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August 28, 2015 | 13th Elul 5775

Charter Schools are Not the Way, By Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie, Special to the Jewish Week

Some wonderful ideas are circulating these days about how to renew Jewish life in America, but the creation of Jewish charter schools is not one of them.

As reported in the May 30 issue of The Jewish Week, the decision of Michael Steinhardt’s Foundation for Jewish Life to submit an application for a Hebrew-language charter school in New York City is expected to energize supporters of such schools throughout the country, leading to additional applications in other locations. These publicly-funded schools would teach Hebrew language and Jewish culture to children of all faiths.

Supporters of the schools have two primary motivations, each of which is profoundly flawed.

First, advocates of charter schools correctly note that the soaring costs of day school education

make it unlikely that the ranks of day school children, at least in the non-Orthodox community, can be significantly increased. They therefore see charters as a vehicle that can promote Jewish identity at no cost to parents. The heavy day school subsidies now provided by Jewish federations would also be eliminated, although Jewish communal groups might still offer funding for supplementary programs at the schools.
The obvious problem with this strategy is that charter schools cannot have the promotion of Jewish identity as an educational goal without running afoul of church-state restrictions. The most likely result is that the educational process at these schools becomes an elaborate charade.  Jewish groups support the creation of a Hebrew language and culture school; rabbis and Jewish educators teach in the school; and school authorities push the law to its limits in the hope that they can instill Jewish commitment without crossing the line.

Such efforts, however, are doomed to failure. Jewish education cannot succeed as an act of deception. A school that cannot proudly proclaim its intention to strengthen Jewish identity and commitment, enlisting parents in the process, will not do so, except perhaps in a very incidental way.

The second motivation of charter advocates is to offer Jewish cultural education that is stripped of religion, not only because it allows public funding but because it is superior to Jewish education that includes religion. In making the case for such an approach last year, Steinhardt suggested that since most Jews aren’t religious anyway, cultural education might be the best way to meet Jewish communal needs.

Yet such arguments are simply absurd. Yes, some Jews are more comfortable in the realm of Jewish culture while others find meaning in the realm of Jewish religion. But these two pillars of Jewish life are intimately related and inextricably intertwined. And we know that the interplay between the two — tension and all — is what has maintained Jewish existence for 4,000 years.

The reality of our Jewish lives demonstrates the enduring quality of these interconnections. Most American Jews who do not see themselves as believers in any sense are nonetheless comfortable with elements of religious experience, and their cultural Judaism invariably includes holiday observance, commitment to Jewish peoplehood and even study of religious texts — all of which would be forbidden or severely circumscribed in a charter school setting.

The same phenomenon exists in Israel; half of the curriculum in the so-called “secular schools” in the Israeli school system would not pass constitutional muster in America. In short, any effort to isolate culture from religion only succeeds in distorting Judaism’s very essence, and what remains after the effort is made is so anodyne that it has no hope of inspiring or engaging Jewish students. 

For some charter school enthusiasts, these difficulties may be acknowledged, but the argument is made that the Hebrew language is in any case the key element of Jewish instruction and is sufficient to create a lasting Jewish identity. As a lifelong lover, speaker and champion of Hebrew, I cannot agree. Hebrew alone cannot sustain Jewish life, and the power of Hebrew comes as much from unlocking the treasures of the Jewish religious tradition as it does from creating ties to Jewish culture and the Jewish state. One need only look at the experience of the more than half a million emigrants from Israel in America. Those who do not make religious connections and who hope to maintain their Judaism solely through Hebrew language are the first to assimilate.

The high costs of day school are a legitimate concern, but we should not give up on day schools and surely we must support those day schools that we have. If philanthropists and communal leaders are interested in finding additional vehicles to assure our Jewish future, I recommend turning to projects with a proven record of success. For example, we could undertake as a community to provide every Jewish child with two years of Jewish nursery school and two summers of Jewish camping.  Reasonably priced and freed from the constraints of public financing, these educational experiences can do what charter schools cannot: they can deepen Jewish identity, strengthen Jewish peoplehood and produce proud, affirming, committed Jewish children.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie is president of the Union for Reform Judaism.

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