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Jews Make Way at Prep Schools, Historically Bastions of Blue Blood

Muffy and Biff aren’t exactly making way for Hannah and Shlomo at America’s prep schools, but Jewish life is making its presence felt at these long-standing bastions of WASP-dom. Sometimes it just happens in odd ways.

Matthew Feldberg launched the Jewish club at the Stevenson School in Pebble Beach, Calif., as a joke.

Annoyed that a Christian club at his school was “getting all the glam,” Feldberg, 17, and another student founded the Federation of Jewish Intellectuals two years ago.

Then a funny thing happened: Other students, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, showed interest.

Now 20-25 students are involved in the Jewish group at the school, says Feldberg, a senior.

The group gets together occasionally to learn about Jewish holidays. There are also e-mail communications and, most recently, a matzah-ball soup sale.

“I don’t want to be as serious as the Christian group,” Feldberg says.

Welcome to the uneven nature of Jewish life at America’s prep schools.

The student bodies of New England’s exclusive prep schools, once virtually devoid of Jews, today are 5 percent to 20 percent Jewish, with a higher percentage at some schools in the New York City area.

Efforts to build Jewish identity at these schools are increasing, in part due to an organization known as the Curriculum Initiative, which was founded in 1996 expressly for this purpose and which now has relationships with about 50 U.S. private schools.

Among its activities, the group organizes an annual Jewbilee weekend for Jewish prep schools. This year the event will be held at the end of January at Connecticut’s Choate Rosemary Hall, which, like many of the schools discussed in this article, has a mixture of boarding and day students.

At some schools — like Choate and Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire, each of which has at least 100 Jewish students — Jewish life is vibrant.

At the Taft School, also in Connecticut, there’s even a Torah scroll originally from Uzbekistan, which the school bought.

But attempts to build Jewish life at prep schools often run into obstacles, such as students’ overloaded academic and extracurricular schedules, which often include Saturday classes.

“These kids are really busy,” says Rachel Bashevkin, the Jewish adviser at the Westover School in Middlebury, Conn. “They have more required things in their lives than college kids do.”

Building Jewish identity also flies in the face of long-standing school traditions that either foster Protestantism or ignore religion altogether. Often founded as outposts of Protestant denominations, these institutions historically did not encourage Jewish identity and have been slow to change.

“We had weekly chapel and hymns,” says Marya Levenson, who attended the Chaffee School in Windsor, Conn., from 1957-1960. “It was clearly Christian. There wasn’t a sense of multicultural respect for different religions.”

Until recently, the few Jewish students who attended the schools were not, well, particularly Jewish. They enrolled because they or their parents were attracted by a school’s reputation for turning out young scholars or artists.

Jewish identity “wasn’t on the agenda” of students at the Loomis Chaffee School in the mid-1980s, says Rabbi Bradley Solmsen, “and it certainly wasn’t on mine.”

Now director of the Genesis program, a summer program for Jewish teenagers at Brandeis University, Solmsen got interested in Jewish life after he graduated from Loomis Chaffee.

At some schools, however, times have changed.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than at the all-girls Westover School, and much of the credit is due to Bashevkin, a Jew who is the school’s assistant director of studies.

During Chanukah this year, Jewish items adorn Bashevkin’s office. A green, blue and white needlepoint “Shalom” hangs on her office door, a clock with Hebrew letters sits on the small table near her computer and menorahs hang in both of her office windows, which look out onto the school courtyard. There are only about 15 Jewish students among the school’s population of 200, but the Jewish Club — the “Jew Crew,” as they call themselves — is an active presence.

There’s an all-school seder and an annual Chanukah party, and the faculty does a yearly spiel, or humorous performance, for Purim.

“We try to make a big deal out of it here,” senior Gabrielle Sirkin says of the club’s Jewish activities over a dinner of pizza and salad in the cafeteria.

As at many prep schools these days, chapel services at Westover are “nondenominational,” though they features Protestant hymns.

Bashevkin, who has been at the school since 1981, still has the youthful energy of a camp counselor.

When new students apply, Bashevkin has to do some checking to find out who’s Jewish, since the school doesn’t ask questions about religion on application forms. She then makes sure all the Jewish girls have places to go for the High Holidays.

Since Bashevkin is active in the local Jewish community, Jewish parents feel comfortable sending their daughters to Westover. Two children of local Jewish federation staffers recently graduated from the school.

At a morning Westover assembly on a cold December day, several Jewish students, dressed in homemade yellow T-shirts, do a step-dancing routine popularized by black fraternities.

The goal of the “Jews in Step” show: advertising the school’s annual Chanukah party.

The results can be seen that night, when more than 150 people, mainly students, show up for the party, which features a klezmer band and latkes, in addition to brownies and other food.

As students and Bashevkin do Israeli dancing to the band’s music, it could be a Chanukah celebration almost anywhere — except that most of the participants aren’t Jewish.

That’s not surprising: Jewish activities at prep schools often have an ecumenical flavor.

Indeed, student leaders of Choate’s Christian fellowship are regulars at the Hillel club’s meetings, which on Friday nights include Shabbat prayers in addition to discussions about “the world and whatever comes up,” says Abigail Tufts, 15, a sophomore at the Connecticut private school.

Tufts, who describes herself as a Conservative Jew, doesn’t see anything odd about non-Jewish participation in the Jewish group’s meetings. After all, she goes to the school’s Christian meetings.

“It’s basically the same thing, except that they talk about Christianity,” she says.

It makes sense that Christian students would attend Jewish events says Eileen Gress, executive director of the Curriculum Initiative: Jews make up only a small percentage of students at these prep schools, and teenagers still developing their own identities are curious about other cultures.

Still, many U.S. prep schools today lack the kind of active Jewish communities found at Westover and Choate.

Is Westover “typical of prep schools? I don’t think so,” Bashevkin admits.

Jewish students elsewhere agree.

“There are so many Jewish students at our school, but they’re all closeted,” says Greg Friedman, a senior at the Cambridge School in Weston, Mass., whose family lives in Baltimore.

The Curriculum Initiative tries to persuade these students to come out of the closet, but it’s tough going.

There’s no doubt that the organization has had some successes. Most of the schools it works with are in New York and New England, but it recently has expanded to schools in New Orleans and California.

The initiative, which receives funding from such heavy hitters as the Samuel Bronfman Foundation and the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Foundation, also runs a professional development program for educators. During the weeklong summer program, texts culled from various religions are studied, often in the Jewish tradition of chevrutas, or pairs.

Students who attend Jewbilee — a mixture of spiritual activities, Israel discussions and schmoozing — often are turned on to Judaism. Friedman, for one, has made forming a Jewish student organization his senior project.

Junior Meg Kochiss, 17, says her experience at Westover has brought her closer to Judaism. The product of a mixed marriage, she’s now thinking of having a Bat Mitzvah.

But even supporters of Jewish life at the prep schools admit the project faces an uphill battle.

It’s difficult to attract students to the Jewbilee, and only 50 or 60 students attend each year, Gress says.

Even at Choate, Tufts says, “there are a lot of people who’ll tell you they’re Jewish, but a lot of them don’t want to be part of Hillel because it takes away part of your weekend.”

Plus, she adds, “some people won’t come because they think it isn’t a cool thing to so.”

Gress understands the obstacles. But building Jewish life at private schools is worth it, she says, if “every student leaves knowing a little more about their background, willing to open another door.”

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