This Friday, I will be giving a lecture about my dissertation, Choice Among the Chosen: The School Choice Movement and the American Jewish Community, at Millsaps College.
I haven’t really looked at my dissertation since defending it this past June, but it has been fun to revisit the story – and good motivation to start moving it toward publication. It’s a story worth sharing; here’s just a taste.
I was driven to write about the topic after attending a rally for school choice initiatives at Beren Academy in Houston, Texas. Houston boasts an ever-growing Orthodox Jewish population. I attended the rally with my father, who was a Republican at the time—and remains a Southern Baptist to this day. He had never met an Orthodox Jew, but quickly felt right at home when “Rabbi T.” began speaking.
With a strong Brooklyn accent, the rabbi fired up the crowd by asking: “Who’s a proud American? Who’s a proud Texan?!”
The crowd cheered, and Rabbi T. continued: “We proud Americans like having choice…this is what democracy is all about. We choose our profession, how we lead our lives, what brand to buy at the supermarket, so why shouldn’t we as Jews be able to choose our education and not decide between food or day school tuition?”
My father was nodding in agreement. He asked, “Are these people Jewish? They sound like Republicans to me.”
I looked at him in amazement. “Dad, there are plenty of Jewish Republicans.”
It wasn’t a new thing for me to hear observant Jews espousing rhetoric that reflected Republican values. What was more surprising was the fact they were staunchly arguing for government funding for parochial schools. Historically, the American Jewish community has ardently supported church-state separation. When did that change, and why?
Turns out that some Jews have been advocating government funds for parochial/religious schools for decades – since the early 1960s. The leading advocates for government funds for Jewish schools were Agudath Israel, Torah Umesorah, and the Orthodox Union. For Orthodox lobbying groups, who did not want to send their children to mixed-gender schools, their constitutional right to education trumped Establishment clause concerns. They claimed to need government support because the Jewish community wasn’t funding their institutions.
At the time, Jewish Federations did not want to support Orthodox schools teaching values not held by Jews in the mainstream community. In fact, at one debate, a female American Jewish Congress member threw a subway token at Rabbi Moshe Sherer, president of Agudath Israel, snarkily remarking, “…you must need this for your ride home. That’s all the aid you will get from the liberal Jewish community. It isn’t my responsibility to support your religious choices.”
Leo Pfeffer, the leading Jewish lawyer who fought against school prayer, fought tooth and nail against the work of those like Sherer. The harder Pfeffer fought against federal and state funds going into these schools, the more motivated the Orthodox community became. The battle grew ugly. Pfeffer and his allies were able to convince the Courts throughout the late 1960s and 1970s to declare all but paltry aid to nonpublic schools unconstitutional. In response, Orthodox Jews and Catholics tried new approaches – namely tax credits and vouchers, which come with very little government oversight.
When evangelical Protestants joined the mix, powerful changes in educational policy occurred, ones that increased economic inequality and decreased racial diversity in the American educational system. The voucher and tax credit approach was eventually deemed constitutional. Orthodox Jews, Catholics, and evangelicals collectively wrought this change, all believing it led to more moral schooling for their children. (Evangelicals were once against government funding for private schools as well, especially since up until the 1960s public schools reflected distinctly Protestant values. Public schools were essentially tools for disseminating their values, but that changed after the Supreme Court outlawed prayer and bible reading at school.)
A lot of people think the Moral Majority grew as a result of Roe v. Wade. But the Moral Majority was formed as a result of the Carter administration trying to withdraw tax exemptions from Christian schools, formed in the wake of des-segregation and secularization of public education. Tax exemptions saved these private schools a tremendous amount of money. If those had been revoked, these many of these schools would have dissolved.
Religious private schools clearly still exist, receive tax exempt status, vouchers, tax credits, and so on – a victory for Sherer and his allies. The amount they receive is no longer paltry, either. Last year, $1,233,200,000 was spent on tuition for approximately 337,000 students attending private schools, and that money essentially comes with no government oversight, allowing schools to teach whatever they want and admit whomever they want. Depending on the state, some of that goes to the nearly 255,000 students enrolled in 861 Jewish day schools. In states like New York, yeshivot receive millions each year for things like mandatory services. In all of these cases, that is money not going to public schools. With charter schools also booming, public schools are ultimately getting fewer resources which in turn, hurts public school students.
This reality is very pronounced here in Mississippi, and certainly in Jackson. Statistics show that a large percentage of Jackson Public School students drop out in ninth grade, and the turnover rate for teachers and administrators is abysmal. Jackson residents who have the means to leave the public school system have plenty of nice private school options from which to choose.
So, what do you think? When it comes to Jewish values, is it more important for Jews to fight against school choice initiatives, advocating for better public education for all? Or should they push for more school choice/voucher and tax credit initiatives, promoting private school options while giving lower and middle income Jewish families more funding to access to an increasingly expensive Jewish day school education?
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If you’ve never lived in the South, you might not be familiar with King Cakes. The brightly colored yellow-green-and-purple treats start popping up in the weeks before Mardi Gras. Though most prevalent in New Orleans, they are popular throughout the South. They’re delicious, they’re often shared at offices and parties– and yes, it’s Catholic in origin.
