What Can the History of Day Schools Teach Us?

December 30, 2018

Source: eJewish Philanthropy 


The history of Jewish day schools in Los Angeles can provide lessons that are widely applicable to the future of Jewish education. The number and variety of non-Orthodox day schools in the city surged in the late 1970s through the 1990s, creating the contemporary landscape of day schools. However, it is the first few schools, established before the number of day schools exploded due to court-ordered busing and other factors, that illustrate an important lesson for the future of day schools in Los Angeles and across the country. Though the model that dominates the non-Orthodox elementary school scene today in Los Angeles is the synagogue-based day school, the schools discussed below predate those schools. These first elementary schools came about as a result of collaboration and partnership between communal institutions both within one denomination and across denominations.

In 1967, when a number of Conservative families wanted to send their children to day school but could not find an appropriate option they decided to start their own school on the city’s west side. The first planning meeting included rabbis from a number of local Conservative synagogues, each of whom pledged support for the collaborative effort that would become Akiba Academy. Members from several synagogues made up the board of the school (something that continued until the school merged with its host synagogue eighteen years later). While the school was housed at one synagogue, it was publicized in the bulletins of other synagogues. Its supporters viewed Akiba as a communal Schechter institution. True to this culture of collaboration, a few years after its formation, when the Jewish community in the San Fernando Valley expressed interest in starting its own school, the headmaster of Akiba Academy consulted with them to facilitate the process.

Heschel, the first true community school in Los Angeles that did not affiliate with a particular denomination, began in 1974 as a collaborative effort among several Reform and Conservative synagogues that shared a vision and passion for Jewish education. Leaders of these synagogues reached out to leaders of neighboring synagogues for support, regardless of their affiliation, recognizing that the goal was more important than institutional lines.

The early years of Akiba and Heschel teach that sometimes eliminating silos is necessary to accomplish communal educational goals. Instead of competing for a share of the synagogue or day school market, the charismatic and visionary rabbis who founded these schools pooled their passion and drive. Individually influential men – they were all men – understood that by working together they could become even more formidable. Most importantly, perhaps, they did not allow natural and customary competition between their synagogues to inhibit collaboration.

In addition, partnerships between professional and lay leaders were crucial to the founding of these schools. Some have argued that these schools were propelled by grassroots lay efforts. Other say that the rabbis drove the agenda. As I have studied the records of these schools, neither party would have succeeded without the other. Schools require a committed parent-body who share the vision and live and breathe the importance of Jewish education. They also require strong professional leaders who are willing to utilize precious institutional resources of time and money to work toward creating educated Jewish children with strong identities.

 We can learn from the history of the early Los Angeles Jewish day schools the importance of non-siloed institutions and the ongoing collaboration and partnership both within institutions, between professional and lay leaders, as well as among institutions across a city. A benefit of this approach also lies in the potential for sharing resources, financial and otherwise, especially because relying on one source alone for support can be dangerous for an institution. While the synagogue-school model in Los Angeles may have been necessitated by a number of unique external local factors, not the least of which were court-ordered busing and the sprawling geographical expanse of the area, the success of Los Angeles’ community high schools can also be models of how, under the right circumstances, the collaborative approach can successfully be utilized.

Read the whole article at eJewish Philanthropy.

Updated: Jan. 10, 2019