The Political Economy of Day Schools

January 2018

Source: American Jewish History, Volume 102, Number 1, pp. 59-84


Though often treated as distinct phenomena, Jewish education and secular education both share in the education of American Jews. To talk about one is to reveal implicit truths about the other. As long as American Jewish leaders could articulate their visions for Jewish education without conflicting with their appreciation of public education, all was well. But as questions of suburbanization, desegregation, ethnic identity, and middle-class values all took on greater urgency during the late 1960s, the tacit agreement began to fray. By the end of the decade, both the Reform and Conservative movements embraced day schools, raising new and uncomfortable questions about the relationship between education, ethnicity, religion, and socioeconomic status.

This article seeks to understand how leaders in non-Orthodox American Jewish communities squared an emerging affinity for Jewish day schools with their liberal commitments to public education. Focusing on the period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s, and taking 1968 as a turning point, this article explores the ways in which American Jewish leaders understood and formulated a new vision for Jewish education that could allow for both an increased commitment to the education of Jews within exclusively Jewish contexts, yet did not compromise their liberal political commitments to public education. Sensitive both to claims of antisemitism and to fears that they would be seen to endorse "white flight," American Jewish leaders carefully constructed a vision of day school education that they hoped would align both with liberal political commitments and to a concern for the transmission of Jewishness to the next generation.

In so doing, they used financial resources to stabilize the tension between ethnicity and politics. They advanced a vision for Jewish schooling that presented Jewish day schools as an option that neither rejected nor competed with public schools for either resources or time. This vision was only available to them once they felt prepared to call upon the middle-class stability and institutional resources of the community at large, though they understood that they had to do so without appearing to abandon their civic commitments in favor of voluntary, if gilded, educational ghettoes. Tracking the shift in attitudes toward Jewish day schools reveals a political economy of Jewish education in which concerns for communal vibrancy came to rely, in large measure, on the financial resources of the Jewish middle class. 

Updated: May. 09, 2018