The Conservative Movement and Jewish Education
Once again an alert reader gets the credit, this time for an article in The Forward: “Parents in N.J. Rally To Save Schechter School.” The Metropolitan Schechter High School in Teaneck, N.J., which just last year merged with the Manhattan Schechter High School, is now itself in danger of collapse.
Part of the problem, in this case, was that the board was “unresponsive” on fundraising issues and left parents “in the dark about the dire nature of the school’s financial situation until the past several weeks.” One of the parents interviewed, Larry Yudelson, has his own blog, and he explains “that the school was saved… due to the brave board member who broke with fiduciary duty, and let the rumor spread that the board was going to quietly, without consulting with the community, the parents, the federation or the synagogues — close down the school.”
Regardless of the circumstances of this specific case, however, this also speaks to the larger issue of the Conservative Movement’s commitment to Jewish education. Mr. Yudelson says as much in a second blog post:
If Schechter fails here, after failing in Manhattan, then the Conservative movement and the Schechter system will be seen as a hollow shell. Liberal Jews interested in providing a non-Orthodox Jewish high school education will know better than to go with the Conservative movement — because when the going gets tough, the Conservative movement isn’t there. Not in terms of guidance (movement professionals were on the board of the New York school, and failed to intervene to right the ship until almost too late) and not in terms of funds.
In a post entitled “Getting it Right” written in December 2005, I praised then-Chancellor Ismar Schorsch of JTS for proposing in the pages of the Jerusalem Post that “the organized Jewish community in America guarantee a free Jewish education to the children of all members of the Jewish polity.” He wrote, however, that he made this proposal “against the backdrop of a 20-year effort to position Jewish education as the top priority of the Jewish Theological Seminary and the Conservative movement.” It is now clear that this effort did not end in success.
Jonathan Rosenblum wrote, coincidentally also in December of 2005, that
mainstream Jewish organizations have to a large extent detached themselves from the Orthodox community through their doctrinaire opposition to any government initiative that benefits Jewish day schools in any way, no matter how unconnected to their religious curriculum, or offers financial relief to parents staggering under huge tuition loads.
Mainstream Jewish organizations like the American Jewish Congress have not been content to remain neutral in the debates, but have consistently led the battle against any measure that might in any way aid parochial schools or the parents of students. The ultimate irony, of course, is that in so doing, the non-Orthodox Jewish community has not just hurt the Orthodox community, which will, in any event, continue to provide its children with an intense Jewish education. Rather it has undercut the one institution statistically proven to prevent its own children from intermarriage and the abandonment of all communal affiliation: the Jewish day school.
The failure of Manhattan Schechter and near-failure of Metro Schechter are at least partially attributable to these ill-advised policies, and exacerbated by the tendency of the movement’s rabbis to ally themselves with the AJC et al on tuition credits and vouchers, even while preaching the value of Jewish education. The Religious Action Center of the Reform movement says that “The Union for Reform Judaism and the United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism oppose vouchers, while the Union of Orthodox Jewish Congregations of America supports them” — but the RAC unabashedly states (in the same paragraph) that “an overwhelming majority of American Jews attend public schools,” implying this is one reason they oppose vouchers. While tuition tax credits alone would not have made up for “operating losses reaching into the millions,” the United Synagogue’s alliance with the RAC directly contradicts Schorsch’s attempt to make Jewish education the “top priority.”
I have written previously that I am in favor of Jewish children choosing Jewish schools “regardless of whose name is on the building.” Yudelson points out that “community liberal Jewish high schools are thriving in places including Boston, Atlanta, and, yes, Manhattan’s west side,” neglecting the successful and relatively new Cardin High School here in Baltimore, which has competed with the Orthodox run Beth Tfiloh Community High School for a similar demographic. Without exaggeration I would say that both high schools are winning. It is unfortunate, in my opinion, that the Conservative movement is getting a failing grade in Jewish education.