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I’m looking for a Jewish high school for my kids in the US. But I want them to get a solid Jewish education grounded in primary text study. I myself am trained as a physician. When I hear about a new treatment, I don’t just want to be told about how great it is or how bad it is – I want to see the primary data for myself. I want to read the original studies that were done. That way I can judge for myself how efficacious the new treatment is. So too, in regards to Judaism, I don’t want my kids to learn just what some other person thinks about it – I want them to learn the primary texts for themselves so they will be able to judge and decide for themselves.
There’s only one problem. My family is not Orthodox. And most of the Jewish schools in the US which teach a text-based curriculum are Orthodox. And some in my family are uncomfortable with the prospect of being immersed in a school where they may not socially fit in. Where they may have to pretend to be something they are not. I have been told, “That’s silly. Who cares what anybody else thinks? Its OK to just be yourself.” I have been told, “That’s foolish and weak. That’s not an excuse not to go. Life isn’t always easy, just suck it up.” That all may be true, but why should it require such mental gymnastics just for a non-Orthodox family to get a real Jewish education in the US? Why has the Jewish community become so siloed? Why does it have to feel like an all-or-nothing proposition for someone who wants to learn a little bit more?
I should say I don’t have anything against Orthodoxy. On the contrary, I’ve become more observant myself in recent years. But if more people could have open access to learning our traditions at a high level then perhaps more people would find the beauty and be drawn of their own accord to higher levels of observance. I have heard the observation that most educated Jewish Americans have a university-level understanding of literature, mathematics, science, etc, and yet only a fifth-grade equivalent understanding of Jewish texts and philosophy. Is it any wonder then, that Judaism seems silly and childish to most American Jews? And we have all heard that the answer to this problem is education. And so here I am, looking for education for my children. Real education. And I can tell you that if you are not Orthodox, there are scant few high schools in the US with rigorous text-based curricula. Why?
This goes beyond just education for my children. When an admittedly less-than-knowledgable Jew takes an interest in learning more about some aspect of Judaism but feels that he’s either got to be “all in” or “not in at all”, many will just forgo the entire exercise. Perhaps you will say that the Conservative and Reform movements have sought to be the middle ground for just such a person. But to create a structured middle ground that one can just hop into is not what is needed. I should point out that I was raised in the Conservative Movement and I owe a great deal to it. However, creating a fixed rationalization to leave out some of the “problematic” elements in Orthodoxy according to an elite class of Jewish intellectuals might work for some, but what about those who don’t know enough to have a specific intellectual complaint with the theoretical basis of Orthodoxy but rather just want to find a way into our tradition one step at a time? The very creation of such structured middle grounds, Conservative and Reform, have themselves caused much of the defensive posture in which Orthodoxy finds itself, and have therefore unwittingly contributed to the all-or-nothing conundrum whereby those who begin to seek a deep connection to Judaism little by little as they pass through the random personal journeys of life, find it hard to break in. You can’t just learn a little bit here and there, slowly working your way up, because you first have to choose which all-or-nothing silo you’re going to jump into, or if you’re willing to jump from the one into which you were born to the next one up the line.
There are many more “community” Jewish schools available today as compared to when I was growing up; schools that claim to be pluralistic and non-denominational. However, that is not the same thing as being open and nonjudgmental toward less well educated and less observant Jews. Because these “community” schools have to be sensitive to the formal ideologies of the “middle ground” movements, they often cannot teach anything which might be deemed “too Jewish,” and thus end up teaching an amalgam of filtered Jewish stories and theories which have been reinterpreted through the lens of the ideologues of the official “Movements,” rather than just presenting historical Judaism as it is, in all its complexity, in a non-judgmental way, and allowing the students (and perhaps their parents, who everyone knows often learn a not-insignificant amount of Judaism through the education of their children) to decide for themselves how to interpret and act on that knowledge. That is different than an official movement saying, “We know what Judaism is and has been, and we’ve decided to make a series of changes to increase compatibility with our modern sensibilities. Here is the new Judaism, with our changes. Take it or leave it.”
