocked with kosher sandwiches, and cover their heads. I think that on balance I rather admire them.

A less ideological criticism of the day schools is that sending children to one often exposes both parents and children to a clash of values between home and school, the school being more Orthodox than the home. But that is not uniquely true of day schools. Even in Sunday school, children are often told that Jews should do certain things that their parents do not do. For most children and most parents the pressure is not intolerable. A day school in New York is favored by members of the Israeli consulate because it teaches Hebrew well. To the rabbi’s standard caution that his school is Orthodox, one Israeli answered, in Yiddish, “Rabbi, you make a Jew of him; we’ll take care of making a goy of him.” A friend of mine has told me about a secularist who became disgusted with his child’s public school and enrolled him in a day school. When my friend asked the secularist whether he was not worried about religious indoctrination, he said, “I would rather be bothered by skullcaps than Christmas trees.”

Years ago Bertrand Russell wrote about agnostic parents who give their children the same kind of religious education they had. They have no confidence in what they agree is the cut-flower ethics and culture of agnosticism, and they want their children to develop in the same direction and over the same distance as they. I do not remember what Russell said of this; I suppose he disagreed. Still, it shows that inviting a conflict of values is not necessarily stupid or tragic.

The decision to send a child to a day school depends on the price you are prepared to pay. The cost is not only money—tuition, lunches, transportation, and contributions mount up for each child each year—but also other opportunities forgone. One cost of sending a child to a day school is that he will not be going to a public school; a researcher found, to his surprise, that some day-school parents continue to be unhappy about their child’s not being in the public school, because they approve of public schools. For some the day school is a clear bargain, for others it represents an acceptable value-received transaction, still others discover after a year or so that the cost is too high and withdraw their children. Whatever the parents decide, they usually decide rationally and conscientiously. They are prepared to pay the price of their decision.

Prepared, but not resigned. For day-school parents the financial burden, even with the full or partial scholarships that the schools offer to those most in need, is heavy. One would expect these parents and the supporters of the day-school movement to dissent from the official Jewish line against governmental aid to independent schools. What is surprising is not that such dissent has begun to show itself, but that it is so small. Their resentment is directed mainly against most of the federations’ refusal to contribute to the support of the day schools, out of loyalty to the public schools. (Occasionally a compromise is reached, like supporting the Jewish but not the general part of the day school’s program. I would not like to be the accountant.) They say that if federations support Jewish hospitals, where most of the ward patients and nearly all the clinic patients are not Jews, they should all the more readily support institutions meeting specifically Jewish needs. Instead, the federations discriminate against the day schools.

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When a public school has a high proportion of Jewish students, everyone pretends that this is not so and that the school is full of Tom Sawyers and Becky Thatchers.

In England religion is in the state schools—generally an interdenominational Protestantism with an Anglican flavor. When the East End was still a heavily Jewish district, the London County Council saw to it that the religion of the East End schools was Jewish. A Christian child’s right of abstention was respected as scrupulously as a Jewish child’s in a Christian school or a Catholic child’s in a Protestant school.

Here we have separation of church and state. We also have Jewish neighborhoods, where the schools have a predominance of Jewish students and even teachers. So Jewish teachers lead their Jewish classes in observing Christmas, and the more conscientious of us try to keep out Hanukkah (poor Hanukkah!) because we do not wish to have a hand in breaching the wall of separation. We have also become pavlovized against the Bible. Jews interviewed by a colleague of mine were unanimously for Christmas carols in the schools and unanimously against Bible reading.

Since the separation principle does not apply in private schools, their Christmas can get very Christmasy: their carols can be not only carols but also hymns, and their plays Nativity plays. In one private school a teacher told her mostly Jewish class about the Virgin Birth. The daughter of a friend of mine was puzzled, because she had learned at home that for a woman to have a baby her husband must first plant the seed. A home-school clash.

Or consider lunches. Private schools generally have few Catholic children, but can have many Jewish children. That does not matter. On Friday fish is served and on one or two of the other days pork, in the good, nonsectarian, American way.

This is inauthentic. It is an evasion, or an attempted evasion, of the important reality that one is a Jew. It is an individualist fallacy to imagine that the Jewish child’s attendance at a private school is unrelated to his being a Jew. If only a few of us were college graduates, liberal, advanced, and prosperous, that might be due to outstanding personal virtue and ability, but so many of us are college graduates and all the rest of it that a group factor must be at work. We are not self-made men. We are what we are largely because of who our parents and grandparents were, and what their traditions and circumstances were.

Pedagogically and psychologically, a reality that is important to the child should be at the center of his education. To ignore it or to pretend that it does not exist cannot be good education. Yet thousands of parents who want their children to be well educated, who are sophisticated about mental health, accept or actually welcome the pretense. The Sunday schools they may send their children to are better than nothing, as the Sholom Aleichem character said about his lensless eyeglass frames, but just barely.

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As for the day schools, I am not sure that they ordinarily provide a sound education.

First of all, for most day-school students intensive Jewish education ends when they enter a public high school. Then they grow up and think they have had a good Jewish education. They are wrong. They have learned some Hebrew, they have studied much of the Pentateuch and some of the Prophets with some of Rashi’s commentary, and they have had history and some Talmud and some modern Hebrew literature. At best they have learned what children can learn. What they know and understand of Jewish history, for instance, is comparable to what someone would know and understand of American history if he had last studied it in the eighth grade; a cultivated man who identified American history with what he had studied in elementary school would not believe you if you told him that it could interest anyone with mind. I know a businessman of intellectual tastes who went to an elementary day school. He takes it for granted that Jewish studies are a jumble of scholastic irrelevancies and childish inanities, the Jewish equivalents of the tale about George Washington and the cherry tree. If the Sunday school is dangerous because it encourages an illusion of education, the day school may be more dangerous still.

