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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I recently came across this list of the “most and least Jewish states.” The list is derived from a study by the Association of Statisticians of American Religious Bodies (ASARB). Wyoming was denoted as the least Jewish state, measuring 23 Jewish individuals per 100,000 people. New York, of course, was the “most Jewish state,” with a whopping 4,046 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people.
My current state, Mississippi (ranked once again as the most religious state in a recent Gallop poll), boasts 43 Jewish adherents per 100,000 people. That places it at #46 on the list.
People tend to have a lot of negative assumptions about being Jewish in Mississippi. In all honesty, despite being a native Texan, I was a little hesitant about moving to the Magnolia State from New York City. I had lived in the “most Jewish state” for five years; my alma mater, NYU, had a thriving Hillel and large Jewish community, and it didn’t take much effort for me to be involved in Jewish life. Down here in the heart of Dixie, the scene is different—but it’s really quite lovely. Several trips to the Delta as this winter began reminded me why that is so true.
Here’s the thing: Jews in Mississippi have historically had to work pretty hard to maintain their Jewish identity. For instance, the ISJL’s founder and president, Macy B. Hart, would ride 80 miles with his family from Winona, Mississippi, to Temple Adath Israel in Cleveland, Mississippi to attend services and go to religious school. In the early 1960s, Cleveland had one of the largest temple youth groups in the state, with its membership including Jewish youth from many small surrounding Delta towns. Devoted Jews from smaller towns across the state made those long drives to participate in Jewish life in places across the state like Cleveland, Greenville, and Greenwood.
Though few in number these days, all three of those towns still hold services, thanks to dedicated community members that put in a lot of effort to maintain Jewish religious practice. I got to see this firsthand on my recent visits to the Delta — place like Greenwood, Mississippi, where ISJL Board Member Gail Goldberg and her family work tirelessly to keep her congregation, Ahavath Rayim, going strong. Her family’s commitment there is downright inspirational.
I also attended services at Adath Israel in Cleveland led by Rabbi Harry Danziger, retired now after a long career in Memphis. The service was intimate, and the congregation was most welcoming. They typically hold a potluck following services—the week I was there, they served fried chicken and latkes. What could be better?
The Chanukah party at Hebrew Union in Greenville, Mississippi, was joyful. Every year, Alan and Leanne Silverblatt prepare 30 pounds of brisket for the part, and everyone helps out making latkes. I got in on the latke-making action, too. (This was my first time making them. I don’t cook, but they weren’t too bad!) Another delightful Delta visit.
Mississippi may not have a lot of Jews, but the ones that call the state home have, in my experience, been steadfast, loyal, and most of all, kind. It seems to me there’s more than one way to calculate “most Jewish”—it’s not just the number of people, it’s the amount of enthusiastic Jewish life. We have plenty of it here. If you haven’t already been, y’all come on down and visit us in the Magnolia State!
There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.
When I asked my friends about this, they laughed and reminded me that I was not in New York anymore. My adopted home of Jackson, Mississippi is smack in the middle of the Bible Belt, and while Jews all across the country feel the December dilemma, it is especially strong in the South.
Hanukkah, historically considered a minor holiday, was embraced more broadly by Jews wanting to fit in with fellow Americans celebrating the holiday season. Menorahs became standard in homes, businesses, and eventually, the public square, particularly in towns with large Jewish populations. It led me to wonder how these public manifestations of Jewish identity came to be, and what that means in a predominately Christian place like Jackson.
Most people don’t realize that the menorah’s public face in America began in 1974. That’s when Lubativch leader Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson began pressing his local emissaries to erect menorahs in town squares where holiday displays were already present. Liberal Jewish organizations criticized the decision, but Schneerson defended the campaign. Over the next few years, menorahs began springing up in cities and towns across America. The campaign was so successful that by 1979, the Carter administration arranged for a giant menorah to be built on the White House lawn. By 1982, President Ronald Reagan designated the White House menorah as the National Menorah.
Many Jews, loyal to the concept of a separation of church and state, took issue with menorahs being placed alongside Christian symbols in the public square because all religious symbols on government property represented an endorsement of religion and therefore a violation of the Establishment clause of the First Amendment. For them, these public displays of Jewish religious symbols threatened the separation of church and state, a foundational principle that served to protect the religious freedom of the Jewish community. As such, organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the American Jewish Congress, and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) fought against them which while the National Jewish Commission On Law And Public Affairs (COLPA), the litigation arm of Agudath Israel, and other Orthodox religious Jewish non-governmental organizations fought to keep them in the public square.
The battle came to a head in 1989 in County of Alleghany v. ACLU. This case looked at the constitutionality of two holiday displays in downtown Pittsburgh. One was a nativity scene, standing in a very prominent position in the courthouse. The other display was an 18-foot tall Hanukkah menorah donated by a group of Lubavitcher Hasidim accompanied by a 45-foot tall Christmas tree, at the base of which was a sign stating “Salute to Liberty.”
In a splintered decision that included nine separate written opinions, the court determined that the display of a menorah next to a Christmas tree in a public square could be appropriate, holding that the menorah and the Christmas tree were secular symbols, thus making the display compatible with the First Amendment, while the display of the nativity scene inside the courthouse was deemed unconstitutional, because it was a religious symbol. However, for many Jews, the Menorah holds immense religious significance It’s a complicated ruling.
The allowance of menorahs in the public square does potentially open the door for other religious symbols on public grounds. Religious symbols like nativity scenes, particularly in the Bible Belt. By pushing for menorahs displayed in the public square, ultra-Orthodox Jews also paved the way for public displays of other religious groups’ items.
What holiday symbols do you think should be allowed in the public square during the month of December? Is it better to have all, or nothing? How does it make us feel to have some-but-not-all in many public squares?
Don’t feel badly if you are torn; the courts have been as well. Here’s a list of other court cases dealing with public menorah displays. Happy Hanukkah!
 See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).