The Ethical Culture School holds its assemblies in an 812-seat auditorium with stained-glass windows, an oversized chandelier, and oaken pews. Students file inside amid the strains of an organ—once long pipe, now digital. The organ’s sonorities complete the building’s similarity to a religious institution. Stenciled in gold lettering above the stage, which resembles an altar, is Ethical Culture’s unique motto: “The place where men come to seek the highest is holy ground.”
Beginning in the mid-1960s, I was one of those ECS students listening to amateur renditions of Peter, Paul, and Mary songs and speakers railing against the Vietnam War. The setting’s resemblance to a synagogue was something I couldn’t even intuitively sense since, despite being Jewish, I had never been inside one. Like most of my fellow classmates, I came from a highly assimilated family. I attended school on Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah, celebrated Christmas with a tree, and ate bacon with my New York bagel.
Ethical Culture’s elevation of moral secularism as a replacement for religion was a key reason that my great-grandfather decided to send his children to the school, thus beginning my family’s four-generation legacy.
ECS has long occupied a squat five-story red-brick building on prime Central Park West real estate, where children starting at age four are educated through fifth grade. After they complete their studies on 64th Street, children travel across the expanse of Harlem and then past Yankee Stadium to the leafy Bronx enclave of Riverdale for middle, junior high, and high school. And what was Ethical Culture transmutes into Fieldston Middle and Upper on a campus that resembles a small college quad, complete with a glass and concrete library and the 18 acres of woodland immortalized in the Fieldston anthem:
Oh grassy banks and wooded ways,
Oh hillsides echo with our praise;
Iam cantate, jubilate;
shout giant oaks that touch the sky,
Ye massive rocks below reply.
New York City has long been known for its private-school system, which grooms the next generation of the nation’s elite. Competition for admission is fierce, since graduates have an advantage when applying to a prestigious university. Among the city’s most elite schools, the Ethical Culture Schools have a distinctive brand. They are known for their progressive ideology.
Throughout its 142-year history, ECS and Fieldston have openly avowed their commitment to social justice, racial equality, and intellectual freedom, decades before such values became important in other educational institutions. In my day, that meant attending mandatory ethics classes, still required, where we discussed moral issues and a curriculum which focused more on the history of the civil-rights movement than on the founding of America.
Following the spread of political correctness into the educational system writ large, the Ethical Culture Schools went even further to remain on the cutting edge of progressive ideology. “Although they don’t put it on their website, it’s almost assumed the school is catering to this old New York progressive group,” said one parent who recently had children in the school. “There’s a specific agenda that gets pushed with the kids. It’s social justice, but a specific politicized version of it.”
The school has made a priority out of ethnic diversification, setting aside classroom seats for those who cannot pay, especially minorities. Today ECS boasts that 40 percent of its student body is nonwhite, and its scholarship program extends to 22 percent of the student body, totaling $15 million a year and placing the school among the top ranks of independent schools nationwide, according to Fieldston’s website.
Despite these tireless and expensive efforts, the Ethical Culture Schools have, in the past decade, been the subject of multiple charges of racism. Such charges have been levied at other elite private schools, but the delicious irony of the ultra-woke Ethical Culture Schools roiled by racial controversy has been too much for the media to ignore.
One such incident occurred in 2011 when Barry Sirmon, a popular history teacher, told two ninth-grade black students, “I hope I’ll be able to tell you apart.” Sirmon, who had fought apartheid in his native South Africa and was active in the school’s union, was quickly fired. The school’s then-new principal, Damian Fernandez, an openly gay Latino who had promised a revivification of the institution’s leftist roots, justified the firing by saying that “everyone should be treated with respect, dignity, and compassion.”
In early 2019, an old amateur music video was shared in which some Fieldston seniors used “racist, homophobic, and misogynistic language.” The school’s punishment of the students stopped at suspension (although none returned to the school). But that was not enough for some nonwhite students. They staged a sit-in at Fieldston’s administration building, copying a similar protest made by Fieldston’s black students in 1970. Among their demands was that Fieldston hire more teachers of color and increase racial-bias training, which the school eventually agreed to implement.
More recently, the incidents of discrimination at ECS have, for the first time, widened to involve the Jewish student body. Jews have always been a majority of the student population. Several are, as I was, multigenerational legacies. But they have been mostly silent when it comes to Jewish matters on campus.
Several incidents in quick succession caught the media’s attention, especially after anti-Semitic terrorist attacks shocked the city. In November 2019, Fieldston students sat for a lecture by Kayum Ahmed, division director for access and accountability at the Open Society Foundations and an adjunct professor at Columbia University. He suggested a link between victims and victimizer that he applied to Israel.
