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?
The Jewish world is full of debates. Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Recently, Southern Sunday School students did a program on Jewish heroes. The students were having a great time, collaborating, playing games—all while hundreds of miles apart.
For the Global Day of Jewish Learning, we gathered students and teachers in Pinehurst, North Carolina, for this program on Jewish heroes. More students than you’d usually find in the Pinehurst classroom showed up—because half of our participants weren’t in Pinehurst. They weren’t even in North Carolina. They were actually in Greenville, South Carolina, three and a half hours away!
Stop the presses. Has the ISJL figured out how to split Education Fellows like me into two pieces, so that we can be in two different cities at once? Have we discovered the secret to Hermione Granger’s famous time-turner from the Harry Potter books?
Unfortunately, we are still working on the time-turner. But what we have mastered is an important 21st century skill – the art of effective, engaging interactive video calling.
We use video calling technology almost every day from our office in Jackson, Mississippi. Whether communicating with staff members working in other cities or with Bar/Bat Mitzvah students located around our region, doing important Jewish work via Skype or Google Hangout is a regular part of day-to-day work at the ISJL. So, when Sandhills Jewish Congregation in Pinehurst and Congregation Beth Israel in Greenville expressed interest in setting up a program, where their students could meet (virtually), I was eager to make it happen.
Our program was entitled the “Jewish Olympics” and it was very similar to a Maccabiah experience that might occur at Jewish camp. There were a variety of games that we played with and against one another, from Jewpardy (Jewish-themed Jeopardy) to a Play-doh sculpture contest. The ruach (spirit) of all the teams, across both cities and through our screens, was quite impressive.
One of the highlights of the program was our Jewish Heroes scavenger hunt. For this scavenger hunt, there were images of 20 Jewish Heroes hidden in the two congregations, with short biographies of their achievements included so that the kids could learn a bit about them. Half of the images were hidden in Beth Israel (Greenville) and half were at SJC (Pinehurst). The blue team in Greenville, for example, had to find all ten of their heroes, while their teammates in Pinehurst, had to find all ten of theirs. On the back of each clue was a letter, and upon finding all the clues, in both cities the teams had to work with their teammates in the other city via Skype to put the letters together and decode a secret message.
The message? “We made new Jewish friends.”
We wrapped up with “Closing Ceremonies” and with students in Greenville performing “Wherever You Go, There’s Always Someone Jewish” for the students in Pinehurst.
In years to come, I think it is safe to say that technology will help us innovate entirely new ways of educating Jewish students. But we should not assume that such innovating can only occur in the future. We are already living in a time when it is possible to program across virtually any geographical boundary using applications available for free . What this means for the future of Jewish education is still an open-ended question. But with some imagination and experimentation, we just might find answers to that question that fundamentally re-shape and re-create our Jewish future.
Like this post? Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Confession: I’m still kind of a Yom Kippur rookie.
Yom Kippur has always been a mystery to me. I am from a household of two Jewish parents, but we were not an observant family. The most we did for the High Holidays was having my grandparents over for dinner. I knew Rosh Hashanah was the Jewish New Year, but I did not understand that there was an entire Jewish calendar, and my parents never even approached the subject of Yom Kippur.
Growing up, I always knew I was Jewish, but I didn’t really understand what that meant. I started to learn more about Judaism when I was in college. I sought out the Jewish community and met great friends and also learned a lot about being Jewish. Now, I am living in Jackson, Mississippi, working for a Jewish organization, figuring out my own Jewish observance and traditions—and still trying to figure out Yom Kippur.
Yom Kippur gets a bad rap. We go from indulging in delicious food on Rosh Hashanah to fasting on Yom Kippur—kind of a downer. We go from celebrating to apologizing, from “Happy New Year” to “here’s everything we did wrong last year.” So this year, I wanted to try to figure out what Yom Kippur really means, but mostly, what it really means to me.
So I took a survey. I went around the office at the ISJL asking my fellow Education and Community Engagement Fellows to explain the point of Yom Kippur. The best answer I got was that it marks a period of transition. Like the secular New Year, people make resolutions and promises about how they will do better in the coming year. However, Yom Kippur is not only about looking forward to a bright future; it is also about reflecting on your past.
We spend 10 days in flux and get to think about big questions like:
- “What could I have done better this past year?”
- “Am I where I want to be in life?”
- “How have I changed during this past year?”
It is a time to check in with yourself, to not only make sure that you are doing what makes you happy, but also that you are doing good in the world.
- When was your last random act of kindness?
- When was the last time you volunteered?
- How are you going to give back in the coming year?
I find the best way to grow as a person is by giving back to the communities that have helped me along my own path. Before taking on this new perspective, I had a hard time understanding a holiday where we were supposed to think about all of the bad things we’ve done over the year and feel sorry about them. Now, I am excited to think about Yom Kippur as a time for personal reflection. I am going to sit down and make some goals for the next year, but also reflect on all that I learned, accomplished, and struggled with in 5774.
As of now, I’ve started to think about Yom Kippur like a Yoga class. At the beginning of each class, you set your intention, and I want to go through 5775 intentionally. I will think about what has changed me in the past year, and how that has helped me grow. I will think about how I can contribute to my community on both local and global scales. I will use these reflections to make a plan for how I would like to continue to grow in the future. Maybe this will become my tradition, or maybe my relationship with Yom Kippur will continue to evolve—either way, I’m already starting to understand it a bit better.