October 14, 1999
The Jewish Lens
Big changes happen in the wink of an eye. Last week I spoke to a large crowd of parents at a "Jewish Day School Expo" at Milken Community High School. Most of the parents didn't know what schools were available or where they were located. But they were eager indeed. When I asked for a show of hands, more than one third indicated that they were looking for elementary schools: a huge new batch of Jewish children coming down the educational pipeline.
What impressed me was that these are liberal Jewish families, not the strictly or Modern Orthodox, the so-called "keepers of the faith" who sent their children to day school even when public education was at its height. In our own day, the Jewish day school has grown up organically from the astounding success of the synagogue pre-school. Some 10,000 Los Angeles children are in Jewish day schools, including an astounding 1,250 in so-called college-prep Jewish high schools, like Milken Community High School and Shalhevet. Across the nation, the number of day school students has tripled since 1960, to 200,000, representing, according to one source, about one in five of the roughly 1 million Jewish school age students.
Today, though most Jewish students (some quote statistics of more than 70 percent) are still in public schools, the day school is considered a viable, even commendable, alternative. A religious day school no longer carries a stigma of the shtetl; quite the opposite. In supposedly secularly oriented cities like Los Angeles, it is a statement of class and an indicator of parental discretion and taste. The quality of secular education can be on par with private secular schools, and is, I must add, every bit as expensive to boot.
But if we have won the battle for alternative religious education, the responsibilities of the parent and the school have only intensified: how to maintain the commitment to the larger American society as we educate future, Jewish citizens.
In the October issue of Atlantic Monthly, Peter Beinart writes that the rise of Jewish schools poses a host of problems for the Jewish community. Key among those problems, he implies, is why we are so comfortable in them.
"Today," he writes, "parents are willing to consider Jewish schools in part because they no longer fear being viewed as outsiders. They take their integration into mainstream America as a given. But what if earlier generations were correct -- that full equality in an overwhelmingly Christian country is, in fact, reliant on Jewish willingness to participate in a common system of education?"
This, of course, is the question that strikes fear in many "liberal" parents, a test of the freedoms we've come to hold dear.
One answer to Beinart is that, for most Jewish families, as for many Americans, education does not end at high school. Today, college, and even graduate school, is considered the natural purpose and goal of education. Termination at high school is the option only for geniuses, computer nerds or those destined for the minimum wage.
Thus, Americans of all ethnicities rely on college to do what high school once did -- assimilate or acculturate into American life -- which is why so many in the black middle-class send their children to parochial schools.
But upon closer inspection, the fear that Beinart taps into holds little reality. Milken gets 400 applicants for some 175 slots each year. Those liberal parents seeking entry to Milken not only expect that their children will learn Hebrew and Talmud as part of the curriculum, but will be prepared for college as well. The high school admissions process refers to alumni who have gone on to Harvard, Stanford, the University of Pennsylvania and elite public institutions like the University of California at Berkeley. This is no ghetto in the making, but a guarantor that Jewish students will be prepared for the best schools America can offer, and a career of professional life in the civic mainstream.
Moreover, today's day schools -- like the public schools -- explicitly acknowledge that they expect to create better American citizens.
Dr. Bruce Powell, president of Milken, told me: "Jews have always made a great contribution to American society. The problem is that many in the Jewish population don't know what that contribution is. The Jewish day school movement is reteaching those values so that our students can go out and act within a free society."
Community service encourages students to explore those values early. For one example, Shalhevet, the extraordinarily successful Orthodox high school, requires that every ninth grade student participate in Koreh L.A., the Jewish community's project for tutoring reading in the public school.
And of course it flows both ways. Coincidentally, the night after the day school expo, I took my daughter to her high school's College Expo night. In front of us in line, a father was shaking his head; why had his son chosen Brandeis University over Berkeley. Brandeis is no longer "just" a school for Jews. It is rated no. 25 in the country.
I've been talking to day school parents for the past several days. Here's what they tell me:
They send their children to day schools because they want their children to have a "Jewish lens" on the world.
They send their children to day schools, but they have not removed their children from the community: karate, music lessons, travel and summer camp are used to broaden the world beyond the Jewish community.
They send their children to day schools knowing that they'll get into great colleges.
Not an escape from an America, but a way in.
Join Marlene Adler Marks, senior columnist of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles on Sunday, Oct. 24 at the Skirball Cultural Center. Her guests will be artists Elinor Antin and Ruth Weisberg for a discussion "The Soul of the Artist."
Her website is www.marleneadlermarks.com.