I met Peter Beinart in 1999 when he was writing an article for The Atlantic on Jewish community day schools. This was long before he became the bête noire of an anxious American Jewish establishment. He was sitting in the front office of The New Jewish High School (now Gann Academy) waiting to speak with the school’s headmaster, Rabbi Daniel Lehmann, and we struck up a brief conversation.
I was familiar with his byline from The New Republic where he wrote mostly about American politics and foreign policy. Jewish education was well outside his bailiwick, and I was interested in what his angle would be. When the article was published a few weeks later it was clear that he was conflicted. He described the school’s environment as vibrant, intellectually exciting and mildly subversive (which was meant as a compliment).
His diagnosis of the reasons behind the rising support for day school education among the non-Orthodox (a trend that has since leveled off) reflected the conventional wisdom in a community that had long ago ended its unconditional love affair with the public schools and was struggling to respond to assimilation, a byproduct of the exceptionally hospitable American environment, where Jewishness was increasingly a non-issue.
Towards the end of his article, however, Beinart raised a question about the long term implications of the day school phenomenon that probably made many day school advocates squirm. Jewish schools like the New Jewish High School seemed to be promising it all to their students. But wasn’t it naive to believe that “being a fuller Jew need never mean being a less complete American”? The growth of day schools was another nail in the coffin of the American melting pot.
Beinart’s argument rings true. When modern day schools were on the rise in the 1940s, Jewish critics warned that segregation would hinder Americanization and constrain socio-economic advancement. Some went as far as questioning the patriotism of those who abandoned the public schools. Among the more vociferous opponents of day schools were some members of the Benderly group. Samson Benderly, who served as the first director of the New York Bureau of Jewish Education, from 1910-1941, was a steadfast opponent of day schools. The weekday afternoon Jewish school model that he and his disciples helped to modernize was designed as a third way between the minimalistic Sunday schools and the separationist yeshivas. Jewish educators must not interfere with the Jewish child’s enthusiastic integration “into the all pervading and compelling life of the American democratic community,” one of Benderly’s disciples, Albert Schoolman, warned in 1945.