These days, the day school is the darling of the American Jewish community, the apparent antidote to everything that ails its members. If only more American Jewish children enrolled in one, common wisdom has it, the contemporary Jewish condition would be manifestly different: glowing with good health instead of listless and besieged.
When seen from that vantage point, it might look as if the day school has been among those institutions, like the synagogue, that have always been with us. History suggests otherwise: In modern America, Jewish day schools were once the exception, not the norm. Scant in number, they were also frowned upon by most American Jews, demonized rather than lionized.
In their determination to belong, the nation’s Jews overlooked Americanization’s often heavy-handed, cruel, and insensitive exactions as well as the physical shortcomings of the public school, whose facilities, especially within immigrant neighborhoods, were frequently overcrowded and poorly ventilated, rendering its young charges dull and sluggish. Then again, they had little choice. Where the public school, that “miniature republic,” spoke of freedom, an exclusively Jewish facility—a Jewish parochial school—smacked of the ghetto, or, worse still, of sectarianism.
Little by little, though, something started to give: Jewish day school education became an increasingly attractive option. Between 1917 and 1939, American Jews established 23 such institutions in the greater New York metropolitan area alone. What fueled their efforts was the sobering realization that hardly any committed or “sturdy Jews” emerged from the prevailing system in which Jewish education played second fiddle to the public school. Heightened external receptivity to the notion of cultural pluralism, in turn, eased their way. A philosophy of the commonweal that made room for ethnic diversity at the grass roots and in the classroom, it defined heritage, tradition and custom as a gift rather than an obstacle. Under its impress, what was once unthinkable became doable.
Political turmoil abroad also helped to transform the day school into a viable alternative to the public school, depositing on American shores a critical mass of European Jewish families long familiar with and receptive to sectarian forms of education.
In the years that followed, especially in the wake of the Shoah and the rise of the State of Israel, Jewish day schools gained in both number and collective esteem. Once marginalized and derided, they came to be seen, in the words of the Orthodox Union, as the “most exciting and hopeful phenomenon in Jewish life in America.”
Statistics bore out that optimistic assertion, as did the emergence of Conservative and Reform-affiliated day schools. By the late 1990s, according to one census, American Jewry could boast nearly 670 Jewish day schools; the most recent tabulation, in 2013-2014, puts that number at 861.
It’s anyone’s guess as to what the future holds. Some seasoned observers, pointing to the increasingly exorbitant costs of a day school education, worry about the economics of sustainability; others, pointing to decreasing denominationalism, worry about institutional stability. And still others note that, despite their postwar proliferation, day schools still do not attract the overwhelming majority of school-age American Jews.
Read the entire article at the Tablet.