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BACK TO THE BOOKS Opening of new Reform day schools signals growth along with ambivalence

NEW YORK, Aug. 19 (JTA) — In many ways, Rodeph Sholom School looks like any other elite Manhattan private school. Walls are covered with colorful student art and the small courtyard playground is meticulously maintained. Dressed-for-success, cellphone-toting parents clamor into the kindergarten classroom for a special program where their children show off what they have learned about dinosaurs. But alongside the pictures of nature and New York hang crayoned illustrations of Bible stories and Jewish family trees. At the “dinosaur breakfast,” kindergartners don”t just show off the fossil replicas they have created, but proudly present miniature handmade “Torah” scrolls in which there is a page about each Jewish holiday. Rodeph Sholom — which enrolls 530 students in nursery school through sixth grade — is part of a small, but slowly growing network of Reform day schools, which are increasingly being regarded as training grounds for the movement”s future leadership. Seen as an antidote to the Jewish community”s assimilation woes, day schools — which offer secular and Judaic studies under one roof — are proliferating throughout North America. But while day schools have long been accepted in the Orthodox and Conservative communities, Reform Judaism has had a more ambivalent relationship to them. When a small group introduced the idea of Reform day schools in the 1960”s, opponents argued that day schools were “inimical” to Reform Judaism, Michael Zeldin wrote in a 1997 article for a Reform Jewish publication. “As a modernist movement committed to democratic principles and integration into the life of the community, Reform Judaism could not support a system of schools that separated Jewish children from their non-Jewish neighbors,” wrote Zeldin, a professor at the Reform movement”s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, describing the opponents” argument. At a 1969 gathering of the Reform movement”s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, leaders soundly defeated a proposal that would have encouraged the experimental development of Reform day schools. Nonetheless, two Reform synagogues — Temple Beth Am in Miami and Rodeph Sholom — opened day schools one year later. Others gradually followed suit and in 1985, with eight schools already in operation, the UAHC softened its stance somewhat with a resolution endorsing “the concept of autonomous, self-supporting Reform Jewish day schools as a valid educational option.” Today, the die-hard opponents have been silenced and 22 Reform day schools exist in North America, including one scheduled to open in September in Los Angeles. Despite the changes over the last decade, Reform day schools still face problems finding broad-based support. While a new school is opening in Los Angeles, and ones in Dallas and Philadelphia are entering their second years, two other schools — Los Angeles” Temple Isaiah and Chicago”s Rosenwald School — recently closed. And in the past 15 years, Reform day schools in Detroit, New Jersey, Brooklyn and Long Island have not gotten off the ground or have broken off from the movement. “There are still mixed feelings among Reform Jews and the Reform movement about day schools,” HUC”s Zeldin said in an interview. “There”s not an unequivocal endorsement of day schools as the preferred avenue for Jewish kids, so not every school has the unqualified support of its community.” There is a growing consensus that in order to succeed, a Reform day school has to have grass-roots support and must actively engage the surrounding Reform community and Reform institutions. “One of the lessons we”ve learned is that you have to begin by drawing on the Reform congregations” in the community, “giving them a sense of ownership and making people feel the school”s success is dependent on them,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the UAHC and himself a vocal champion of day school education. That may explain why the majority of Reform day schools, unlike most Orthodox and Conservative ones, operate out of temples. Having the “security blanket” of a congregation ensures that the school has a solid base of institutional, financial and rabbinic support, said Irwin Shlachter, headmaster of New York”s Rodeph Sholom. Shlachter describes his school as one that aims to “compete effectively with the best private schools, but do the learning through Jewish eyes.” Rodeph Sholom”s critics often describe it as more of a fancy school with Jewish students than a Jewish day school. But Michelle Singer, who directs the school”s Judaic studies curriculum, said the Judaic curriculum — once limited to “celebrating holidays through art projects and food” — has become quite rigorous. “In terms of what we do in class, it”s not that different from Conservative or Orthodox schools,” said Singer, herself a graduate of an Orthodox day school. “We learn texts in Hebrew, have Shacharit (morning prayer) services and try to integrate the social studies curriculum with Judaic studies, so that it”s woven throughout.” “We”re very traditional in our teaching and practice here at school so the kids can then make educated choices about how they want to observe,” she said. How the children observe Judaism at home, rather than what they learn in school, is the major difference between Rodeph Sholom and more traditional day schools, Singer said, noting that the level of Jewish committment varies widely among the parents, many of whom are intermarried or have limited Jewish education. “It”s a delicate balance to make sure all the parents are comfortable. A lot of parents are asking for more Hebrew and Judaic studies, but others worry about losing time for secular studies.” The changes in the school reflect a larger change in Reform Judaism, according to Shlachter. “I used to call it Judaism in the closet — don”t give too much, be like other private schools. But now they want more,” he said. Shlachter and leaders of other Reform day schools believe their schools play an outreach role that more traditional day schools do not, mostly because marginally affiliated Jewish families find them less threatening. “If a couple makes the commitment to sending their child here, then I don”t question their practices at home, unless they do something like wear a cross to school,” Shlachter said. “I”d rather embrace these families than know they feel excommunicated. This is our one last shot at keeping these kids Jewish.” Bonnie Morris, educational director of the Solel School, located in a suburb of Phoenix, said, “It doesn”t bother me if their motivation in enrolling their children isn”t Jewish education.” “The fact that they”ve walked in the door” is an opportunity to engage the child and family in Jewish life, said Morris, who also serves as president of the Progressive Association of Reform Day Schools, PARDeS. Like Rodeph Sholom, Solel — founded in 1991 — is based in a synagogue, has intensified its Judaic curriculum over the years and wins praise from parents for its warm atmosphere and ability to instill a love of Judaism. Judy Shaffert, a parent at Solel, said her son “is thoroughly steeped in Judaism as a world outlook,” and his class “is like a family for him.” Reform day schools vary considerably in their atmosphere, outlook and size, ranging from the 750 students at Toronto”s Leo Baeck Day School to 44 at Beth Hillel Day School in Valley Village, Calif, a suburb of Los Angeles. The schools seem to thrive more in certain regions — like the West Coast, Southwest, and South — than in others, like the Midwest and East Coast. But all wrestle with just what a Reform day school should be. Leslie Litman, the former Judaic studies coordinator at Boston”s Rashi School and now the liaison between PARDeS and the UAHC, said questions of how observant, or even how Jewish, a school should be often surface at the schools, particularly at new ones worried about scaring off potential parents. “Do all kids have to wear kipot? How rigorously do we enforce whatever kashrut policy we have?” she said, adding that the “struggle between communal norms and individual rights is more prevalent in Reform day schools” than Conservative ones. Family education programs, which many Reform day schools have, can alleviate that struggle, Litman said, noting that if less observant parents are exposed to rituals and traditions “in a non-threatening way, they”ll love it and it won”t be an issue.” To that end, HUC”s Zeldin is directing a pilot program called “Day Schools for the 21st Century” that helps Reform and nondenominational day schools maximize their potential for engaging parents as well as students. Zeldin believes day schools can foster entire communities and have the power to “invite Reform Jews in to a new vision of what Reform Jewish living is.” For Rodeph Sholom second-grader Beth Braiterman, Reform day school education is a bit less abstract, however. “It”s a great school because we get to learn Hebrew and the Jewish religion,” she said. Her classmate, Risa Nacron, agreed. “It”s fun and the teachers are nice.””