The name “King Cake” refers to the three kings, or three wise men. It emerged as a treat associated with pre-Lent celebrations, connected closely to Easter. Sometimes, there’s even a little plastic baby hidden somewhere in the cake – representing that same baby the wise men went to visit.
So it’s understandable that a friend recently asked me: “Um… is it weird for Jewish people to buy King Cakes?”
When asked this question, I resisted the urge to laugh it off and instead did a little reflecting (while munching on a delicious cinnamon-swirl piece of this tasty treat). Does the symbolism behind a food mean it’s proprietary to a certain group? Putting aside logistics that would obviously factor in for some observant folks, such as the laws of kashrut or halal – should foods be avoided simply because they’re associated with someone else’s tradition?
I recalled a few years ago, when a local bakery in Jackson, Mississippi, began promoting their all-new seasonal specialty: Purim baked goods. Yes! Fresh-baked, made-to-order sweet hamentaschen in multiple flavors — and savory bourekas, too. I was beyond excited that my favorite local bakery was offering Jewish treats, and so were my Jewish friends… and so were my non-Jewish friends. We all went out and bought those Purim treats in droves. (And thank goodness – if only the small Jewish community of Jackson had shown up to buy the baked goods, that wouldn’t have been very marketable.)
But one person did ask me: “Um, is it okay for a non-Jewish person to eat those triangle Purim-cookies?”
I assured them, without hesitation, that they were welcome to a cookie.
The question is not ludicrous. Eating is sometimes related to a statement of faith, whether it’s by following rules as to what we do and do not eat, or accepting a communion wafer at a Catholic mass.
But there is a difference between foods with ritual meaning and foods with cultural symbolism. Eating hamentaschen doesn’t make you Jewish, but it does give you an opportunity to learn a delicious tidbit about Purim and the story of Esther. Sharing a King Cake with co-workers is a delicious opportunity to enjoy Mardi Gras and share in a communal celebration. It’s a sharing of cuisine that has become a low-barrier sharing of culture.
In fact, I think the story of Esther itself makes the case for sharing in the culture around us. Esther was a nice Jewish girl who managed to save her entire Jewish community, not by avoiding the culture around her– but by fully immersing in it. She married the king, held on to her identity, and stopped Haman. Let’s remember she also did this over an extended dinner party, and now we recall Haman’s defeat by eating cookies shaped like his hat and named for his ears. (Creepy.)
Lots of special-foods have stories unique to one culture or another. Learning about them is fascinating, and feasting on them is even better.
In other words, let all of us eat (king) cake. And yes, I promise, in a few more weeks… I’ll share my triangle Purim-cookies.
Playing an active role in our local communities is a long-standing Southern Jewish tradition. Our community, Temple Israel in Columbus, Georgia, wanted to do even more with community engagement—so we reached out to Malkie Schwartz at the ISJL. With that help and guidance, our Community Engagement committee has been able to build an amazing relationship with the students and staff of Rothschild Leadership Academy (RLA), a local public middle school that serves students in 6th-8th grade.
During the summer, the committee approached Dr. Mike Forte, the Principal of Rothschild Leadership Academy and asked this critical community engagement question: What do you need?
Dr. Forte responded: “Help the kids read.”
And so began our community’s implementation of the ISJL’s literacy program Read, Lead, Succeed.
Read, Lead, Succeed is a program first piloted in Jackson, Mississippi. We’re excited to now be piloting it here in Columbus, Georgia. Read, Lead, Succeed uses I See Sam phonetics based reading materials. The I See Sam curriculum was designed to help young elementary school students so we’ve modified the program to better fit the needs of 6th graders. For example, our students read individually for privacy as well as personalized instruction. Additionally, we have added an “attitude assessment” that students take when they first begin the program and after completing other predesignated milestones. The program deftly integrates learning with a positive environment that fosters relationships and a love of reading.
Many of our volunteer team members were concerned the I See Sam system was too simple for the students. We quickly learned that there are many students who read below grade level and this program helped address gaps in their reading abilities. It comes down to that same question: What do you need? This program, and the system behind it, is filling a need.
Our Community Engagement Committee members have been personally impacted by this program. I asked some of them to share their thoughts and reflections:
“The success of Read, Lead, Succeed at Rothschild Leadership Academy is a marvelous manifestation of the trust we forged by listening. We listened to Dr. Forte describe the needs at his school. We listened to his priorities. After the commitment and excellence we showed through the gardening project, he and his staff were receptive to our suggestion to help in a deeper way.” – Mark Rice
“Initially, I was concerned that the books would be too easy for them … I was surprised to see that in fact, they were the level they were reading at. My heart went out to them. Their improvement and eagerness to learn each week motivated me even more. I am so proud of them and I know they will continue to improve. The need for someone to spend time with them reading is vital. The programs straightforward approach was very helpful.” – Suzanne Reed Fine
In the future, the Community Engagement Committee of Columbus, Georgia hopes to expand Read, Lead, Succeed by adding volunteers and students to the program at RLA. We also envision launching the program in the elementary schools that feed into RLA. We believe that preventing students from falling behind in elementary school will lead to greater success in middle school and beyond. We are proud for our Southern Jewish congregation to continue playing our part, working in our community and helping meet the needs that are right here at home.