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Is My Prom Date Kosher?

September, 2005

This article is reprinted from the [New York] Jewish Week with permission of the author.

Morning announcements at the Solomon Schechter School of Westchester generally tread predictable terrain: schedule changes, meeting times, athletic events. But one item exasperated some teens last school year.

At several upcoming social events--a coffeehouse, the Junior Ball--upper-school students would not be permitted to bring non-Jewish dates, it was announced.

Upon hearing the policy, Karla Bertrand, a Schechter student whose father was Catholic when her parents married and whose boyfriend at the time was not Jewish, headed to the principal's office to beg the administration to reconsider the dictate.

While the school saw the directive as a way to stave off interfaith dating, Bertrand and other students at the Hartsdale school said it encouraged creating a "self-imposed ghetto" that could generate resentment and even stoke the flames of anti-Semitism.

"It was intended to promote Jewish continuity, but instead it insults non-Jews, it insults Solomon Schechter students, and it doesn't reflect well on the school," Bertrand said of the Jewish-only prom policy, which remains in place today.

Worse, she said, the decree might inadvertently prove racist.

"Most people can pass as Jewish," said Bertrand, now 18, noting that school officials would be hard pressed to determine at the door who was Jewish. "If the school was going to investigate students they suspected brought non-Jewish dates, the only red flag would be if someone was another race."

As the school year winds down, and with prom season in full swing, the debate over who makes an acceptable prom date is causing friction among students, parents and faculty at some Jewish day schools.

The subject has been polarizing not just at Schechter, but also at pluralistic community day schools, where students span the Jewish ideological gamut.

Marc Kramer, the executive director of the New York-based Ravsak, an umbrella group representing more than 90 Jewish community day schools in North America, said the debate is playing out with increased frequency.

"The core argument on one side is that Jewish day schools should foster the value of Jews marrying other Jews and building Jewish families, and that value should [permeate] the culture of the school, including the prom," Kramer said. "The other argument--equally valid, but wildly different--is that … a policy saying students can only bring Jewish dates to the prom oversteps the boundaries of what a school should dictate."

Kramer surmised that the issue has become most polarizing at non-movement-affiliated community schools because there is an expectation of "maximum inclusiveness and minimal intrusiveness."

"These schools make a concerted effort not to tell families what to do, to serve families without judging them," he said. "People are discussing, 'Is it a school issue or a family issue?' and of course people are reacting on both sides."

Carol Pankin, whose two teenaged sons attend Gann Academy, a community school in Waltham, Mass., where prom policy emerged as a hot-button issue this year, opposes interfaith dating, but said parents--not schools--should be the ones making decisions about dating and proms.

"If a 17-year-old is dating someone who isn't Jewish, I feel it's the parents' responsibility," she said. "They should be the ones saying, 'We don't want you to do this.' "

Pankin says interfaith dating and inviting a non-Jewish date to the prom are separate issues.

"[Jewish-only] policies raise proms to a level that they're really not," she said, noting that many teens today attend proms with friends or go stag. "They're making it more of a couples thing when it's really just a fun night when everyone dresses up."

She added rhetorically: "There are so many school activities, should a non-Jewish person not be allowed to attend any of them? Should kids not be allowed to have non-Jewish friends?"

But Gann Academy Headmaster Rabbi Daniel Lehmann said there is a greater assumption of intimacy associated with the prom than with other school functions.

"We try to make it clear that bringing non-Jews to watch a school play or a basketball game is OK," Rabbi Lehmann said.

Gann students and faculty weighed in on the issue recently during a heated but respectful lunchtime "Debate Midrash."

According to Rabbi Lehmann, some students argued that dating patterns are significant, even in high school. Others contended that trying to control personal decisions is bound to cause resentment among teens and alienate non-Jewish, intermarried parents of Gann students.

Jonathan Sarna, professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University, said as more intermarried couples send their children to Jewish day schools, some parents are "reluctant to be taught that intermarriage is wrong."

"[The debate] represents two clashing worldviews in the Jewish community: those who see intermarriage as a challenge and those who see it as an opportunity," he said.

Ultimately, Gann's board of directors issued a written prom policy that Rabbi Lehmann called "a very strong statement about the board's commitment to Jewish continuity as part of the mission of the school and the future of the Jewish people."

The policy affirmed the school's goals to promote dating and marriage within the Jewish community, and asked students to "consider these goals when inviting dates to proms and dances."

Pankin said she was surprised that non-Orthodox schools would advise students about their prom dates.

"You might expect this at Maimonides," she said, referring to a prominent, Orthodox Boston-area day school, "but not at Gann, which is supposed to be much more pluralistic."

Many Orthodox high schools do not sanction mixed dancing and therefore do not sponsor traditional proms and dances.

Strict Jewish-only prom polices are less surprising perhaps at Solomon Schechter schools, as they are under the auspices of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, the umbrella group that has taken a firm stance against intermarriage.

Schechter administrators said prom policy was in line with Conservative Judaism but would not elaborate.

Bertrand said the movement's principles do not justify a Jewish-only policy at school social events.

In a 2004 editorial published in the Westchester Schechter's school newspaper, she wrote: "[The policy] shows a lack of respect for our friends as well as for non-Jewish faculty. It is insulting that after one, two, three or even 12 years of religious education, the school doesn't feel that it has instilled in us the values to be discerning in our choice of company. It is insulting that after nurturing such a long and close relationship with us, the administration feels morally justified in excluding our friends."

She also argued that Judaism demands that Jews consider marit ayin, or how their actions appear to others. The policy is not intended as bigoted or derogatory, though non-Jews likely would perceive it as such, she said.

Jeffrey Jablansky, another Schechter student, rejected the notion that the school's policy was "segregationist" or "exclusionist" in a newspaper editorial that ran opposite the Bertrand piece.

"Face the facts or abdicate from them: We are the next generation of Jews and we cannot afford a diluted Judaism in times of mixed marriages and anti-Semitic sentiment all over the world," he wrote. "How will we, the next generation of Jewish adults, make decisions rooted in Jewish faith without the proper guidance during high school?"

One Schechter mother, who supports the school's prom policy, said: "We want to encourage building a Jewish life throughout the life of the student."

Speaking to The Jewish Week on the condition of anonymity, this mother added, "Students whose parents have chosen to attend Jewish day schools expect there to be all Jewish students at social events sponsored by the school, especially when they involve dating, relationships or future relationships."

Despite Schechter's policy, some teens brought non-Jewish dates to the school's Junior/Senior Prom on June 2, according to student leaders, who said they did not know of anybody reprimanded as a result.

Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hebrew for "story," a way of interpreting biblical stories that often fills in the gaps left in the biblical narrative and expands on events of characters that are only hinted at. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation.

Gabrielle Birkner is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.

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