Category Archives: History

Choice & The Chosen: The Divided Debate of Jews & School Choice

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.

Rabbi Moshe Sherer with Mayor Mario Cuomo. Image source: LLI

Rabbi Moshe Sherer with Gov. Mario Cuomo. Image source: LLI

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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Posted on January 28, 2015

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Menorahs In The Public Square: A History

There’s something prominently displayed at the Mississippi Governor’s mansion: a nativity scene. Seeing it recently took me by surprise.

Menorah on the NYU camps (the author's graduate alma mater) last year

Menorah on the New York University campus (the author’s graduate alma mater) last year.

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.[1] 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.[2] 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!

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[1] See Dianne Ashton, Hanukkah in America: A History (New York: NYU Press, 2013).

[2] County of Allegheny v. American Civil Liberties Union, 492 U.S. 573 (1989).

Posted on December 16, 2014

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How Thanksgiving Became The Holiday We (All) Now Celebrate

The author and her family, circa 1980.

The author and her family, circa 1980.

Thanksgiving is a special holiday for me, because I can celebrate it with my Christian family. For many Jews like myself, who have not only friends but also family of other faiths, Thanksgiving is an opportunity to come together. It is a holiday embodying values important both in Judaism and American culture.

However, this embrace of Thanksgiving by people of all faiths was not always the case.

Prior to Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation in 1863 of the annual national holiday in November, Thanksgiving was a regional event. It supposedly was first observed in 1631 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, with Pilgrims breaking bread with the local Native Americans who helped them with their successful harvest. However, this image of the supposed-first Thanksgiving has become fraught with controversy, since history makes clear that beyond the first joint “Thanksgiving,” mutual peace, dependence, and friendship did not characterize Native American/Pilgrim relations—but that’s another blog post.

With time, the holiday came to serve as symbol for national unity, but one that was still rooted in a primarily Protestant Christian understanding. The Continental Congress gave the First National Proclamation of Thanksgiving in 1777, which stressed that observance would “please God through the Merits of Jesus Christ, mercifully to forgive and blot them out of Remembrance.” In 1844, South Carolina Governor Hammond called on Thanksgiving for the citizens of his state to join in worship, as “becomes all Christian nations…. to God their creator, and his Son Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of the World.” In response, Jews in Charleston protested. They refused to observe Thanksgiving publicly in the synagogues, keeping the two buildings closed on the holiday and accused Hammond of violating the constitution of South Carolina. Hammond’s reply? “I have always thought it a settled matter that I lived in a Christian land.” Rather than continuing an intemperate debate, they resolved to publish all of the correspondence in the press, allowing “public opinion of the country” to decide the issue.

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

Image from Pinehurst, NC Interfaith Thanksgiving event, 2013

The official federal holiday was enacted during the Civil War when this nation was in the midst of a tumultuous struggle. The editor of Godey’s magazine, Sarah Josepha Hale, issued yearly editorials, beginning in 1846, encouraging the “Great American Festival” of Thanksgiving be widely adopted. She hoped that a unifying holiday would help avert the prospect of a civil war. Her appeal for a national day of thanksgiving was successful, and Lincoln put forth a national proclamation in November of 1863. Secretary of State Seward called on the nation to observe the day “with one heart and voice,” to bring about peace. The holiday stressed the act of a “family homecoming,” and helped ease the dislocations of wars, industrial and commercial revolutions, and social unrest.

It also helped Jews feel more included in the American experience.

Scholars like Beth Wenger in History Lessons: The Creation of American Jewish Heritage argue that over time, Thanksgiving has proven to be an especially fortuitous holiday for Jews, who saw its similarity to Sukkot, pointing out that the Pilgrims were greatly influenced by Jewish teachings in the Bible. Almost since their first arrival in America, Jews sponsored celebrations of American holidays as a way of asserting both their allegiance to American civic ideals and the symbiosis of Jewish and American values. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Jews even made a practice of celebrating Thanksgiving in synagogues while Christians were doing the same in churches. With time, it became popular to participate in interfaith ceremonies. Indeed, this trend continues across the country in places like Pinehurst, North Carolina and Sun Valley, Idaho.

Despite its complicated past, Thanksgiving can serve as a reminder that even in our troubled times, we can still give thanks. Practicing gratitude in one’s everyday life is as good for a person as exercise or healthy living. It keeps us centered, humble, and ultimately, empathetic. It is that empathy for others around us that defines us both as a Jewish community and country, and it can continue to help all of us, despite our differences, tackle difficulties in the future.

I will be grateful to gather for this ecumenical celebration with my own religiously diverse family. Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours.

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Posted on November 26, 2014

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy