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.

Posted on January 28, 2015

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