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One of the fastest growing sectors of the North American Jewish community is day school education. After generations of immigrant acculturation into American society in public school settings, a new age of Jewish re-acculturation in Jewish all-day schools is blossoming before our eyes. Whereas once Jewish day schools were viewed as a counter-cultural vehicle for educating the fervent few, today more Jewish children--from every sort of Jewish home--are in day school than at any other time in history. For those of us who work in day school education, the energy is palpable, rich with potential, and very, very exciting.
Within the universe of Jewish day schools, Jewish community day schools are the fastest growing and most far-reaching. The community day school, by definition, is independent of any one denominational movement of Judaism (Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist), open to Jewish children and their families from across the spectrum of the Jewish experience, and focused on the Jewish future. This commitment to openness is generally extended to all family structures as well: traditional two Jewish parent families, the intermarried, gay and lesbian families, and single-parent families. The vast majority of the member schools of RAVSAK: The Jewish Community Day School Network accept children from intermarried households (It is important to note that the schools in RAVSAK are independent: governed, staffed, and accredited locally. RAVSAK does not set the policies of member schools, and as such, in this article I cite trends and general practices, not national mandates.).
It has been well documented that many families built around a Jewish-gentile partnership find entry into the mainstream Jewish community difficult because so many Jewish organizations by their nature do not or cannot welcome them as a family. Many interfaith families report feeling judged; others report feeling excluded. Jewish community day schools challenge themselves to be welcoming to all families with at least one Jewish parent.
The motivation for this broad acceptance is both ethical and pragmatic. Jewish community day schools strive for maximal inclusion, which ideally requires the incorporation of children from intermarried homes. In my professional opinion, if RAVSAK schools are to live up to their mission, they must find ways to include all Jewish children, regardless of the birth religions of their parents. Practically speaking, we know that a Jewish day school education is the most intensive framework for building a Jewish identity and laying a foundation for a life-long commitment to Jewish practice. Children with a day school education are statistically the most likely to live active adult Jewish lives. As such, Jewish community day schools strive to be a portal for Jewish children and their families into the Jewish establishment. It is believed that once a family initiates its ties with a Jewish community day school, it is likely to expand its web of affiliations with other Jewish organizations, especially synagogues.
As Jewish community day schools are in the business of providing excellent education in both general and Judaic studies, they must focus their attention not on who-married-whom and who-thinks-this-is-kosher, but instead, on the child. The standards for admission to the school are not about determining "who is a Jew," rather, who is a Jewish child who will be served well here in our school's microcosm of the larger Jewish community? Schools attend to this in any number of ways. Some will consider any child who has at least one Jewish parent; others require the mother to be a Jew-by-birth or a Jew-by-choice. Other schools will consider children who have no Jewish parents provided that the family can and will adhere to school policy and support the Judaic learning at home.
Given this range of acceptance policies, it is not surprising that a large and growing number of interfaith families have opted to enroll their children in a Jewish community day school. Specific data on interfaith enrollment is not currently known, but it is estimated that within the pool of RAVSAK schools which do welcome children from intermarried families, on average 20-35% of the students are from homes where one parent is born of a faith other than Judaism. It has been suggested that in a limited number of schools, children of the intermarried make up a majority of the total enrollment.
Anecdotal evidence from RAVSAK schools indicates that children from intermarried homes have been successfully integrated into the life of the school and perform, on average, in ways similar to their classmates from Jewish-Jewish families.
The successful integration of children from interfaith families comes with any number of challenges. These challenges are in no way incidental and certainly not beyond controversy.
Schools must strive to make the whole family feel welcomed and a part of the community. This means that there can be no assumption of Jewish belief, knowledge or practice; no presumption of familiarity with Hebrew terminology and the Yiddishisms frequently used in day schools. Detailed attention must be paid to explaining the norms of the Jewish day school and how it differs from other school settings (for example, why Halloween is not celebrated in a day school). School promotional materials and application forms must be crafted to be inviting to intermarried families (for example, featuring intermarried families in the school brochure). Family education programs need to be designed to support the gentile parent who may be learning about Jewish practice for the first time.
Of course, while working toward the comfort of the intermarried, schools must be sure that they are not making two-Jewish-parent families uncomfortable. Often the core of this challenge is that two-Jewish-parent families elect enrollment in a Jewish day school as a means of immersing their children in an all-Jewish peer group and discouraging the intermarriage of their own children. If these families do not accept children of patrilineal descent as Jews, then they may be obligated to have uncomfortable conversations with their children as to which classmates are suitable for dating, and which ones are not--a conversation which, from this perspective, should be unnecessary in a day school setting.
Likewise, teachers--the lifeblood of any school--must develop language and perspectives to make children of interfaith families feel no different than their classmates from two-Jewish families. On one level, this requires teachers to remember that their students come from homes where matters of ritual practice, belief, and life's "big questions" are increasingly complex. On another level entirely, teachers must avoid an "us/them" paradigm when exploring Jewish history and peoplehood. Although these are exceptionally tricky issues, my experience has been that children in Jewish community day schools are in the daily care of thoughtful, reflective classroom practitioners who rise to the occasion and attend to children from intermarried families with the same profound respect they show to all students.
There are also moral questions in some communities about providing Jewish education to children who are not halakhically Jewish (Jewish according to Jewish Law as it is traditionally understood). The details of these issues are beyond the scope of this article, but in short, there are many educators who worry that by not calling attention to the distinctions made in Jewish law between someone who is halakhically Jewish (born of a Jewish mother or converted according to Jewish Law) and someone who may be Jewish according to liberal--but not halakhic--standards, schools may be setting children up for a significant identity crisis later in life when they are likely to encounter people who care deeply about this distinction. Certainly this is an issue within traditional Jewish circles and in Israel today, where the Law of Return, which guarantees citizenship to all Jews regardless of nation of origin, is contingent upon halakhic status.
All this said, the Jewish intermarried represent a significant segment of the overall North American Jewish community, and they can and should be served by the community day school network. By and large, Jewish community day schools have the capacity and disposition--in fact, the mission--to serve Jewish children from all sorts of Jewish families. These schools are beginning to understand that intermarriage is not a complete disconnect from the Jewish world. More so, they are coming to appreciate the enormous potential for future students in the intermarried community.
It is my hope that interfaith families will come to see the Jewish community day school as a viable schooling option for their children. There is a place at the table of Jewish life for the children of intermarried families in Jewish community day schools and we look forward to sharing our love of Judaism with them.