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.

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15 Responses

  1. Steve Brizel says:

    Look at it this way-a movement that has all but abandoned any pretense of adherence to halacha cannot be expected to energize its laiety to support day school education. IMO, one can forget about either JTS, the United Synagogues or the Rabbinic Assembly ever urging committed C laypersons to support schools that they don’t believe in as a communal necessity as long as they are allied with RAC, a R entity. OTOH, some members or graduates of USY or Ramah who just might have a positive experience of Shabbos will realize sooner or later that Orthodoxy, whether MO or Charedi, in all of its variations, is their home.

  2. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Are the official organs of the Conservative movement (JTS, RA, and USCJ) rich enough to be able to fund day schools to a significant extent? If so, and they are not doing this, then they are failing. On the other hand, if they cannot fund this effort themselves, then this looks like a spot failure. The board of this particular school, which included some movement professionals, failed in its duty – that’s all.

    From the Forward article: The board members themselves, who have thus far kept the school going through their personal contributions, committed to giving an additional $1 million to close the gap.

    It looks like the board, who financed the school, didn’t think they could get more money out of the parents.

    BTW, some time ago you mentioned in an e-mail that Project Genesis might be opening an online Hebrew school. What’s happening with that? Failing a full scale day school, could you write textbooks for personal study?

  3. rejewvenator says:

    It’s not clear at all to me that failing to support school vouchers is what is bringing about the collapse of day schools in the Conservative movement. It’s also not clear to me that Conservative day schools are collapsing at all. I strongly support Chancellor Schorsch’s proposal to guarantee a Jewish day school education to every Jewish child, but I don’t think that vouchers are the right way to fund this proposal.

    The problem is not lack of money as much as it is lack of interest. The Conservative movement hasn’t created a compelling case for parents to spend serious money on a day school education, and so many parents do not.

  4. Will Choose says:

    Both Schechter schools-the Manhattan one and the Teaneck one (before and after the merger)- were perceived as poorly run schools. When a comparison is made with Heschel on the West Side, a truly excellent school appealing to parents of the same background as the Schechter schools, it becomes clear that much of the problem has to do with the schools involved.

  5. Reb Yudel says:

    Let me clarify and extend my comments.

    One question I raised is whether the benefits offered by affiliating with the Conservative movement outweigh the disadvantages — disadvantages that include obvious obstacles in attracting donations and students from Reform Jews.

    Given that one of the benefits of a Schechter was the opportunity to have senior JTS and United Synagogue officials on the school board — and given that the board’s performance was, however well-intentioned and generous, negligent in the extreme — well, with benefits like that, who needs disadvantages? Hence my blog posts were geared to those who value Schechter over the non-denominational alternative: If “Schechter” is important, then it’s time to pony up.

    It would be hard to overstate how insular the school’s board was… though I suppose the fact that it contemplated closing the school secretly in May is some indication. So too is the fact that until a parent started making phone calls two weeks ago, neither the Partnership for Excellence in Jewish Education or the folks at Brandeis who deal with such things had been brought in as consultants. And don’t get me started on the offers for professional assistance in overseeing the merger between the two schools, that were turned down by the board.

    In retrospect, there were signs the board had real problems; I hope some day to get together a nice little poster, “Eight Signs of Day School Board Abuse,” that could let parents know it was time to raise a ruckus. That there were no fundraising drives among the parent body — imagine! — should have been a clue. But like the dog that didn’t bark in the Sherlock Holmes story, we didn’t notice — and frankly, enjoyed getting a good night’s sleep. It’s not like we didn’t have journal obligations for another school or two to take care of….

    But as long as the parents weren’t asked to raise funds, as long as the Conservative synagogues weren’t asked to chip in, and as long as the Federation wasn’t consulted — it’s hard to call it a failure of the community. (And note that the Schechter 30 miles south just teamed up with their Federation for a $50m fundraising drive.)

    Would vouchers have made a difference? (Putting aside the question as to whether pro- or anti-voucher advocacy in the Jewish community makes any difference one way or another — if the Joint Program Plan of the agency formerly known as NJCRAC made a difference, world hunger and warfare would be eliminated and we would all have affordable health care.) Not at this stage for this school. 88 kids times $3k/kid voucher equals about a quarter of million dollars. Useful but not definitive. On the other hand, the Schechter 30 miles south runs a 10% deficit, which it makes up with a $700k or so annual fundraising drive — so $3k would make a difference there.

    The structural problem that our school faces is that there really is an abundance of options, all of which provide a rather fine education. These include two liberal Orthodox schools — Frisch and Ramaz; the non-denominational Heschel; two established and larger Schechter’s 45 minutes away in Westchester and South Orange; and a public school system where the town schools are respectable and the county offers an elite Academy that promises to do for science or engineering or drama what my high school did for Gemara.

    Frankly, the Conservative movement could do with a lot less abstract “commitment” — whether to Jewish education or halacha — and a lot more raw, infectious enthusiasm. But that’s a subject for a different blog.

