NEW YORK (JTA) — For Orthodox Jews, day school education is a given. Jews who affiliate Conservative or Reform or are unaffiliated, on the other hand, have many choices about how to educate their children. When they
enroll their children in a Jewish day school, we should celebrate the commitment they are demonstrating and encourage them along the path toward a more intensive Jewish life that a day school education signifies.
Yet in a recent interview Michael Steinhardt, a leading Jewish philanthropist who was a founding partner of PEJE, the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education, called non-Orthodox Jewish education a “shandah” and characterized many of the young adults he has encountered through Birthright Israel as “Jewish barbarians.” This kind of disrespect has no place in any serious discourse about Jewish education.
Among other charges, Steinhardt chastised educators of the Reform and Conservative movements for “under-educating our next generations.” Talk like this grabs headlines, but it distorts the notable record of achievement and commitment to Jewish life that thousands of alumni of non-Orthodox day schools manifest in their daily lives.
The 49 Solomon Schechter day schools across North America continue to educate almost 15,000 students. In spite of the financial crisis, their parents still chose to pay high tuitions to give their children a Jewish education. Testimonials from graduates and alumni affirm the enduring value of their day school education. Those who are now parents themselves often choose day school for their own children.
As a businessman, Michael Steinhardt knows that no endeavor in life yields 100 percent success. If he would seriously assess the impact of the Conservative movement’s Solomon Schechter schools, the Reform movement’s PARDeS schools or the many RAVSAK-affiliated Jewish community day schools, he would have to acknowledge that these institutions are committed in their own ways to nurturing a high level of Jewish literacy.
I am most knowledgeable about Schechter schools and can say with confidence that students in these schools develop competence in traditional text study, embrace the spiritual and ethical values of Judaism, acquire Hebrew language skills, and get to know and love the land and people of Israel through lived experiences. They live fully in both the general culture and in the Jewish world.
These schools and the educators they employ work to instill a love of mitzvot and Torah, a personal engagement with the heritage of the Jewish people, and a desire for Jewish living. And these institutions have had wonderful success stories.
Mr. Steinhardt shows a striking lack of understanding and knowledge of what occurs in Schechter classrooms and the extent to which their graduates identify as engaged Jews. And of course we would welcome the opportunity to meet with Mr. Steinhardt to discuss this further.
He chooses instead to provoke and engage in a non-productive, combative foray. He fails to acknowledge that many young leaders in the Jewish community are products of non-Orthodox Jewish day schools.
It is true that Reform and Conservative Jews live in a pluralistic American society with its challenges of assimilation and intermarriage. We acknowledge that there is always room for improvement, and we invite Michael Steinhardt to use his considerable resources to make Jewish day school education more affordable for more families, and provide opportunities for teachers to advance their own learning.
He can do more to bring about the desired result — the highest level of excellent that day schools can achieve. We urge him to extend his generosity for Jewish family education so that more parents and children can benefit from the multiplicity of creative approaches to Jewish learning that constantly need more funding to have a maximal impact.
Advocacy for better results is a positive initiative when it is coupled with respect for the richness and diversity of Jewish life. Mr. Steinhardt has the means to make it happen. That’s what we need from him in these challenging times.
(Elaine R. S. Cohen is executive of the Solomon Schechter Day School Association.)