Continued Jewish education would help, of course, but stopping at the eighth grade is not the only flaw.

The day-school movement says it knows the ideal type it wishes to produce. Every educational system has an ideal type in view, explicitly or implicitly: the Greek kalokagathos, the Christian gentleman of Thomas Arnold’s England, the scholar-saint talmid hakham of Jewish tradition. The day-school people say they are trying to educate people among whom talmide hakhamim may arise. Their curriculum, like their aim, is the one sanctified by tradition. They add literature and history, they teach less Talmud, their methods are modern, and their PTA’s flourish, but basically their curriculum is the same, and even the emphasis is the same. That will not do.

No one in the day schools seems to be asking himself this question: who are these children we are educating, and what are they likely to be when they have grown up? Five years ago in the United States, of all people of college age 27 per cent were in college; of Jews of college age, 62 per cent. The children in the day schools are going to be well educated. They will travel. They will go to the theater, listen to serious music, read. The air they breathe will be the air of the American variant of Western culture. The vice of the day school is that it ignores Western culture.

To be sure, the day schools teach the general subjects. (The so-called integrated day schools alternate Jewish and general subjects, while the others teach one set, usually the Jewish, in the morning, and the other in the afternoon. The general and the Jewish are at best put side by side mechanically, not combined organically.) To be sure, also, it is hard to teach a subject like Jewish history without relating it in some way to the general. No one who had been exposed to Jewish history could be so provincial as to call any favorite international project a crusade—a term sinister for Jews with a historical memory, for Moslems, Greeks, and Slavs, and probably for others as well. Still, the day schools do not really make the connection between the Jewish and the general, or the Western.

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Anyone brought up in Western culture knows with his mind and senses the intimate association of Christianity with the greatest thought and art. In any museum or in the streets of any city in Europe, he sees the glories of Christian architecture. Music, literature, philosophy—all have the Christian mark. It is easy for a Jew, whatever his Jewish education, to feel that by contrast Judaism is second-rate, irrelevant; and not only in the United States or England or France, but in Israel too. I. F. Baer, in his Yisrael ba-‘ammim (“Israel Among the Nations”), felt it necessary to insist to his Hebrew University students not merely that the Jewish tradition can stand comparison with the Greek—one could understand a not very godly generation doubting that—but more especially that Judaism can stand comparison with Christianity. Jewish education has to be defensive, everywhere. That is our condition. And the best defense is to connect.

We go to the movies, and there is the inevitable scene where the minister intones something over an open grave or recites something from the pulpit. Most Jews take it for granted that “I am the resurrection and the life” and “The Lord is my shepherd” and “He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High” are all equally Christian. The last two are from Psalms, but I am convinced that most Jews do not know that the Psalms are Jewish. Or we hear Handel’s “Messiah” and assume that the text is Christian, when the bulk of it is from Psalms and the second part of Isaiah. The day-school graduate is only a little more likely than a Sunday-school graduate to know that. He probably did not study Psalms or the second part of Isaiah. The old-world Jewish curriculum did not cover the whole Bible; you could read the Prophets and Writings at your leisure, when you were resting briefly from the serious job of studying the Talmud. Besides, Psalms and the second part of Isaiah are hard in Hebrew. If, by chance, a day-school student has read (and understood) a psalm as part of the liturgy, he is unlikely to recognize it in English.

The day-school people believe that every Jewish subject, at least, should be taught in Hebrew. They would be horrified at the suggestion that parts of the Bible might be read in English, whether to encourage an acquaintance with books or parts of books ordinarily avoided because of the difficult Hebrew or to emphasize the connection with Western culture. In this they are more extreme than some Israelis. Professor S. D. Goitein has suggested that in the United States an exclusive insistence on Hebrew may stand in the way of a better knowledge of the Bible. But Hebrew continues to prevail, and the language often overpowers the content. I should be surprised if Leviticus 19:18 and Deuteronomy 6:5—which everybody knows are from the New Testament (I am being ironical)—were commonly treated differently from, say, Leviticus 20:18 and Deuteronomy 16:5.

Talmud is taught even worse. In some schools girls are not allowed to study Gemara; Mishnah and midrash are all right for them, but not Gemara. As I understand it, this brilliant arrangement derives ultimately from Yeshiva University and proximately from its feeder high schools, Yeshiva wishing to appease the ultras. (But the Modern Orthodox are sometimes given to fits of atavism on their own. A recent issue of their rabbinical journal, Tradition, had a disquisition which concluded that it is probably illicit to use hot water from the tap on the Sabbath.) The matter of the Talmud that is taught in the day schools is what has been taught always and everywhere, only less. The manner in which it is taught is the vacuum, quite without connection.

And yet there are so many opportunities for establishing a connection between the two cultures, if I may be allowed to give C. P. Snow’s phrase a different meaning: in Bible, history (general and Jewish), literature, and music, obviously; in the foreign languages of the general high-school curriculum; even in Hebrew grammar, which after all is part of Western humane learning (none of the five Hebrew grammarians I mentioned earlier was a Jew).

The day school has the merit that it teaches some Torah, accustoms its students to prayer, is serious about intellect, and spares some able children the insipidities they might otherwise be condemned to. It equips its students with useful tools, like Hebrew, even if it often does not distinguish clearly enough between fluency in Hebrew as an end and fluency as a means. Its fault is that it does not really teach Torah ‘im derekh eretz, which in our time must mean Jewish learning that connects with the rest of culture.

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