  6. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yudel-Let’s be real here. The board of your school was prepared to bury, as opposed to work for the future of the school. Any yeshiva that plans on being active for the long term has a fund raising plan that includes tuition, a dinner journal and networking for outside donors to donate classrooms, teaching materials,etc. Obviously, the position of CJ as a movement on vouchers cannnot be reconciled with the rhetoric that “supports” day school education. More importantly, as you yourself admit, the abundance of options in the metro NY area and the lack of any enthusiasm with CJ as a movement for Jewish education are obstacles. Yet, if CJ really valued its own network of schools. it would have been aggressively supporting them. Look at it this way-in the early days of the day school movement, RYBS and R J Lookstein ZTL were competing for students from the best schools in Boston and NYC. Torah UMesorah helped many yeshivos and BYs present the case why Orthodox Jews in NY and elsewhere should attend what was then an experiment, as opposed to the public school systems, which then, as is still the case, still have all the bells and whistles for free that O parents pay through the nose to have in their schools.

  7. Bob Miller says:

    This article was written to paint the Conservative movement as hypocritical about Jewish education. In view of the much more serious problem that movement has, its dedication to an inauthentic approach to Judaism, this new minor detail is not worth spending time on.

  8. David Farkas says:

    “the overwhelming majority of American Jews attend public schools” – The RAC.

    I disagree completely, and I challenge anyone to prove it. We know that Jewish baby boomers have one of the lowest birth rates in the country. And we also know that Jews, especially non-religious Jews, are disproportiantely single. So just how many Jewish children are there in public schools to begin with?

    Further, there are many Reform Jews with upper-level incomes. How many of these Jews send their kids to upscale private schools?

    Still further, Orthodosx Jews have one of the highest birth rates. Or how about Chassidic Jews – Do Chassidim not count as Jews? Did the RAC take their numbers into account when it brazenly asserted that the “overwhelmking majority” of Jews attend public school? Do they have idea how many Jewish children there are in the Satmar system, just for starters?

    When you combine the burgeoning Orthodox day school attendance, plus the stil very sizeable amount of conservative and non-affilaited Jewish schools, plus the amount of Reform Jewish kids in private schools – I highly, highly doubt the “overwhelming majority” of Jews are in public school. It is time to take a fresh look at these outdated assumptions.

  9. Ori Pomerantz says:

    Bob Miller, I think you’re missing something. Part of purpose of Project Genesis, and I assume this blog, is Kiruv – to convince Heterodox Jews to become Orthodox. This means that part of the audience of this blog doesn’t accept that the Conservative movement isn’t authentic. Therefore, pointing to a problem with the Conservative movement that those readers would see as a problem is useful.

    I’m sure Rabbi Yaakov Menken would prefer it if more Conservative Jews were to send their children to Orthodox schools – even if the parents stayed Conservative and just sent their kids to an Orthodox school because it was likelier to survive.

  10. Reb Yudel says:

    The board’s behavior speaks to the specific problems of the generous individuals who dominated the board, as well as the movement apparatchiks who were supposed to provide some seichel.

    There is no question that the Conservative movement lacks the sort of institutional gedolim exemplified by the Rav, R. Lookstein, and Torah UMesorah aka R. Kaminetsky. Unfortunately, so does today’s Orthodoxy… to give one under-reported example, look at what is happening in my hometown of Rochester, NY, where one marginally viable community day school was split into two less viable schools by the city’s haredi leadership.

  11. Charles says:

    Rabbi Menken, you and I both agree that getting more Jewish kids into day schools is a desirable goal.

    I don’t know anything about the Metro NY Schechter situation and I won’t comment on it.

    If you go to my synagogue website, you will see that in one of my Yamim Noraim sermons I was highly critical of the institutional failures of the Conservative movement.

    But one of the challenges we have in getting strong leadership is davka the fact that our members are less interested in “brand loyalty” and more interested in the interests of the overall Jewish community. Thus the leadership of JCCs, Jewish Federations, etc., are overwhelmingly Conservative Jews. I liked the fact that in Baltimore the Orthodox community participated in the Associated and its arms but that is the exception rather than the rule. I enjoyed sitting at Baltimore Jewish Council meetings with the contributor known here as Loberstein.

    I don’t care if a day school is labeled Conservative or not. I was glad that my wife taught at Beth Tfiloh and they were pleased to have a Conservative rebbitzen on the faculty. The Shoshana Cardin school in Baltimore is not formally Conservative but the impetus for its founding came from the Conservative community especially Baltimore’s most prominent Conservative rabbis. Shoshana Cardin is a Conservative lay leader and her daughter and son-in-law are both Conservative rabbis.

    What happened or almost happened at Metro Schechter could well be another failure of Conservative institutions, but it says nothing about the commitment of rank-and-file Conservative Jews or their rabbis to day school education.

  12. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yudel-FWIW, if one checks out the Rochester, NY link from the OU, one will see that it has two shuls, one with a RIETS/Yadin Tadin Musmach and another with a Ner Yisrael musmach. There is a girls high school and Chaftez Chaim has had a branch in Rochester for a long time. I am not sure what you mean by “the city’s haredi leadership.”

  13. Reb Yudel says:

    haredi leadership = Chofetz Chaim faction.

  14. Steve Brizel says:

    Reb Yudel-Are you saying that the community day school in Rochester was split into two schools? I saw nothing on the websites in Rochester to confirm that statement.

  15. Steve Brizel says:

    FWIW, I discussed this issue with one of my closest friends who has close friends in Rochester from their days in NCSY. He informed me that the community school there was in danger of becoming overly watered down in terms of admissions standards and curriculm. Based on those facts alone, one cannot claim that the Charedi faction in Rochester caused the demise of a school but rather improved communal standards so that the school would serve both the short term needs of the community and the long term goals of providing an Orthodox Jewish education for appropriate students.

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