“Xenophobic attacks are a shameful part of South African history, but in some ways it reflects the fluidity between those who are victims becoming perpetrators,” Ahmed said, as quoted in Tablet magazine. “I use the same example in talking about the Holocaust. That Jews who suffered in the Holocaust and established the State of Israel today—they perpetuate violence against Palestinians that [is] unthinkable.”
Tablet followed up with a lengthy piece by Sean Cooper describing how for several years Fieldston had refused to call out incidents of anti-Semitism among students and faculty. Cooper’s article described an environment in which Jews were perceived not as victims of centuries-old oppressors but as white aggressors.
It was likely because of such adverse press that Fieldston was compelled to take its most public stand against anti-Semitism. In January, it fired J. Brager, a Fieldston history teacher and outspoken Jewish anti-Israeli activist. The firing, which once again made headlines, was prompted by Brager’s tweet that she was “making latkes tonight for my birthday and channukah [sic], text me if you want to come over, no Zionists.”
Anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents have engendered rage and panic among some Jewish parents and alumni. But they haven’t, to date, resulted in any of the actions that would likely lead to lasting changes in the school—such as parents threatening to withdraw their children or alumni refusing to contribute. Given that Jews form the majority of paying students, parents could exercise a power and influence in much the same way the black students did after taking over the administration building.
But that is unlikely to happen for the simple reason that many Jewish parents and alumni have no problem with what has happened. As one Jewish alumna whose daughter also graduated from the school told me, these incidents have done nothing to alter her appreciation of the Ethical Culture Schools. She expressed a view about the coverage of the anti-Semitic incidents at the school that resonated with many others: “This is a lot of hullabaloo over nothing, it’s random comments and journalists looking for a story. No school is perfect but I’m not an educator and I trust these people and I don’t feel I should question them.”
Other parents and alumni have argued that anti-Semitism is something new in the school. Jan Morrow, an alumna who has been outspoken against anti-Zionism, said the attitude towards Jews at ECS used to be different. She recalled a sensitivity toward the Holocaust survivors who could be found among teachers and parents at the school. “No one would have criticized Israel,” she said.
But today the classification of Jews as white aggressors and criticism of Israel are cornerstones of progressive “intersectional” ideology. And the roots of that ideology can be found in the assimilationist tendency of some American Jews that led to the creation of the ethical-culture movement itself.
Ethical Culture was the brainchild of Felix Adler (1851–1933). He was six years old in 1857 when his father, Samuel, moved his family from Germany to New York City to preside over Temple Emanu-El, the flagship of Judaism’s new Reform movement. Felix intended to become a rabbi himself. But his life was changed when he discovered Immanuel Kant’s supreme principle of morality, the Categorical Imperative.
When the 23-year-old Adler returned to New York after studying in Germany, he made his first and last speech at Temple Emanu-El. It was called “The Judaism of the Future.” He called for an end to the trappings of ritual and theology and for a universal religion steeped in morality. Explicitly absent was the word “God.” His speech was considered revolutionary, but the apple was not rolling so far from the tree. The philosophy he espoused was a logical extension of the Reform movement, which had already turned traditional Judaism on its head. And when, in February 1877, the 26-year-old Adler incorporated the Society of Ethical Culture, he did so with support from the Reform community. Although Ethical Culture dispensed with ritual and belief in a supernatural force, it incorporated certain aspects of religious life—such as holding Sunday services with sermons and designing its assembly hall to resemble a house of worship.
Ethical Culture struck a chord with some of the nation’s new Jewish immigrants, many of them Germans who had fled the reactionary aftermath of Napoleon’s defeat and failed democratic revolutions. Central to the movement was the belief in the importance of “deed, not creed,” that good works alone were the basis of the good life—“To do right for right’s sake” without expecting a reward, as Adler put it.
Immigrant Jews with whom Adler’s message resonated presented an interesting paradox of identity, as my late husband Barry Rubin explained in his 1995 book, Assimilation and Its Discontents. On the one hand, America empowered Jews to transcend their traditional alienation from the lands where they lived on sufferance as a stateless, second-class people. On the other hand, the Jews of the day were remarkably quick to conclude that American citizenship required them to abandon their tradition and identity (in contrast to other ethnic groups such as the Italians and Irish). “They made America the new Holy Land of milk and honey,” Rubin wrote, and were so eager to blend in that they derided Jewish customs and identity as un-American. Ethical Culture was very much a part of that sentiment.
