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Jewish Journal

Open Day Schools To Non-Jewish Students

by Rabbi Jeffrey K. Salkin

December 4, 2013 | 7:10 am

Jewish day schools are in very serious shape. To be perfectly blunt about it, they are going out of business. I see it happening locally, where I live in New Jersey. And it seems to be a national phenomenon.

It seems to have hit Solomon Schechter schools particularly hard. Schechter schools lost 25 percent of their students during the the last five years. Since then, Schechter has lost seven schools. http://www.jta.org/2013/07/01/life-religion/for-non-orthodox-day-schools-the-post-recession-struggle-goes-on#ixzz2mSCjKbDP. Reform day schools are also losing students; since 2008-2009, four Reform day schools have closed. Sometimes the schools disappear; sometimes they merge and become community day schools.

Why? You know, or can guess, all the reasons. Tuitions are high. Some schools are dealing with the tuition crisis – for example, Beit Rabban in New York is capping tuition costs.http://www.thejewishweek.com/news/short-takes/beit-rabban-pilot-cap-tuition-costs. But there are other issues. Demographics are challenged. Jewish identity has become attenuated (all that interesting Pew stuff).

I have a suggestion – and, no, it is not tongue-in-cheek.

Let’s open Jewish day schools to non-Jewish students.

I am not merely talking about the recent news that Schechter schools are considering admitting students who are Jewish according to patrilineal descent – a definition of Jewish identity that the Conservative movement has long rejected.http://http://www.jta.org/2013/11/22/life-religion/schechter-schools-considering-embracing-patrilineal-descent Yes, that’s good.

I am talking about accepting full-blown, not-in-the-least-bit-Jewish kids into Jewish day schools.

Why? It seems only fair. For years, Jewish kids have been attending (nominally and not so nominally) Christian day schools. For years, Quaker schools have been popular among Jews. It was because Jews liked the values that their kids would learn in such schools -- even though when it comes to Israel, the Quakers have not always been such good "friends." (Sorry. I could not resist.)

Perhaps it’s time for us to learn how to be hosts as well.

It’s not only good business sense -- expanding the pool of eligible students. And it's not because we would use Jewish day schools for conversionary purposes. No -- it would be because we Jews have some very powerful values to teach, and it’s way past time for us to take them public.

Like what? Here's my short list. 

People are made in God's image. Each person carries within himself/herself the spark of God. That has certain implications as to how kids would learn to treat each other – implications that would carry over to adulthood. Imagine the whole "bullying" conversion with this elegant theological idea as a frame. 

Truth is pluralistic. Getting tired of the mutual demonization contests that people on the left and on the right love to wage with each other? We have something to teach about the nature of truth. What would it mean for gentile kids, as well as Jewish kids, to come home with the mishnah from Baba Metzia that speaks of two people fighting over a cloak, and then ultimately dividing it? How’s that for a metaphor for discerning truth?  How about teaching kids to befriend someone with whom he or she profoundly disagrees on political or cultural issues -- and merely asking that person: "How did you arrive at your position?" I recommend this for adults as well. 

The world is built on responsibilities, not just rights. Hebrew lacks a good term for "rights," but a whole bunch of them for "responsibilities." We need a more communitarian view of shared obligation to each other.  Yes, there is a right to health care, but more than that, there is an obligation to provide it. Jews and Judaism have a lot to teach here.

Shabbat. Yes, the only ritual item on the list. But it's what people crave.

As my friend, the Christian preacher Barbara Brown Taylor writes:

Since I am technically a Lord’s Day Christian, I have no authority to speak of the Jewish Sabbath, but I freely indulge in what I call “holy envy.” 

By interrupting our economically sanctioned social order every week, Sabbath practice suspends our subtle and not so subtle ways of dominating one another on a regular basis. Because our work is so often how we both rank and rule over one another, resting from it gives us a rest from our own pecking orders as well. When the Wal-Mart cashier and the bank president are both lying on picnic blankets at the park, it is hard to tell them apart."

Yes, a caveat. The Jewish community has always expected that its day schools will not only teach, but will be places where kids can meet other Jewish kids. As someone who wears the Jewish continuity T-shirt full-time, I totally get it.

We might lose the automatic, unspoken expectation that our kids will meet and perhaps mate with other Jewish kids. But that might be offset with another, previously unknown benefit: that we get to be a light to the nations – a teaching instrument to the world.

Open our day schools to gentile students, and watch the world change, slowly.

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