One would think that in modern America where the melting pot ideology has fallen out of favor, and ethnic studies programs are increasingly recognized as legitimate and important to the identities of the different ethnic groups which make up America, that we Jews would similarly be engaged in some sort of “back to our roots” process of revitalizing our own understanding of who and what we are. Instead, we seem to be clinging to outdated fears of being “too Jewish” or “not American enough” in our curricula and in our ideology. As other ethnic groups refocus on their own historical culture, we persist in worrying if we will fit in – if we are modern enough, secular enough, American enough. I’m not saying that everyone is too secular and we should all just be Orthodox. Obviously everyone can and should choose for themselves the level of observance with which they are comfortable. But at a minimum, there should be educational institutions that teach what Judaism is and historically has been; and what that Judaism has to offer. Then we can decide for ourselves.
One tiny example of how fear of not fitting in often overrides actual Judaism will perhaps illustrate the point. We recently toured a community Jewish high school with a reasonably rigorous text based curriculum. (It still isn’t a 50-50 split between Jewish and secular subjects; that’s only available in Orthodox schools. This one has a single full-time Jewish class and one other optional elective which may or may not be Jewish, in addition to morning prayers and Hebrew language. Nevertheless, the classes seemed high level and authentic.) There is not a specific dress code, but the boys are required to wear kippahs during the day. However, we were told this may be changing because the board is discussing whether to remove this requirement in keeping with their non-judgmental policy. It was evidently felt that forcing kids to wear kippahs while in school when they wouldn’t otherwise do so might be too coercive. It wasn’t a concern, however, that kids who might want to wear kippahs would then worry about feeling socially ostracized in the resulting situation where most might not be wearing them. The school, it seems, is being forced to choose between making non-kippah wearers uncomfortable by being forced to wear one, versus making kippah wearers uncomfortable by having to choose to wear one when most are not. In this situation, where the two different “discomforts” are pretty much evenly matched, you might think the sensible thing to do would be to go with the more Jewish answer. (You know, since it’s a Jewish school.) But, apparently the fear of being “too Jewish” still may be a bit too strong in this case. It seems if you have to choose between making the kippah wearers or the non-kippah wearers feel uncomfortable, better to cater to the non-kippah wearers. I mean after all, we’re in America, where nobody wears kippahs anyway…
This illustrates how we’ve not evolved enough to get to the point where we are comfortable with who we are, like other ethnic minorities in America. Rather, we’re still stuck in an outdated mode characterized by fear of being too Jewish and not American enough – fear of not being accepted by the current host country that has graciously allowed us access to their society – fear that it could all be taken away one day if we get to uppity, too nonconformist, too unAmerican, too Jewish.
It’s as if we’re collectively unable to decide whether to fish or cut bait – whether to stick with being Jewish, or just give up the whole thing (and just be American like everyone else.) We can’t decide whether to ditch it completely or try to somehow drag it along with us, hoping it doesn’t weigh us down too much as we compete in the American rat race. The only thing is, most of us have forgotten what the “it” we’re dragging around actually is. And when we look around to try and learn what the “it” really is, why it’s there, what it means, how it is that it’s survived so long, and what it might offer us today, we are astonished to find ourselves caught in a never-ending multigenerational loop – where the schools which we ourselves built, instead of teaching our kids what the “it” actually is, are only there to perpetuate the wishy-washy undecidedness we’ve been carrying – where the only function they serve is to teach our kids how to continue dragging it along without weighing them down too much – the exact problem that made us wonder if we should seek more education in the first place. It is agonizingly frustrating and there appears to be nowhere to turn.
So I’m looking for a Jewish high-school in America. One that teaches serious, text-based Judaism. One that isn’t afraid of being Jewish. Because that’s who we are. It’s just mildly annoying that in the siloed community we’ve built, only the Orthodox seem to have figured out how to do that.