In 1878, Adler opened the first educational institution in the Ethical Culture tradition, later called the Workingman’s School. It provided free elementary education for the poor, an innovative concept. An 1890 New York Times article about the school couldn’t contain its enthusiasm for the place: “The school building is so spacious, well-lighted and cheerful, and the teaching so intelligent, progressive and interesting, that the children of the rich might envy the advantages offered to the wellspring of the poor.”
The school’s academic reputation and commitment to social justice made it attractive to upwardly mobile Jews who, because of quotas, were locked out of many of the nation’s other private schools. The Workingman’s School began charging tuition, added more grades, and in 1895 changed its name to “The Ethical Culture School.”
Among those drawn to ECS was my great-grandfather, Michael Mirsky, a clothing manufacturer. His four children attended the school, among them my grandmother. They combined an intense intellectualism with deep sympathy for one of the period’s prevailing political movements: Communism. Household debates were over the merits of Trotsky versus Stalin. Later, my grandmother enrolled her only child, my father Ralph. He always had a deep affection for the school, which, he used to tell me, attracted the city’s smartest Jewish intellectuals and had a real commitment to social action.
It should not then be surprising that ECS today finds itself grappling with the concept of Jewish identity. It has done so since its founding. Just how torn the school is about its Jewish roots became clear in 2015 when ECS instituted something it called “affinity groups,” a new mandatory part of the curriculum. A form arrived in an email to parents in which students, some as young as in third grade, were asked to pick their race. Their options were “African-American/Black,” “Asian/Pacific Islander,” “Latina/o,” “Multi-racial,” “White,” and “Not sure.” Students were then required to meet to discuss their self-affiliation and confront the affinities of others in a free-flowing mixed-race discussion. The goal of the “affinity” program was to combat racism aggressively.
Parents and others expressed concerns that the program was stoking the very racism it was designed to destroy by encouraging students to think in racial categories. Jewish parents had a special concern. Those who wanted “Jew” to be an option among the racial identities were told by school officials, according to Tablet and other reports, that this would not be an option. That meant that Jews were lumped in with whites—obviating thousands of years of anti-Jewish oppression.
At a school meeting, a Jewish parent who had grown up in the South described how the Ku Klux Klan attempted to burn down his synagogue, according to an article in New York Magazine. “To lump Jewish children together with other white children is to ignore centuries of history,” he said. To which an African-American parent responded: “You have the privilege of hiding behind your whiteness. And my child doesn’t.” Similar heated discussions were reported among students after they met together as part of the program.
From branding Jews as white aggressors and refusing to recognize Jewish identity, it was a straight line to someone like Brager, the fired Fieldston history teacher. Brager, who goes by the pronoun “they,” chose to define both her sexual and Jewish identity with her own moral compass. The inappropriateness of having Brager, who has been openly anti-Zionist, teach an elective history course titled “Nazi Germany and the Holocaust” seemed to have been lost on the Fieldston administration.
It’s highly likely that Brager would have stayed on the Fieldston faculty if she hadn’t been so outspoken about her views. After Fieldston sent a letter to students and parents calling “deeply hurtful” the remarks by the speaker equating Holocaust victims and Palestinian aggression, Brager tweeted, “I have never been more disappointed in my employer than I am today and have never been closer to quitting.”
And when Fieldston invited two Reform rabbis to offer a rebuttal to Ahmed’s speech, she tweeted: “SURE GO AHEAD and invite two white men who run Reform congregations, both of whom are Zionists, one that wrote that the ‘most insidious strain [of American anti-Semitism] is that of anti-Zionist intersectionality [on the far-left].” She also reportedly raised a middle finger at one of the rabbis before walking out of the assembly.
Some Jewish alumni defended her. “It’s sad we fired this teacher because we don’t know what kids she was good for. She wasn’t fired for bad teaching or making kids feel bad. She was fired by a bunch of hardline parents and faculty who disagreed with her social media politics,” one Jewish alumnus wrote on a Facebook. “That’s too much.”
In truth, neither Brager’s highly publicized dismissal nor any of the school’s adverse press will alter the fact that thousands of parents will seek this year and every following year to win the school’s gold ticket of admittance for their children. And so the Ethical Culture Fieldston School will continue to play a key role in educating the nation’s next generation of elites. It will also continue to be a leader in pushing a progressive education. It did the right thing in the Brager case. But the question will endure: Has my alma mater lost the moral standing to make its most enduring and noblest claim—the claim that it is a place “where men come to seek the highest”?
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