Schechter schools considering embracing patrilineal descent

Synagogues aren’t the only institutions in the Conservative movement changing their policies to become more welcoming to non-Jews and interfaith families. (See our recent story on Conservative synagogues wrestling with non-Jews in the pews.)

The movement’s school network, Solomon Schechter, is too.

Last week, the organization’s board voted to set up a task force to reconsider its admissions policies, which limit enrollment to Jews or non-Jews who intend to convert.

What’s really at issue is the Conservative movement’s stance on patrilineal descent.

Conservative Judaism — like the Orthodox but unlike Reform — does not recognize as Jewish children who are born to non-Jewish mothers and Jewish fathers. Yet more and more schools are encountering prospective students who fit that category and don’t intend to convert because they already consider themselves Jewish.

Jon Mitzmacher, the executive director-designate of the Schechter Day School Network, told JTA this week that changing the rules on admitting such students is important particularly in communities where the Schechter school is the only non-Orthodox day school in town. If the Schechter schools don’t accept children who are Jewish by patrilineal descent, Reform kids who fit that category will be shut out from day school education.

“Is a Schechter school about a certain kind of education, or is it about the halachic identity of the students sitting in the seats?” said Mitzmacher, who expects to start his new job at the helm of the Schechter network next summer (he currently is head of the Martin J. Gottlieb Day School, a Schechter affiliate in Jacksonville, Fla.). “In 2013, are we in a position where we want to be putting up roadblocks for parents who want our product?”

The shift in outlook comes at a time of serious decline for Schechter schools: Over the last 15 years, the number of Schechter schools in the country has shrunk from 63 to 41. Many schools have ignored the network’s admission rules and loosened admissions criteria on their own. Others have opted out of the Schechter network entirely and become pluralistic Jewish community day schools. A few have simply shut down.

The Schechter network is itself in the midst of a significant overhaul. It is in the process of becoming independent from the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, though it will remain part of the Conservative movement. It recently was awarded some $2 million in grants from the Avi Chai Foundation and an anonymous foundation (and some resources from United Synagogue), which will allow it to expand its staff and build capacity.

Mitzmacher says change is long overdue and that he hopes a new admissions policy will be in place by this summer.

“How we think about admissions and everything we do is subject to reexamination,” he said.

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